Is the „war on terrorism” right?
The classical definition of terrorism is clear. It is: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”[i] Although there is no universally accepted definition, “violence” and “pursuing of political aims”, are the most accepted of its components.
Thus, terrorism is not necessarily defined by the scale of horror, and the number of casualties. This is irrelevant for the purpose of classification in determining whether or not it was an act of terrorism or just a simple crime. If we compare i.e. the casualties that occurred from the mass shooting at the country music concert in Las Vegas [ii] to the casualties of the terrorist knife attack in Finnish Turku[iii] we clearly see that those events were defined contrary to the shock-impact and number of casualties, rather the classification was established due to political motives and affiliation or lack of it with a terrorist organization. That however, resulted in massive complaints and accusations of “white privilege” because the white suspect involved in the Las Vegas shooting was not labeled a “terrorist”.
Also, not all violent incidents involving ISIS as the preparatory organization can be called a terrorist act. We have to admit and express with scholarly sincerity that in Syria and Iraq a lot of clashes not involving civilians were simple guerilla fights and can even be considered classical front-line battles. They were classical in a Clausewitzian understanding of war as a continuation of politics of a quasi-state, an Islamic State. Recognizing this does not imply justification for Islamic State, its goals or its actions, but when we are ready to accept the differences between its various operations, we can better understand that we are fighting with a certain type of enemy that is using a wide palette of means.
This paves us a way to clear a great deal of confusion, which is being perpetuated by the media and through politics. There is a lot of bewilderment in the communication sphere, because of political reasons we are running a so called “war on terror” or “war on terrorism”. If we consider terrorism as in the above-mentioned definition, it will be obvious that a “war on terror” mainly serves to promulgate confusion, which results from mixing two conceptual categories. One is “tactics” applied and the other is the “opponent”.
If terrorism indeed is tool, it is impossible to wage a fight against a tool. It sounds as ridiculous as to say that Poland or France were fighting against the Blitzkrieg not Nazi Germany during World War II or Prussia; England was combating tirailleur not Bonaparte’s France, or during the Cold War, Western States were not combating Communism, but war was waged against nuclear arsenals. Thus, ‘tool’ is not the opponent and to name the opponent – radical Islam which resorts to violence, and political Islam, non-violent yet sharing the same political, anti-democratic goals – is crucial in order to win the conflict. In this way the label “war on terror” is a grave mistake.
Having said that, we must admit however, that there is also reasonable use of “war on terror” resulting from justified definition.
Terrorism is an act, which usually appears where police and military area of interests intersect. And, whereas an army’s role is to engage in conflict as a “continuation of politics” with a defined opponent, the police’s role is to combat certain acts of crime. So we often can hear that the police or more widely, the internal security services, are combating various acts of crime such as drug dealing, theft, and gang-wars. From this point of view it won’t be surprising to spread the definition on “combating of terrorism”. And most probably we all agree (unless we do not belong to that part of society that justifies terrorism) that we do not want any acts of terror in our society, it doesn’t matter what kind of sort. Thus all effort to limit, “combat terrorism”, wage “war on terror” are legitimized and reasonable, as long as we remember that they are inside the narrow definition of the polices spectrum of interests where terrorism is yet another crime.
This is not merely an academic problem, but it bears consequences in the counter-methods applied. If we consider the police point of view, the usually applied method is to detect, surveil, arrest, and then suspects go through the judiciary and penitentiary systems. If we, however, take a political/military perspective there is an ideology and opponent that should be combated, subdued to our will [Clausewitz] or eliminated. Still both police and military actions, even if they operate under different legal constraints and different methods when they are applied, and operating with similar means, the final result can be elimination or capture of a specified opponent in both cases.
However, taking solely the internal security point of view, the component of ideology within a terrorist act is missing. Some may claim that this is the right attitude as liberal democracy allows us to present in public spaces various ideologies and take part in public discussion providing that they are non-discriminatory and do not resort to violence. Various claims for autonomy rights are accepted, but not ethnically based terrorism, leftist ideas are still found in public discourse, but left-wing terrorism is not accepted etc. Shall it not be the same for Islamism? And indeed it is. For many years, non-violent Islamist organization have been widely accepted as partners in various bodies and debates across western countries. Majority Muslim representative organizations in Europe are under the strong influence of Muslim Brotherhood ideology.
But on the other hand, as regarded expert Lorenzo Vidino points out, they are preparing ground for terrorist radicalization, mostly via anti-Western discourse, partial acceptance of terrorist acts, and by leveraging victimization rhetoric.[iv] Given the scale of anti-western attitudes and fundamentalism[v] the ideology factor cannot be simply omitted and Islamic terrorism cannot be treated as any other crime. In fact, we are facing many various actors, believing in similar ideology and using a variety of means. There also is no possibility to make some concessions toward nonviolent factions, as their claims are opposite to liberal democracy and thiss kind of concession would mean a resignation from our political system. And before we start to think upon the means to confront the opponent, first we should finally name it. And this is “political Islam” regardless it uses violence or not.
[i] Oxford Dictionary https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terrorism
[iv] L. Vidino “Muslim Brotherhood in Austria”, University of Vienna 08.2017
[v] H. El Karoui, A French Islam is possible, Institut Montaigne 09.2016, s. 18
Phillips, What do British Muslims really think? “The Sunday Times” 11.04.2016, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/my-sons-living-hell-j72t7fppc
Koopmans, Fundamentalism and out-group hostility. Muslim immigrants and Christian natives in Western Europe Das Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, 12.2013,
Ekspert do spraw islamu politycznego i terroryzmu. Autor licznych publikacji prasowych, komentator mediów. Absolwent studiów doktoranckich Collegium Civitas na Wydziale Stosunków Międzynarodowych. Obecnie pracuje nad pracą doktorską na temat "Myśli politycznej Jusufa Al-Karadawiego".