What is terrorism? A biased Canadian media evades the real question
From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)
Dr. Mohamed Elmasry | Dr. Mohamed Elmasry | 2 November 2004
(This op-ed was accepted for publication by one Canadian newspaper, but the management turned it down.)
On October 19, four Canadians willingly entered a television studio and found themselves in a media minefield. I was one of them. We gathered in good faith, each bringing considerable experience, ethical conviction, and personal credibility to a discussion of the theme question, “What is Terrorism?”
Our television host did not set out to ask who terrorists are, where they operate, how they do it, or even why (although each of these issues inevitably emerged in debate). Instead, he asked point-blank for a definition: what is terrorism? And in doing so, he opened a Pandora’s box of history, emotion, frustration, uncertainty and fear, that left none of us unscathed.
The four of us on that TV show struggled to define a kind of violence that has been called the scourge of our times. Its definition has eluded the international community since 1937, since before the creation of Israel, and before the independence (or even existence) of most Arab and Muslim countries on the map today.
Some of my colleagues on that show received the benefit of the doubt by the media when it came to statements they made about the acceptability of using terror tactics to influence or control conflict situations.
I was not so fortunate; I have received the lion’s share of unfavourable media attention and the heat of public scrutiny for two weeks.
“I would say in the abstract to use a method such as, to terrify a population, instigating a war, is appropriate,” said my co-panelist Adam Aptowitzer, Ontario chairman of B’nai Brith’s Institute for International Affairs. “[When Israel] uses terror to destroy a home .. that is an acceptable use of [terror]; to terrify someone.”
And Peter Merrifield, a terrorism and security consultant, said “[T]argeting [suicide bombers’] loved ones and their families, it is in essence a deterrent. I am not saying it is right, but I understand the concept behind it.”
Aptowitzer went even further, adding “[T]he truth is that terror is an option to be used by states in order to prevent deaths of their own citizens and of others. Acts that take place in Gaza and West Bank, you might want to classify them as terrorists sponsored by the state. But when that is being done to prevent deaths, are we going to say that is wrong?”
While Aptowitzer’s comments and subsequent apology received a mere 60 words of coverage on p. A7 by the Globe and Mail, my comments and apology immediately became the focus of further negative criticism and grossly biased reporting by the majority of Canada’s print and electronic media.
But why did the four of us on that TV show have such a difficult time defining terrorism in the first place? Because we, like most Canadians, have all suffered in some way from the cumulative damage of terrorism and were locked in a passionate struggle to grasp its elusive and deadly nature in language all could agree upon.
As both the United Nations and its precursor the League of Nations have demonstrated over and over again, defining terrorism is something more easily proposed than accomplished. In resolution after resolution — the most recent on October 8 — the UN Security Council has condemned terrorism and its perpetrators, yet has never been able to state categorically what terrorism is. And despite our roundtable studio efforts, we too were unsuccessful.
But perhaps that is not news anymore, when an acceptable working definition eludes one of the most revered institutions that humanity has ever established. Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking on October 4, could only describe terrorism through its after-effects: “By its very nature, terrorism is an assault on the fundamental principles of law, order, human rights, and the peaceful settlement of disputes upon which the United Nations is established.”
Annan’s words are powerful indeed, but they do not start at the beginning; they do not go back to the basic issue of what makes terrorism distinct from any number of other violent events in our world.
The UN as a whole, however, has long realized the tortuous difficulty of addressing a phenomenon that is epidemic in its frequency and innately toxic to every individual, state, or organization that succumbs to this fatal path in the interests of a cause.
On October 19, the same day of our controversial episode of the Michael Coren show, the standing UN committee on terrorism issued a report from its latest meeting. Of the 17 national delegates’ statements, eight — Turkey, Cameroon, Kuwait, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Congo, and Bangladesh — specifically mentioned that the lack of a clear definition of terrorism was hampering international efforts to counter its spread.
More than half of those are predominantly Muslim nations that either did not exist when the UN was founded, or were not participants. In fact, the Turkish delegate Gokcen Tugral also represented member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who collectively urged “it was important that a clear and universally-agreed definition of terrorism was arrived at.”
Accompanying a growing movement to grasp the definition issue once and for all, is a parallel concern for just outcomes. Committee delegates overwhelmingly stressed their condemnation of terrorism and the necessity to differentiate it — however it is ultimately defined — from legitimate freedom movements formed by peoples under oppression.
And that issue strikes particularly close to my heart, for I find myself repeating over and over again what should be obvious by now; that I condemn all forms of terrorism and believe that no cause is great enough to justify using civilians as either the instruments or targets of anyone’s agenda.
I have always supported and promoted UN efforts to come to terms with the greatest scourge of our society. Defining terrorism — sooner rather than later — would not only make history, but could prove to be the greatest deterrent against it. With some well-chosen words, we could break the cycle of violence and build peace instead.
Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, a professor of computer engineering at the Universty of Waterloo, is national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org