On the dangers of ‘terrorism,’ politicization of language

Margarita Rosario’s recent column in the Targum presented an intrepid analysis of a situation in Gaza. However, we are concerned because even the most earnest expressions of support could become ensnared in the trappings of Western rhetoric. An innocent turn of phrase could reveal itself to be quite condemning — in this case, undermining the attempt to properly read the nature of ISIS’ project and, more gravely, leading one to disqualify any political forms that are not Western constructions.

In the closing moves of Rosario’s column, ISIS is called “a terrorist organization in its own right.” And while it is of no dispute that some of ISIS’ methods are terroristic, no organization can be a terrorist organization “in its own right” — this privilege is only bestowed by the West itself. To ignore this is to ignore the nature of Western rhetoric, the violence it necessarily causes and the bodies it systematically dehumanizes. It further implies certain people are inherently terrorists, and, therefore, absolutely and unconditionally “evil” vis-à-vis their identities. This quickly becomes the grounds for xenophobia and exclusionary thought.

“Terrorism” denotes a methodology. The rhetoric of terrorism works to define particular bodies or groups as only method, thereby situating their actions outside the possibility of a political program, rendering them simply as arbitrary acts of “evil.” In this atmosphere, political intentions and projects disappear. The process of state-building, therefore, cannot be practiced by those who are called “terrorists.” To denounce ISIS as a terrorist organization is an attempt to evacuate it from politics — to exclude it from even the potential of a state-building project. Yet ISIS is undeniably and explicitly a (racist, violent, imperialist) state-building project. Failure to see it as such marks the success of Western discourse.

When Rosario calls ISIS a terrorist organization “in its own right” and definitively distinguishes it from Hamas (a “nationalist movement”), she establishes a classification: Some groups can build states, and others cannot. There are groups that are “sanctioned” for state-building but only under the conditions of the West, which of course involve erasing the differences that make them Other, thereby privileging Western modes of being. ISIS is part of the group denied the possibility of state-building precisely because its project refuses to bend to the Western political order. By not recognizing it as a state-building project and rendering it apolitical “terrorism,” one implicitly re-inscribes the Orientalist notions that inform Western power and exclude non-Western political forms, particularly Islamic ones. Furthermore, reducing even extremist Islamic state-building to mere terrorism undermines the possibilities of a Palestinian nationhood that wishes to maintain its religious identity.  

The full sentence from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, which Rosario only quoted in part, reads, “So when it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.”

The first half of the sentence is important because Hamas and ISIS do both share the same end goal: constructing a state on their own terms. One could argue this by locating both groups within the sphere of state-building, Netanyahu actually (unintentionally) rendered both groups politically legible. But by denying ISIS entrance into legibility, Rosario’s argument effectively disarms Hamas’ attempts at statehood.

The caliphate being built by ISIS is not a nation-state. ISIS’ project is fundamentally committed to invalidating this form as the defining requirement for political legibility. It not only ignores international borders and international treaties, but also abolishes the geospatial axis upon which national identity is constituted and which serves to grant particular groups validity and voice. The space ISIS is carving out of former Syria and Iraq is not one that is comprehensible by the sensibility of the modern order; it is a physical space of non-legibility, whose validity comes from a locus of authenticity other than traditional political jurisprudence. ISIS’ project displaces the historical continuum, which the West imposes upon the world as a method of keeping time and laying claim. In its attempt to obliterate “History” and thereby our very understanding of what a political and physical “state” is, ISIS must be seen as a decolonizing force, one which destabilizes the legacy of Western thought, which has been used to disqualify particular bodies and spaces. Of course, this does not mean that ISIS’ methods are acceptable or justifiable. It means ISIS’ project must be read within, in relation to and against the sphere of historical and manifest colonialism.  

“Terrorism” is dangerous because its rhetoric effectively legitimizes the erasure of otherness and precludes the possibility of alternative political forms. This is problematic because the point should be to challenge petrified notions of political living-together that only serve to reinforce (neo-)colonial relations. Specifically, this is a perilous path to follow if one supports Palestinian independence (unless of course, one thinks Palestinian independence should involve the erasure of Palestine).

It is important to reflect on the ways in which we find ourselves, and our words, complicit in a legacy of violence. Writing is praxis — writing is real work. All we ask is that we all work harder.

David Rips is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in comparative literature with minors in philosophy and Spanish.

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