The Use and Abuse of Language

“Right is what I do and wrong is what you do; I am who I say I am and you are who I say you are.”

The ability to apply such labels and definitions to the world is the sole provenance of the powerful, and upon closer examination this ability is indeed one of the most pernicious, deadliest, weapons in existence. For all their mundane communicative value, what words really do is define and describe the world and its actors as well as how they interact with one another. Controlling language in this way is the same as controlling reality for the vast majority of people. As such, the battle to control the meaning of words and to accurately describe oneself and others is the most important battle that one can fight, and is literally a matter of life and death for those who live at the margins of society.

In this age characterized by the constant spectre of terrorism, the worst thing that can happen to an individual or group is to be characterized as a “terrorist”; the identified enemy of all that is good, just and orderly. Terrorists are those who are hunted by drones, tortured in military prisons, interned in concentration camps without due process, and killed without public reaction. Of course, terrorism as a concept has existed long before 9/11, and the label of terrorist has been applied to many individuals and groups that lived and died long before Osama bin Laden ever came into being. Despite its omnipresence in our lives and in public discourse, little attention is ever paid to the objective, impartial meaning of the word itself. For those unfamiliar, “terrorism” is the use of violence and threats as a means of coercion to achieve political goals. There is nothing in the definition of terrorism that makes its appropriate use dependent on the actors involved. Instead, it is a descriptive word for an act that can be theoretically carried out by anyone.

In the immediate aftermath of the recent shooting and bombing attacks in Norway, many prominent media figures and analysts were quick to speculate that the massacres were the work of extremist Muslim groups in the mould of Al-Qaeda. As soon as this presumption had been made and accepted, the label of terrorism was applied to the act and its perpetrators. This label was undoubtedly appropriate, the Norway massacres were heinous crimes carried out without regard for the sanctity of human life, and the broadcast images and witness accounts shocked the conscience of the world. The use of wanton violence against civilians is terrorism in the purest sense and its use should be condemned everywhere it occurs without reservation or hypocrisy, Oslo being no exception.

However, a curious thing happened to the narrative upon discovery that the perpetrator of this attack was not Muslim but in fact a Nordic Christian with extreme anti-Muslim views. Gone was the presumption that the act was terrorism, and what arose in its place was the belief that this was likely the work of a lone, possibly crazed, individual disassociated from any political or religious identity which may have inspired him. The same pundits who had been beating the war drums about the condemnable acts of “terrorists” fell silent upon hearing that the perpetrator had not been Muslim. The collective blame for the act of terrorism that many had already been gearing up to place at the feet of the Muslim community, did not materialize against the Christian community; because of course, “terrorism” is something that only Muslims can do. The message sent is that if a non-Muslim committed this act of violence, it bears no reflection upon that individuals community and the perpetrator is a mere aberration to be ignored and rationalized away, and no one will not be tarred by the label of “terrorist”. However if a Muslim commits the exact same act, the possibility that they may also be a solitary, disturbed individual is never entertained. Collective blame is given to Muslims as a whole, explanations are demanded, and violent retribution is swiftly carried out against individuals completely unconnected to the act.

A few individuals of integrity have pointed out this glaring hypocrisy, and it may likely arise that the perpetrator of the attacks will be connected to far-right extremist groups to an extent beyond deniability, however the reflexive reaction to label the perpetrator a terrorist was gone as soon as it was discovered that he did not fit the desired description of a terrorist.

From the example of Oslo, a more widespread and insidious problem can be identified. Acts of violence committed by individual Muslims can and will be classified as terrorism and may in fact be used as a pretext to target and destroy entire communities; but identical acts of violence carried out by others will not be similarly labelled as terrorism because by definition other groups of people can not commit terrorism. What this means is that no matter what heinous actions a particular individual commits, they can not be a terrorist because due to their identity it is impossible for them to be a terrorist.

Looking back at the insanity of the past decade, what parties have used violent coercion to achieve political goals? What have been the most brutal, wanton acts of violence against civilian populations? Among others, the perpetrators of the Iraq War are directly responsibly for a premeditated act of violence against the citizens of that country which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and destroyed the lives of additional millions by forcing them to flee their homes as refugees; all in the pursuit of political objectives. Curiously, the perpetrators of this act have not been targeted by Predator drone attacks or SOF night raids despite their direct responsibility for an act which absolutely fits the objective definition of terrorism. While these individuals are, for now, free to continue to advocate for additional massacres and have escaped the dangerous label of “terrorist”, Muslims continue to receive this label, and all it entails, with depressing regularity, and for acts which pale in comparison and usually never exit the realm of the hypothetical.

The extremely selective use of the word “terrorism” has made it, in effect, meaningless. Terrorism is simply what the government says it is and terrorists are simply who it says they are. If you are of the correct race and religious background and hold approved political views nothing you do can make you a terrorist. If you are of the wrong race and religious background or behave in a way that defies authority, you can and will be labelled a terrorist and suffer all that that entails. It is only by this logic that many hysterical pundits began to smear the participants in the Gaza Flotilla, among them Holocaust survivors and civil rights heroes, as “terrorists”. In other words, individuals who hold political views of which the the status quo does not approve.

Regardless of what hollow claims may be made, unless governments now engage in the type of dot-connecting, guilt by association tactics which are used against Muslim terror suspects, the acts of the Oslo massacre suspect are not being treated as “terrorism”. Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller are all cited as inspirations to this heinous crime, but they are unlikely to be arrested or even questioned despite their ideological allegiance to an individual who has carried out violent terrorism against civilians. As long as these egregious double standards exist, the word “terrorist” should not be respected or taken seriously. The mere suspicion of being a “terrorist” is powerful enough to result in extra-judicial killings around the world, and yet the word itself is demonstrably meaningless. In order for our society to extricate itself from the moral black hole it is presently in, we must reclaim the language and make words reflective of their true, objective meaning. As long as the term “terrorist” is applied selectively, cynically and maliciously it should not be respected or given credence. If you disagree with the violent actions of the government over the past decade, please take the example of people of conscience and refuse to allow language to be manipulated in order to facilitate mass murder and the abuse of human rights.

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11 Responses to The Use and Abuse of Language

  1. Jamal says:

    Language is indeed very important and the pen is mightier than the sword.

  2. Aussie says:

    All should read this article.

  3. Pingback: July 25, 2011 PALESTINE HEADLINES | Occupied Palestine | فلسطين

  4. Osman says:

    a very-weel written article, thanks.

  5. c0gnizance says:

    Words are power. Kudos for using it to speak the truth Maz.

  6. Jasjiv says:

    Maz, thought you may be interested in this article from the sub-continent: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2328403.ece?homepage=true#comments

  7. Arun says:

    All I can say is purely from observing Pakistan. From this perspective the Norwegian terrorist does not implicate Norway in the way, say, the Pakistani terrorist implicates Pakistan.
    MajorlyProfound explained it well.
    http://majorlyprofound.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/lone-wolf-is-lonely/

    Paraphrasing, the Norwegian Interior Minister is unlikely to say that Israel is implicated; that the President of Norway won’t deny on a major news show that the shooter was a Norwegian; that the killer won’t be garlanded by lawyers or support from the judges; there will not be public demonstrations asking for release of the killer; videos of the killer praying in prison will not find its way to youtube; the killer won’t get any stipend in jail from the Norwegian government; the Norwegians won’t sign peace treaties with gangs of rightwingers; they won’t promulgate religious rule in some districts.

    The fact is all of the above have happened with regard to various Pakistanis who have killed in the name of an Islamic ideology.

    You see the dilemma. If I argue that Pakistan’s official ideology, its being a bastion of Islam, is all wrong, then I am accused of being a hate-monger; and if I accept Pakistan as being representative of Islam, then drawing the very real distinction between Norway and Pakistan makes me an Islamophobe.

    Maz may argue that what happens in a country far away doesn’t matter; but it does. Like it or not, perhaps unless you are a refugee from persecution in your country of origin, you are perceived to be like the people in the country of your origin, including their religious and political beliefs.

    • mazmhussain says:

      I don’t think you would like the same logic to be held applicable to you, if I were to judge you as a Hindu based on BJP loudmouths and chauvinists my opinion of you would be pretty poor, due no part to your own personal qualities. Pakistan has been many things in its existence, and it was born with the aim of being a secular progressive state, a vision many people still believe in regardless of who has the momentum today. Trying to rationalize painting anyone of a particular ethnicity with the same brush based on political volatilty across the world is trying to justify bigotry and the lazy reasoning that allows for.

  8. jean-michel says:

    you put my thoughts into an oratorical narrative….great work here

  9. Jag says:

    I sincerely hope that the gap between the average Muslim and the guys who support the assassination of a sitting governor for daring to oppose blasphemy laws, is a whole lot greater than the gap between the average Hindu and the BJP…or the average American Christian and the Republicans.

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