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What is the Definition of a Terrorist?

I am taking an English course this year called “Terrorism and Modern Culture.” From the title you can make  accurate assumptions about what is discussed in that 75 minute bi-weekly class. Since we live in a post 9/11 world, terrorism is an important concept to define but difficult to understand.

In this course we read theories from historians, psychologists, and theorists, each approaching the study of terrorism from untouched angles. But this course is not American exceptionalist propaganda. Instead, it is attempting to expose a widely accepted ideology regarding terrorism in the West. To be more precise the course descriptions reads, “A primary presumption of the course is that popular American conceptions U.S. power, foreign policy, and foreign relations are dominated by an ideological system that makes it difficult for Americans to encounter foreign perspectives of their nation. This system consists partly of representations of U.S. power (from the popular to the scholarly); it consists also of a covert sphere of U.S. government that keeps U.S. foreign policy secret from the citizens who must assent to its deployment.” Furthermore, we discuss the use of fiction as a powerful tool that shapes popular conceptions of terror and anti-terrorism.

It was in this course that I read Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The novel is 184 pages. It’s a fast read. But the amount of time it took me to rifle through the pages does not equal the time it has still taken me to absorb all that  I read. Hamid’s novel is set in a cafe at Lahore, Pakistan and it is a frame story. The main episode is a conversation between a Pakistani and uneasy American tourist. But the unique element to this story is how it is told. It is a conversation but the reader only hears the voice of the Pakistani, named Changez. He dominates the conversation because he approaches the American and forces him to listen to his life story, which is profoundly interesting. The story develops as a detailed account of Changez’s former life as a self-proclaimed New Yorker successfully climbing the corporate ladder at an acclaimed valuation firm. He is completely taken by American culture and receiving money to support his family in Pakistan. He even falls in love with an American woman. Changez is thriving by American social and economic standards. But then September 11, 2001 occurs and Changez is forced to face his adopted identity. It is here in the book that a concept of terrorism is exposed. Changez’s reacted to watching the Twin Tower attacks by smiling. He said, “I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”

This  moment in the book was a game-changer for me. How could someone who was grafted as a product of America react with so much hate and disdain. Our class discussed this question to no satisfying avail. But that’s the point. We cannot comprehend the response because those attacks took something away from our nation. It stole the lives of innocent men and women for a reason much of us still do not understand. The story of Changez is fictional, but a valuable one to know. The story does not stop at his reaction to 9/11, instead the events act as a step toward his transformation. Throughout his four years in America (he was a 22-year-old post graduate from Princeton) he struggles with accepting his identity as a Pakistani. Oftentimes, he ignors his nationality to appear more American for his colleagues and America. But the events of 9/11 cause him to realize that America is not for him because he is not American. Moreover, his duty is to his country and that is where his purpose lies.

The seismic shift of Changez’s identity is reflective to the concept of terrorism. How do most Americans define a terrorist? Is it based on an individual’s religion, skin-color, nationality or job description? In this course we read several novels and conceptions that have caused me to question my idea of terrorism. Changez’s internal dilemma with identity turns into an external response to America responding to the then recent terrorist attacks. He is torn between choosing his country, the security of America and deciding where he belongs. But America rejects him and leaves him prey to racial profiling and crude comments. This new New York forces him back to his home, Lahore, Pakistan. But it is his retreat back home and involvement in anti-American and pro-Pakistan demonstrations that causes American’s to view him as a potential terrorist. My questions is why? If one chooses to refute American fundamentalism does that make he or she a possible threat to national security? What do you think defines a terrorist? The novel is worth a read. It is quick and it raises lots of questions. I recommend that if any of these questions resonate with you to pick of the book and tell me what you think.

Apparently the novel is becoming a motion picture starring Kate Hudson, Riz Ahmed, Liev Shreiber and Kiefer Sutherland. So perhaps discussion won’t end here.

By Noëlle

I'm a senior at Miami University studying Journalism and English Literature. I am a huge fan of black-and-white movies, especially ones starring Clark Gable.

3 replies on “What is the Definition of a Terrorist?”

Sounds like a book I’d like to read! It really sounded familiar to me as I read it because I was once an American backpacker hanging out on the footsteps of a museum in Lahore (the power went out and we were waiting for it to come back on) when a young Pakistani man sat next to me and we chatted. He was very friendly and very curious about America. He wanted to know why we elected George Bush and our congress was “full of Jews?” (I assured him it wasn’t.) As I tried to change his mind and get at the source of his misconceptions, he told me that everything he knew about America came from the mullah at the mosque he attended. Likewise, he wanted to know why Americans hated Pakistan and why they were trying to bring war there (this was Sept 2008 in the early days of Pakistan’s involvement with the war). He couldn’t understand why we all thought they were terrorists (he assured me he wasn’t). I told him that like his mullah, Americans learned everything they know about Pakistan from the media and the government. And so it seems that without personal interaction and experience to temper the voices of fear, we could all be considered terrorists. Since that day in Pakistan, I’ve been very reluctant to use that label.

Have you seen Four Lions? I’d like to know your thoughts on it.

Awesome article! I’m in law but I can see so much crossover to my own field in this article. Defining terrorism in international criminal law has been hugely problematic as well. “Terror” is a concept so influenced by culture and domestic politics that it has proved almost impossible to create a legal definition that more than one or two states will agree to. That’s why it was left out of the Rome Statute, and it’s why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is called a “hybrid” tribunal – the statute has to use Lebanese law to define terrorism, since it doesn’t exist in any international treaty. It’s fascinating to look up the legal definitions from domestic jurisdictions. For example, Israel doesn’t define “terrorism” but does define a “terrorist organization.” Germany has no definition at all but has outlawed certain groups they have identified as terrorism. The UK says that terrorism is any use of violence “for political ends” that also “puts the public in fear, or a section of the public.” Australia requires the act to be for “political, religious, or ideological causes” but it has to cause serious physical harm or contain a “serious risk to public health or safety.” Each state has a specific historical and cultural relationship with terrorism that has formed these definitions, or lack thereof. It’s very personal, and another definition (or a universal definition) may not speak to the context of “terror” within each location.

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