What is terrorism? I long ago grew bored with this perennial semantic dispute. The arguments never change and they never change anyone’s mind. To judge by usage, the only hard definition is that terrorism is violence against the person using the word. Or, to put it another way, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter—or maybe even his non-violent political activist.
But a recent European Council on Foreign Relations conference in Beijing that brought together European and Chinese experts in international security reminded me of what is still at stake in the struggle over this word. Following the US declaration of a “war on terror” after 9/11, virtually every government in the world has got into the habit of labelling its enemies as terrorists. The US and the European governments say they are fighting terrorists and mean Islamist extremists. The Russians say they are fighting terrorists and mean Chechens. The Turks say they are fighting terrorists and mean Kurds. Even the murderous Syrian regime says it is fighting terrorists and means the roughly 70 percent of its population that opposes its rule. Even as they use the same word, none of these governments see each other’s terrorists as a priority, or sometimes even as an enemy.
The Chinese government is no exception. It faces separatist unrest in Xinjiang province from the ethnic Uyghur population. So, unsurprisingly, the Uyghurs are called terrorists. And, to be fair, the attacks taking place in Xinjiang province would meet any rational definition of terrorism. Coal mine workers are stabbed at random, and bombs are hurled at crowds of shoppers in the capital, Urumqi. But the Chinese have used this violence as an excuse to accuse any group advocating for Uyghur political rights of supporting terrorism and therefore of being practically terrorists themselves. Essentially, they have adopted the frame of the war on terror to describe their internal political problems.
Again, this Chinese practice does not really stand out. All targeted governments now use this language and they tend to have a much wider definition of who the terrorists are than outside observers. So Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish PYD as an arm of the PKK militant group while the US and Europe view them as distinct, and even as allies in the war on Islamic State (ISIS). For the Israelis, Lebanese Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation; for the European Union only its military wing is. US law means that anyone who helps a terrorist is essentially a terrorist themselves, a concept which distresses various rich individuals in the Persian Gulf states who support Islamist causes.
All of this can make for some rather disjointed discussions at conferences on international cooperation, such as the one I attended in Beijing. Typically, the conversation begins with all sides condemning terrorism in the abstract and insisting that counterterrorism is a fruitful area for cooperation. “We have a common enemy, the terrorists. We must share intelligence, impart best practices, and work together militarily”. But when you come to specifics, the conversation gets bogged down in the reality that we are not really talking about the same thing at all.
In our conference, the Europeans wanted help on their problem with ISIS in the Middle East. Why, they asked, if China cares about terrorism, isn’t it participating in the fight against ISIS? The Chinese were deeply uninterested in ISIS, and even in the Middle East generally. They wanted European help in their fight against the Uyghurs. Why, they asked, if the Europeans opposes terrorism, doesn’t the EU outlaw the World Uyghur Conference (WUC), a separatist group based in Germany that the Chinese accuse of conspiring to commit terrorist attacks? For Europeans, the WUC is a legitimate political organisation that explicitly rejects violence.
It is long past time to recognise that the terrorist label has ceased to have any objective meaning. In the hands of governments, it has become little more than a semantic weapon for pressuring other governments to cooperate in their struggles. Of course, there is terrorism and there are terrorists. Innocent people are murdered by groups that see their victims as collateral damage in some wider struggle. But, in a chaotic age, the language of terrorism is the language of counterrevolution and the excuse for the suppression of civil rights around in the world, in the West as well as the East. Our struggle against terrorism means little if it becomes the instrument of our own oppression.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.