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Why don’t the Chapel Hill attacks count as terrorism?

By Saurabh Chandra

By conflating hate crimes with actual terrorism, we end up doing disservice to both.

Many people on social media asked this question: Why don’t the Chapel Hill attacks count as terrorism? Terrorism is violence inflicted to create a general environment of terror towards a political objective. So, the Church Street IED in Bangalore counts as a terror attack as do the 9/11 twin tower attacks and the 26/11 Mumbai shootings. The Chapel Hill killings are in all likelihood hate killings where the victims suffered due to their religion. Any murder is despicable but by trying to label all hate crime as terrorism, we lose sight of what terrorism is and how to counter it.

In the 9/11 attacks Al-Qaeda had a political motive for murdering innocent civilians. The message being sent to the United States was that if they do not withdraw from the Middle East, Al-Qaeda’s sceptre of terror would haunt all American citizens and hurt the US financial system by adding risk. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror outfit behind the Mumbai attacks has a stated objective of waging a holy war to establish a medieval Khilafat (or caliphate in anglicised form) over the Indian subcontinent. LeT’s mentors, the ISI and the Pakistani Army are the only professional army in the world to have a stated objective of “striking terror in the hearts of the enemy” (from the Quranic Concept of War by SK Malik, a mandatory reading in the Pakistan war college since late-70s). By conflating hate crimes with actual terrorism, we end up doing disservice to both.

Is this specific to a religion?
Terrorism is a political tool used when conventional confrontation is not an option and members of all religions have used it. The Irish Republican Army fighting for Northern Ireland was Catholic. The LTTE (pioneers of suicide bombers and using children as suicide bombers) was largely Hindu (but had members of other faith also). The perpetrators of terrorism are political organisations or at times individual claiming to act under inspiration from such organisation.

The term Islamic or Muslim terrorism is an unfortunate outcome of the fact that we don’t distinguish between political Islam or Islamism and the religion Islam. This is perhaps a legacy of the fact that the religious and political leaders since Mohammed were the same person in the form of the Khalifa (or Caliph). The terror organisations also are more interested in making it appear that there is indeed no difference – IS or the Islamic State being a case in point. It serves their cause to appear as if they speak on behalf of all Muslims. In contrast, IRA or LTTE did not seek identification with a religion and had nationalistic causes.

What about the killings of Shia Muslims in Pakistan?
That is not terrorism either. An act of killing a group of people on account of race, religion or some other attribute is a genocide. Instances of this would be the Nazi Germany against the Jews or what happened in Rwanda, against the Tutsi. There is no other way to label an attempt to kill Shias by certain organisations in Pakistan.

If we need to pick an act of terrorism within Pakistan, the recent killing of school children in Peshawar by Taliban was a clear act of terrorism. Taliban wants the Pakistani Army to stop its operation against them and allow them to run its own government in parts of Pakistan. The killing was not a mindless act. Taliban had clear political demands and a message it wanted to send to the Pakistan Army through that massacre.

How do we fix this?
We need to move away from lazy journalism where terror attacks are often explained away having been done by Islamic terrorists.  It is important to cite the organisation responsible for the attack together with its political objective.  Most organisations that commit such attacks want people to know their identity, which is never a mystery.  Often, shoddy journalism leads to reporting that blames Islamic terrorists, without sufficient explanation or granular detail. This creates the false correlation of Muslims with terrorists, especially for western populations, that live in homogenous societies. This also creates an atmosphere where a killings such as those which happened at Chapel Hill, without a political objective also gets tagged by many people as a terrorist attack.

The other part is public education – people need to know that all Muslims don’t subscribe to Islam as a political ideology and faith is a personal matter. Highlighting the distinction between political Islamism and Islam the religion will weaken the cause of Islamists and increase safety of Muslims.

Finally, we as readers should ask why. If the why does not lead to a political answer, it is not terrorism.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based technology entrepreneur with an interest in public policy.

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