Calling terrorism like it is

Governments must forget the word games and focus on taking on Al Qaeda, ISIS and white supremacists

Defining the term "terrorism" has been one of the major topics for debates among political activists and scholars.

There is a general agreement that terrorists are usually trying to promote certain causes (political, social, religious) when they use illegal violent means, although there are some of us who may regard those causes to be legitimate or justified.

Moreover, since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept 11, 2001, and the ensuing war on terrorism some critics have insisted that government officials and the media refrain from tagging these groups as "Muslim terrorist" organisations.

The argument being that Islam is a religion of peace, most of the world's Muslims do not engage in terrorist acts and associating "Islam" with "terrorism" amounts to a form of Islamophobia.

Responding to these arguments, US officials have reiterated the war on terrorism was not a war against Islam, but against terrorist organisations that identify themselves as Muslim. Former president Barack Obama has even encouraged using "violent extremism" instead of "terrorism" when referring to, well, terrorism.

Unfortunately, there is an element of silly word games in these and similar debates about what terrorism is.

Recalling the way US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain in 1994 what was "hardcore" pornography or "obscene" should probably apply to "terrorism". As he put it: "I know it when I see it."

Indeed, when we were watching the horrific television images of the massacre of Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, we knew that was terrorism.

And while it is true most Muslims are peace-loving and reject terrorism, much of the violence directed against Western targets since 9/11 has been promoted by terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It is becoming clear that this evolving civilisational conflict and the perception of a political Islamist threat that has been magnified by the rising immigration from the Middle East and presence of a growing Muslim population in the West, has triggered the rise of what can only be described as a white nationalist or supremacist movement.

It poses a violent threat globally that makes it necessary for Western governments to come up with a counter strategy.

US President Donald Trump was clearly wrong when, in the aftermath of the attacks in Christchurch, he dismissed the threat of white nationalism.

If anything, recent events such as the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue and the letter bombs sent by a Florida man to Democratic Party officialssuggest white nationalists have been developing a general programme of action and they are building a global network from which they can draw strength and inspiration.

These white nationalists are driven by anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments and by a determination to stop what they view as an effort by the globalist political and economic elites to supposedly replace their countries' historically white populations of European descent with Muslims and other foreign non-whites.

It may be true, as Mr Trump suggested, that white nationalists are "a small group of people that have very, very serious problems". But if it is true, the US and its allies should take advantage of this to ensure it does not turn into a bigger threat.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Business Times on March 20