by Lucía Ruiz Vila
Terrorism is constituted through discourse. Understanding that process of construction can provide important insights for policy and practice. This piece will first address how a group’s identity determines the way in which the narrative on terrorism is constructed and how that identity impacts the possible policies in response. The second part is a case study of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK), in which two actors, in this case: Turkey and the EU, both label this group as ‘terrorist’ but differ in their counterterrorism policies towards it. This divergence is to do with their respective construction and understanding of terrorism, which are radically opposed. Ultimately, this group identity can be considered as the premise for constructing terrorism through language. By analysing the process behind labelling a group as terrorists, the type of counterterrorism policies available to each actor can be better understood.
Social Psychology, Discourse, and Terrorism
This essay will particularly explore how social behaviour is determined by discourse. Social psychology is concerned with how individual behaviour is affected by social behaviour. Within the field, social psychologists link language with terrorism by arguing that the latter is a ‘naming-making practice,’ which implies that instead of focusing on the terrorists’ motivations, they look at people’s perceptions of those. Therefore, terrorism is a ‘socially constructed’ term, as what the terrorists think of themselves becomes less relevant than what ‘we make of the terrorists.’
It is important to remark that not everyone has equal power to construct this discourse. Bathia refers to the ‘politics of naming’ to explain how influential actors are the ones who impose their perception of reality on others. This imposition on the way in which we refer to reality will develop into the construction of ‘common knowledge,’ that is shared understandings of the reality which ultimately fence in the possibilities for policymakers to step out of that narrative.
Discourse on terrorism is constituted by referencing, developing, or reassuring the identity of the group that is affected by terrorism. This essay suggests three guiding questions that reveal how this process is made:
- Who is the ‘Other’?
- Can we engage in a conversation with the Other’s claims?
- Does an attack by the ‘Other’ threaten our identity?
Answering the first question allows an understanding of how a group builds its own identity by attributing undesirable characteristics to the opposite ‘Other.’ In the case of a terrorist attack against a specific group, their identity might be reinforced through negation, arguing that no one from the in-group could engage in such violent action. This notion of members of the inner group denying the possibility of ever being like the ‘Other’ resonates with Foucault’s explanation of group belonging and language. The French philosopher argued that groups distance themselves from others who they deem inferior by labelling them as ‘mad.’ Once this perception is built, and sanity is on the side of the group, the use of language will reinforce that perception.
If the ‘Other’ has been constructed as immoral, it is harder for individuals to engage with them in a conversation to try to understand their reasons, as they fear falling into a trap of ‘humanising‘ what is by nature ‘evil.’ In this case, this is even more difficult if the reasons behind a terrorist attack are blurred by media and politicians. For instance, in the United States after 11 September 2001, media and politicians referred to terrorism by reinforcing its irrationality and extremism, which portrayed them as an illogical actor with whom there could be no dialogue. If there is a sense of fear among the population, the practice of othering will become more acute, and the conditions for belonging to the in-group will be more restrained. This is how, to answer the third question, a group will determine if the terrorist attack impacts the core of their identity. This was also the case with the previous example of the post-9/11 USA, as American media spread a sense of fear through a victimising discourse accusing “the other” of threatening their values as a nation.
Limitations on Policies
The limits on the possible policies in reaction to terrorism will mainly answer two questions:
- Is this threat inevitably recurring? Or is it an extraordinary event?
- Are we willing to do whatever it takes to respond to the threat?
If by answering the first question, the group identifies the threat as extraordinary, this will give rise to the ‘politics of exception’ which will allow for the government to have unchecked power in order to answer to the terrorist threat. Media can add to this narrative by fuelling a sense of urgency and fear that encourages governments to take measures that may be considered non-democratic to tackle the issue. Another reason why constructing the nature of the threat is important is because it will determine which departments of government will respond. For instance, because the US portrayed al-Qaeda as a military target, its response inevitably involved the Army and the Department of State; if it had been constructed as a criminal act, it would have been confronted by the police.
Furthermore, this differentiation will determine what type of limitations, if any, that group will set for its policies on terrorism. If the threat is seen as extraordinary, there will be a risk of forsaking civil liberties in exchange for the state to guarantee security. This state of exceptionality can also lead to an erosion of public morality, which will make terrorists seem undeserving of human rights. Nevertheless, perceiving the treat as exceptional does not mean that the group will be willing to set no restrictions on their possible policies in response. This was the case of Spain who decided not to extradite to the US an al-Qaeda cell found after 9/11, as they feared that the terrorists would be sentenced to the death penalty, which under the EU legislation would have been illegal.
Adaptability is also a very important part of the policy limitations on terrorism, as what is framed as extraordinary in a first instance, might become normalised over time. This was the case when the UK labelled migration as a security issue. This label became part of its counterterrorism narrative after 9/11. At present, the government understands migration as a matter of security because it may give rise to social tensions, but not because it is related to terrorism. This shift of perception promoted new democratic channels to tackle the issue instead of justifying political decisions on an overly extended threat or state of exceptionally. In conclusion, by understanding how group identity impacts the construction of terrorism through discourse, important insight can be gained on the types and limitations of counterterrorism policies available to different actors.
Case Study: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist group
The case of the PKK in Turkey is a prime example that shows how terrorism is constructed through language and discourse. It demonstrates how two actors, Turkey and the EU, who labelled the PKK as a terrorist group have radically opposed policies, due to their in-group identity, and how they construct the nature of the terrorist group. The Kurds have historically been suppressed by the Turkish state, unable to exercise their right to autonomous government or cultural expression of any kind. In the 1970s, the PKK was founded to defend the Kurds within Turkey, and in 1984 they began engaging in violent action against the government to reclaim their rights as an ethnic group.
The Turkish authorities referred to those Turks who were part of the PKK as ‘children’ who needed to come to their senses and leave their terrorist lifestyle behind. Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, was often referred to by the media as a ‘baby-killer’ whose followers were ‘uncivilized.’ The Turkish government for many years tried to capture the Kurdish leader, who thanks to the Greek authorities’ support, managed to escape Turkey. It was finally in 1999 when the Turkish state captured him. Offended by Greece’s attitude towards Öcalan, the Turkish president demanded that the EU added Greece to the list of countries that supported terrorism.
Leaving aside already existing tensions between Turkey and Greece, the reason why the latter was not seen as being complicit in terrorism was that the West did not perceive the PKK as a terrorist organization per se. At that time, Western media referred to the PKK as an ‘outlawed group’, a ‘rebel group’, or one conducting ‘guerrilla war’. Even the EU itself referred to the Kurds’ cause as a minority struggle and questioned the terrorist narrative around them. Unconcerned about Western opinion, the Turkish judiciary sentenced Öcalan to the death penalty, which caused demonstrations throughout Europe in support of the Kurdish cause. The European Union was clear in its response: if Turkey were to execute Öcalan, the country will never be considered to join the European Union.
Building on the case study, there are two clear processes of othering. On the one hand, the Turkish state identifies the Other as the Kurds, who are subsequently labelled as terrorists. According to Turkish anti-terror legislation, terrorism is an act that threatens the territorial unity of the state, and even non-violent propaganda against said unity is considered terrorism. As it has been mentioned, the Kurds were referred to as infantile and uncivilised, which made them an illogical actor with whom there could be no dialogue, and which ultimately threatened Turkish identity.
On the other hand, at the time Öcalan was captured, the EU did not have a terrorist list until after the 9/11 attacks and did not consider the PKK as terrorists. The decision not to give the terrorist label to the PKK was very significant for the EU’s identity, as they chose to ‘other’ the Turkish government instead of the Kurds. Turkey had long been a point of debate in determining the limits of Europe as a political unit, as the EU characterised itself as a ‘rational’ actor unlike those beyond its borders, as Isin argues. Ultimately, it was the death sentence of Öcalan which set the limits of Europe’s identity.
Interestingly, in 2002, there was a turning point for the PKK terrorist debate. Turkey overturned Öcalan’s death penalty sentence and changed it to life imprisonment, while the EU added the PKK to its terrorism list. The EU’s decision was highly controversial since the PKK had not engaged in violent action since 1999 and also because the procedure for adding the PKK to the list had not been transparent. It was later condemned by the European Court of First Instance. To this day, Turkey is unlikely to join the European Union, and the PKK remains in the EU list of terrorist organisations.
Although both the EU and Turkey now recognise the PKK as the Other and labels them as terrorists, their approaches to the issue and their policies vary. The EU is concerned with preventing terrorism in the first place, which makes them interested in learning about the root causes of terrorism. Following this rationale, they invited in February of 2020 representatives of the PKK to join a European Parliament Session. Yet, because for Turkey there is no possible dialogue with terrorism, Turkish media was outraged by the meeting.
Lucía Ruiz Vila graduated with honours in International Relations from the University of Deusto in Spain and afterwards studied a year abroad in the University of Richmond in the United States. Following this, Lucía completed a MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London where she researched transitional justice, counterinsurgency campaigns, DDR and SSR, peacekeeping missions, and women’s role in security. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.