Again, hate crimes are not necessarily terrorism.

Having written, taught and worked for government agencies on issues involving unconventional warfare and terrorism for 30-odd years, two things irritate me the most when the subject is discussed in public. The first is the Johnny-come-lately commentators who have zero practical or academic experiences with the subject but who, in an effort get their “brand” out in the public eye will pontificate ad nauseum about things that they do not know about. In NZ this an especially acute problem because people with real knowledge of what terrorism is and is not are few and far between, so the “look at me” opinionators are way too prominent in discussions of acts of mass violence.

The second source of irritation is the abuse of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” in order to generate headlines, clickbait or to pursue other agendas. Rightwing corporate and social media are full of this egregious mis-application of a very specific concept to any number violent incidents carried about by by a variety of perpetrators. The latest example of this is the coverage of the stabbings in Sydney this past week.

I wrote a series of social media posts clarifying my objection to the coverage and have aggregated and edited them here. I have also linked to a couple of previous essays on the subject in order to give recent readers of KP some idea of the basis for my concerns about this particular type of conceptual stretching.

Let’s begin with the bad news. Since 9/11 the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” have been rendered meaningless. Terrorism has a target (victims), subject (wider audiences) and object (to bend the audiences to the terrorist will, say, by altering government policy). The three aspects are not one and the same. If these three aspects or conditions do not apply to a specific violent incident, then it might be a hate crime inspired by bigotry or other form of animus (say, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism), (mass) murder due to mental impairment, or criminal murder (e.g. mob hit, domestic violence or in a bar brawl). None of these fatal incidents are terrorism even if victims are terrified in the moment. For it to be terrorism there has to be an audience beyond the victims, and the object is not just the act of violence itself.

Terrorism is about more than the terror inflicted on targets. It is about ulterior motive/intent, the wider audience and specific messaging, which is collective in focus, not personal. Labelling every act of public violence as terroristic confuses the issue and allows for bad-minded or deliberately hateful manipulations of coverage to suit ideological agendas. Witness the initial coverage and reaction to the Bondi mall attack. It was a case of a white male with violent schizophrenia acting out of incel hate, but was immediately deemed a terrorist attack. That allowed racists to jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon and claim the attacks was done by a jihadist (because he had a beard!), which in turn brought out calls for revenge, deportations of Muslims, cultural stereotyping and other types of violent trolling. The real cause was lost in the xenophobic, bigoted din.

The attack on the bishop at a Sydney church was motivated by religious animosity, but the attacker’s target, subject and object were the same, a preacher who disparages other religions and their leaders. Motive did not extend beyond that. That is a hate crime, not terrorism. But it does not stop malignant narcissistic charlatans like Brain Tamaki from using it to urge for the mass deportation of Muslims from NZ, something that has reverberated around the NZ rightwing echo chamber.

Unfortunately, NZ has bad form when it comes to misidentifying violent crimes and perpetrators as “terrorists”. Here is a post that I wrote after the supermarket stabbing in New Lynn in 2021.

And yet, this time around NZ media outlets again initially jumped on the terrorism bandwagon, only to back off once the Australian authorities identified the Bondi attacker as someone with a history of mental illness but who was allowed to circulate in public. That is a public security failure, not anything related to terrorism.. Even so, both the Australian police and NZ media continue to refer to the church attack as terrorism, which shows that even security experts as well as media talking heads do not have their conceptual ducks in a row when it comes to this type of violence. Perhaps they know but choose not to do so because, well…

I also wrote an academic article a while back about how a specific type of terrorism–state terrorism–can be used to reinforce a particular social and economic project. It is long but you can find it here. I link to it here because terrorism not only has many varieties, but it also has ulterior motives. Neither incident in Sydney this past week meet that criteria.

This may seem tedious and repetitive, but so long as the concept of terrorism is stretched out of all context and meaning, I will have to be pedantic about its real significance and permutations.

6 thoughts on “Again, hate crimes are not necessarily terrorism.

  1. Limiting the description of the attack on Sydney’s bishop to a hate crime denies the important role violence plays in Islam. Under the rubric of lex talionis, retaliation is a fundamental part of Middle East ethics. In what I’ve termed retributive subsidiarity, the authority to act is an obligation on every Muslim, in line with hisbah, ‘enjoin the right and forbid the wrong’ and granted by the Koran’s ‘verse of the sword’, 9:5. The act of this youth might appear to be a hate crime to Westerners, but an Islamic perspective shows it as a warning: “do not insult the prophet or Islam – this is the result.” The similar knife attacks on Salman Rushdie and the Scottish Ahmadi shopkeeper Asad Shah are salutary examples of the Koran’s verse 8:12 – ‘smite the necks of those who disbelieve’. This is the doctrine tarhib wal targhib, preaching between terror and lure, and part of dawah. To summarily dismiss the role of terror in Islam’s telos shows the West’s need for a greater grasp of the Koran, the hadiths and the sunnah and the way they govern Muslim behaviour.

  2. Chris,

    Your obsessive hatred of that nonsensical self-styled notion of ‘retributive subsidiarity” fails to account for the fact that even if every Muslim acted upon that belief as you describe, that still does not always amount to terrorism. Without the conditions I have described, they are just (admittedly heinous) hate crimes. Worse yet, you have ignored the thrust of the post, i.e., that it is not the ideological motive that defines terrorism but instead it is the methodology of violence that separates hate crimes from terrorist acts.

    Your comment is therefore nothing more than trolling rather than a substantive engagement with the subject.

    Please read the post and links in it before you make off-topic commentary based upon your adversarial reading of the Koran. Islam has many flaws and extremists, but also nuance and differences in interpretation, as does any other ideology be it religious or secular. Islam is not homogeneous in theory or in practice so your generalizations lack substantive grounding. You are just making as if Salafist and Wahhabist interpretations of the Koran are dominant in Islam, which they are not. It is as if Opus Dei dominated Catholicism. And do not get me started on literal interpretations of the Old Testament as being reflective of modern Christian beliefs.

    I do not indulge bigotry of any sort, so best for you to be careful with how you reply

  3. Whereof I know not, thereof I speak not.

    I addressed your description of terrorism as target, subject and object; also motive, audience and message, but from an Islamic viewpoint. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it clear. This youth’s attack on the bishop wasn’t necessarily hate or terrorism; his motive was essentially punishment, for insulting his prophet. Islam granted him both motive and permission to act in this way. What this youth did was entirely compliant with Islamic morality. But the effect of his actions was terrorism, demonstrating that the penalty for criticising Islam is death. As the Koran puts it, “…strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah…” (8:60).

    In your terms, the target (and the collective in focus) is those who insult Islam, the subject (and the wider audience) is non-Muslims and Muslims alike, and the object (and motive/intent) is to bend the subjects to the will of Allah.

    The deeper I study Islam from an Islamic perspective, the shallower the West’s understanding of it appears. The point you make of Islam not being ‘homogeneous in theory or in practice’ belies a vastly more important factor – what Muslims have in common. No-one should ignore the power of the scriptures, tawhid, the global ummah, the Five Pillars, the conservative nature of the ulema, the afterlife, enmity for dar al-harb, and the determination to bring the world’s citizens into submission to the will of Allah. These aren’t things one learns about from casual conversations with Muslims, whether academic or pious. The narrative they will likely convey will differ markedly from Islam’s theory and practice, which is where understanding needs to be focussed.

    Islam changes everything. It’s an axiom worth remembering.

  4. Chris,

    Sorry that your comment was delayed in transit. It went to the trash filter for some reason, so I only just retrieved it now.

    Your response is a considered one although we shall have to disagree on your conclusion. I shall therefore leave the last word in this exchange to you.

  5. Not for publication and FYI, when I posted on both occasions, an error showed up on the next page which may be why the post went to trash. If it happens on this occasion I’ll take a screenshot and let you know.

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