Monday, July 13, 2020
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Redefining the Line Between Terrorism and Democracy

On October 5, conservative political theorist and personality David Horowitz released a ranking of the “Top Ten Schools Supporting Terrorism” in his publication, FrontPage Magazine. This list ranked, in no particular order, the 10 U.S. campuses with the most prominent presence of a Students for Justice for Palestine organization, in Horowitz’s view. Included in this list were UC Berkeley, San Diego State University and UC Irvine.

Yes, somehow our quiet campus in this corner of idyllic, cookie-cutter Orange County has alarmed Horowitz so much that he has resorted to a clickbait, shock-value headline and story to try to dissuade our practice of democracy.

Horowitz backs his claims up by citing several instances in the last five years or so in which our SJP chapter has demonstrated democratic traditions of protest, hosted various workshops and even participated in the Olive Tree Initiative.

So what exactly about all this equates to terrorism? The only way to dive into this is to explore the origins and nuances of the term, then decide how much of it — if at all — can be applied to UCI.

Since 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term “terrorism” has adopted a much more contentious and taboo meaning. Terrorists are enemies of the state; they are mysterious, amorphous threats that are to be feared and ultimately fought. At least, this is the kind of rhetoric broadcast by the Bush administration that has now propagated into layman consciousness, that every terrorist is the same, is “bad” and needs to be defeated.

Let’s not forget, however, that the original meaning of the term described France’s Reign of Terror in the eighteenth century, a horrifying period of French history during which the corrupt government ruthlessly and almost indiscriminately executed citizens. That’s right: The original terrorist was the government. Something to chew over the next time you look suspiciously at the Muslim family at the mall.

Which leads to this current phase of terrorist labeling: terrorism is racially coded. “Anti-terrorist” is steadily equating itself with anti-Islamic, a dangerous and ignorant equation. According to the FBI definition of terrorism, it means: acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; and appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping.

So do we call the white teen boy who shoots up an elementary school, a movie theatre, or a Black church a terrorist? No, he’s troubled. He’s just emotional. But do we scrape together any evidence we can to try to connect an angry employee who murders his coworkers to Islamic extremism? Yes, because he was Muslim.

Now, I know that it can get a bit too technical and singular to fixate so strongly on definitions and language, but in this case, these are all elements to the conversation that Horowitz seems to be forgetting. His argument exists in a vacuum, forgetting the vast amount of support that the UC system gives to Israel. In March, UC even announced a new policy that links anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. Much in the same way that anti-terrorism and anti-Islam cannot be linked, these two ideologies must be kept apart as well.

Each of the violations that Horowitz cites for UCI are instances, when it comes down to it, of protest and democratic practice. Undeniably, the UCI SJP has protested pro-Israel events, has hosted pro-Palestine events and has been to Israel and met with leaders as part of an organization seeking peace in the region. In one blaring move of conservative fearmongering, Horowitz declares that the SJP uses the word resistance as a euphemism for terrorism.

Where does he draw the line? Does resistance by Black Americans trying to end police brutality and institutional racism count as terrorism? Actually, according to Horowitz, it does. The Horowitz Freedom Center published a statement in July 2016 with the headline “It’s Time to Designate Black Lives Matter as a Terrorist Organization.” And if we think about what the FBI considers terrorism, maybe Horowitz could make the case. BLM is using violence to try to change a government policy.

However, the federal government does not apply this debasing application of terrorism to all resistance movements. Doing so would undermine the War on Terror and the criminalization of being Muslim. Not just anyone can be a terrorist; only anyone who the US government wants to seem like a threat.

Taking all this in, it seems as though the very of existence of resistance and inherent Islamophobia automatically creates a need to use the word terrorism. In that case, if members of a student-led organization on this campus demonstrate democracy, speak out against human rights violations and stress intelligent, open-minded discussion in academia can be called pro-terrorism by a right-wing extremist who cares more about publicity and inciting heated reactions than about thoughtful arguments, then they should take that denotation for what it is and keep instituting their right to assemble.

Savannah Peykani is a fourth-year literary journalism and film and media studies double major. She can be reached at