What is “terrorism”? Many Americans immediately think of the events of a single day — Sept. 11, 2001 — but terrorism means very different things to people in all parts of the world.
Students in a Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) focus group called Perspectives on Terrorism explored the controversial topic fall quarter with the help of several guest speakers from around the world, including a university student in Egypt who held a videoconference with them.
The focus group, sponsored by the Clowes Center for Conflict and Dialogue Studies, aimed to spark discussion among students and encourage them to question simplistic perceptions of terrorism. CHID focus groups are two-credit classes organized and led by students about a topic of common interest.
The group was co-moderated by Mark Balmforth, program assistant for the Clowes Center, and Theron Stevenson, international programs director for CHID and a Master’s student in geography.
“We don’t feel qualified to say, ‘This is terrorism and this isn’t,’” Balmforth wrote in an e-mail. “Rather, we leave that up to the speakers and readings. …It’s shown how varied the term can be depending on context, who is using it, where it’s being used and why.”
Guest speakers included C.S. Poolokasingham, deputy secretary general for Sri Lanka’s Secretariat for the Coordination of the Peace Process, who spoke about the history of conflict in Sri Lanka and the government’s stance on terrorism, and Palestinian CHID alumnus Malik Bawab, who discussed the historical roots of the contemporary link between terrorism, Arabs and the Middle East. The class also heard from Nevet Basker, an Israeli part-time UW student in political science and communication, who spoke on her experiences growing up in Israel and the many impacts of Palestinian terrorism on life there.
Stevenson said some students changed their positions on terrorism after considering alternate perspectives.
“This is a reflection that the conversation needs to take place,” he said. “Terrorism isn’t talked about all that often … in a reflective sense. On the national level, there is a perception about questioning the government’s idea of the war on terror — the ‘real, good America’ doesn’t question it.”
The focus group was a safe place for students to discuss various ideas without seeming “un-American,” Stevenson said.
Laila El Gohary, a student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), shared her perspective on terrorism in an hour-long videoconference with students Nov. 18. Stevenson, Balmforth and students gathered in the basement of Kane Hall at 7:30 a.m. for the discussion; she spoke from an AUC classroom at 5:30 p.m., Cairo time.
Born in the U.S. to Egyptian-American parents and raised in the U.S., Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, El Gohary was able to share her knowledge of both Middle Eastern and American views of terrorism. She studied political science at UW last year as an exchange student.
A major difference she identified between U.S. and Middle Eastern views of terrorism is the perceived role of religion. Americans tend to think terrorists act out of religious conviction, whereas in Egypt, “religion is only seen as a way to gain political legitimacy,” El Gohary said.
“Each group has very, very different ideology, has different reasons for doing what they’re doing, and the only way they gain legitimacy is by saying they’re doing it because the government is corrupt, or [because of] religion,” she explained. “Those are the two main rhetorics that people use to justify their actions.”
El Gohary said Americans should learn more about specific cases of terrorism rather than relying on generalizations.
“I think it’s pretty important to realize that not all terrorists are the same … it really depends what context you’re looking at,” El Gohary said. “So if you’re fighting terrorism in Sri Lanka, obviously it would be very different than if you were fighting it in Egypt, which I think is one of the finer points that the Bush administration missed.”
El Gohary, who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in political science and philosophy with a focus on terrorism and national security, said some of her friends have been killed in terrorist attacks — a tragedy that is far more common for students at AUC than for students at UW.
“Seeing pictures in Newsweek and TIME and being able to identify those bodies is humbling and terrifying at the same time,” she said. “It could have just as easily been me.” She also said Americans should look beyond 9/11 to realize the role terrorism plays in daily life in the Middle East.
“Terrorism affects so many more people in the Middle East than it does in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s a very big deal for a lot of people. Most people in Egypt and in the Middle East are completely against [terrorism] and think it’s appalling and will have nothing to do with it.”
The Clowes Center will continue the conversation about conflict in its first five-credit course this winter, Balmforth said. The class, titled States of Violence: Gender, Nationalism and Identity in Contemporary Sri Lanka, will focus on the story of Nirmala Rajasingam, a former supporter of separatist-militancy in north Sri Lanka who later turned to nonviolent social activism.
Rajasingam will share her journey Feb. 20 as this year’s Clowes Center “Veterans of Intercommunal Violence” speaker. The talk, to take place in Kane Hall, is free and open to the public. Further details to be announced; visit online at http://depts.washington.edu/chid/lecture.php.