What counts as terrorism? The view on the Arab street

Fares A. Braizat
6 January 2005

“Much of the world’s recent political violence can be categorised as ‘terrorism’, and all of it is a recognisable exemplar of that toxic, multi-layered, and ultimately indispensable term. Its employment demands extreme care and discrimination, as well as awareness of its potential for misuse, but the pressing realities of our time force on us the responsibility to make it an instrument of enlightenment and understanding.” Fred Halliday, Terrorism in Historical Context, openDemocracy.net 22 April 2004

The majority of the world’s citizens – in the Arab world as much as in the West – surely agree that terrorism is a bad thing. But can they agree on what terrorism is? Democratic solutions to the question of political violence require an attempt to develop an agreed language by which people can debate these issues across national and cultural borders.

A beginning – which illuminates some issues but also raises further questions – may be seen in the results of a large-scale survey research project conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS)in Arab countries at the University of Jordan in Mashreq.

Karin von Hippel, an advisor to the forthcoming Madrid summit on terror and democracy, suggest a five points agenda for tackling terrorism while retaining and strengthening democratic principles.

The surveys were conducted in collaboration with partner institutions in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt across four samples in each country (national, university students, business, and media). The questions in the surveys addressed relations between Arabs and Western nations, and the issue of terrorism in particular. They demonstrate that Arabs have fundamental disagreements with the West (here defined as the US government’s own classification) over what is and is not terrorism.

A major objective of the research was to assess Arabs’ perceptions of what constitutes terrorism. This part of the project was designed to elicit a composite definition of terrorism across five Arab countries on both organisations and acts or events. Respondents were asked to give their own views on whether these organisations and acts are “terrorist” or not. A third question specifically addressed the views on the involvement of civilian targets in the case where a Muslim country is occupied.


In respect to “organisations” respondents were presented with the following list of six organizations listed by the United States government as terrorist: Islamic Jihad Movement, Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hizbullah, Al-Qaeda, and Armed Islamic Jama’a (Algeria).

Respondents were asked to indicate whether they considered each a “terrorist organisation” or a “legitimate resistance organisation” On average, across country and sample categories, around 90% of respondents labelled The Islamic Jihad Movement, Hamas, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hizbullah as “legitimate resistance organisations.” The exception here is Lebanon, where a lower but still significant two thirds defined them as “legitimate resistance organisations”.

Respondents saw a distinct difference between the organisations listed above and al-Qaeda, yet still significant numbers across the survey considered it also to be a “legitimate resistance movement”, although the results vary widely from country to country: 8% in Syria, 18% in Lebanon and 41% in Egypt saw it as a “legitimate resistance movement”. In Palestine and Jordan the figure is around two thirds. In Jordan there is a tendency to define al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization as levels of exposure increase: it was higher for business sample (33%) and higher still for media samples (48%). Generally there is a clear trend among respondents to answer this question with “do not know” or “refuse to answer”. For example, within national samples, 19% in Jordan, 49% in Syria, 27% in Lebanon, 21% in Palestine and 20% in Egypt indicated one of these two responses.

For Lebanon, 54% in the national sample,(62% of university students, 53% in the business sample and 58% in the media sample) defined al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization. Looking at Lebanese national sample data by religion, 56% of Muslims and 88% of Christian respondents defined al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization. Interestingly, however, both groups defined Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Hizbullah as legitimate resistance organizations (see table 1 below). This is clear evidence that the problem of differences of perception between Western countries and Middle East one is not religious or cultural, but rather political. If it were cultural and rooted in religion we would have found the definitions given by Muslims to all of these organizations to stand in stark contrast to labels assigned by Christians. But 74% of Lebanese Christians labelled Hizbullah a legitimate resistance organization, making the point even clearer that the key to dialogue and conflict resolution in Arab-West relations is politics, not religion.

Table 1 Percentage of Christians and Muslims in the Lebanese national sample defining organisations as “legitimate resistance”

Organisation Muslims Christians Islamic Jihad 98 54 Hamas 98 57 Al-Aqsa Martyrs 98 53 Hizbullah 99 74


The second component of the definition of terrorism is based on a list of fourteen acts or events variously classified as terrorist acts by the United States or other states. They were then asked to classify each as either “a terrorist act” or “not a terrorist act”.

This second method reinforces the findings presented above. The four events listed at the bottom of table 2 (below) were labelled terrorist acts by less than a quarter of respondents, with the exception of the Lebanese national sample. The theme of these four acts is that they were committed against Israelis and Americans in Palestine and Iraq. In contrast, the first four acts listed in the table were seen as terrorist acts by overwhelming majorities in these samples. The theme that runs through these acts is that they were acts committed against Arabs by Israelis and Americans in Palestine and Iraq.

Table 2 below presents the percentage of respondents in national samples by country who labeled these acts and events “terrorist”.

Event Jordan Syria Lebanon Palestine Egypt Killing by Israel of
Palestinian civilians in
West Bank and Gaza Strip 90 97 88 96 91 Bulldozing by Israel of
agricultural land and
crops in West Bank
and Gaza Strip 88 96 83 94 90 US-led coalition
operations in Iraq 86 94 64 89 87 Assassination by Israel
of Palestinian
political figures 84 93 80 94 87 Bombing of UN and
Red Cross headquarters
in Iraq 48 78 80 36 61 Bombing of housing
compounds in
Saudi Arabia 46 73 82 28 69 Bombing of hotel
in Morocco 50 72 75 30 73 World Trade Center
attacks 9/11 35 71 73 22 62 Attacks on Jewish
synagogues in Turkey 21 54 59 13 44 Attacks on Israeli civilians
inside Israel 24 22 55 17 33 Attacks on settlements in
West Bank and Gaza Strip 17 16 42 3 17 Attacks on US coalition
forces in Iraq 18 9 28 9 14 Attacks on Israeli military
inside Israel 17 5 25 3 9 Hisbullah operations
against Israel 10 3 16 2 7

How should democratic societies respond to terrorism? On 11 March 2005, a year after bombs in Madrid killed 191 people and almost killed thousands, a major summit in the Spanish capital will address this most fundamental question. Here, Mary Kaldor suggests an agenda.

Most of the remaining acts were defined differently by different samples. However, the attacks on the World Trade Center were defined as a terrorist act by 73% in Lebanon, 71% in Syria, 62% in Egypt, but only 35% in Jordan and 22% in Palestine.

Attacking civilians

Finally, respondents were asked to indicate to what extent they approved of the killing of foreign civilians (including women and children) where those foreign forces have occupied Muslim lands. The least disapproving of killing civilians were the Palestinian samples, especially university students. Again, Arab public opinion largely rejects the killing of civilians but there seem to be factors having an impact on Palestinians on this issue. An obvious factor is the Israeli occupation and its consequences for the lives of Palestinians. Table 3 below presents percentages by sample and country of respondents expressing disapproval of the killing of civilians in this scenario.

Table 3

Samples Leban. Syria Eygpt Jordan Pales. National 88 85 77 76 64 University
Students 90 84 77 76 52 Business 93 86 87 85 69 Media 89 81 85 79 68

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