Who is the terrorist? Silencing political dissent in the age of COVID 19

Written by Dr Sarah Marusek

Image of police in Ferguson. Copyright Jamelle Bouie @ Flicker

This is the second post in a three-part series reflecting on questions of racism, violence and identity politics during lockdown. In this post, Dr. Sarah Marusek explores how terrorism discourses and charges of Antisemitism are being used to silence political dissent in face of state sanctioned violence.

The recent footage of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota was truly shocking. I remember having a similar feeling when watching an Al Jazeera English documentary on the BLM protests in Ferguson, Missouri; the sheer amount of military grade force on display against American citizens was nothing short of terrifying. The state’s response to the upheaval reminded me of the security services in Egypt mowing down a public gathering in Raba’a Square, or Israeli forces targeting Palestinian youths in Gaza.

When President Donald Trump declared that the BLM protesters were terrorists, he borrowed another well-oiled tactic from Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes: we heard despots repeatedly calling protestors and political dissidents terrorists throughout the Arab uprisings. Trump repeated his divisive rhetoric in a speech on 4th July, Independence Day, calling BLM protesters left-wing fascists and declaring: ‘Make no mistake, this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.’

This is also the approach of Washington’s greatest ally in the region: Tel Aviv. Not only is the mainstream Israeli discourse against Palestinian self-determination,[1] resulting in extremists who call for the killing of Muslims in Palestine, but it is also increasingly anti-leftist. As Quique Kierszenbaum, a Uruguayan-Israeli news photographer and journalist, recently noted: ‘People who oppose the occupation, people who criticise what the Israeli army is doing, they are called traitors and spies.’ Writing for Haaretz newspaper, Naomi Sussmann describes how some Israeli settlers now hate leftists even more than Palestinians.

In this context, we have learned that American police officers are being trained by Israeli forces. Minnesota public radio reported back in 2012 that the Israeli consulate in Chicago, the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) and Minnetonka police were holding a counter-terrorism training conference in Minneapolis for the second year in a row. That same year, New York magazine reported that the New York Police Department (NYPD) even had a local branch in Israel. Amnesty International flagged in 2016 that the Baltimore police were also receiving training from Israel’s national police, military and intelligence services. NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly went on to address the annual counterterrorism conference in 2017, organised by the military-linked Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel.

These facts are all in the public arena. What is new is that the Trump administration is embracing a far right-wing politics that equates BLM with terrorism; the White House is even trying to hire a conspiracy theorist who retweets social media followers that connect antifascists and the BLM movement to the Islamic State.

In this environment, questioning the way our police forces treat us is a vital democratic right. And yet, the new leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, sacked shadow cabinet member Rebecca Long-Bailey for sharing an interview with actor Maxine Peake, in which she stated that: ‘Systemic racism is a global issue… The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’ Starmer alleges that this statement is an Antisemitic conspiracy theory.

While we do not know for certain which Israeli tactics are being shared with American police, Israeli occupation forces are known for committing rights abuses, which include: the kneeling tactic that killed George Floyd; arresting children; and even placing a Palestinian as young as 11-years-old in a chokehold. Furthermore, Haaretz newspaper argues that police violence is both endemic and unpunished in Israel; yesterday’s editorial states that, ‘No part of the population is immune to police brutality: Arabs, Haredi Jews, secular Israelis and settlers all face it.’ So why are people being called Antisemitic when pointing out these existing patterns of police brutality? As Ed McNally writes for Jacobin magazine: ‘To put such a spin on the mild imprecision of Peake’s statement is absurd, cynical, and deeply offensive. Indeed, Starmer’s formulation itself carries a racialising implication, wrongly associating Jewish people with Israel’s proud export of its technics of colonial violence.’

I saw first-hand what happens to Palestinian youths who try to express their ties to the land of Palestine: at a 2011 protest at the southern border of Lebanon and Syria, Israeli forces shot and killed 11 unarmed Palestinian refugees and injured another 100 by gunfire. I attended the demonstration at Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon, where six youths were killed. Their alleged crime? Approaching the heavily guarded border fence and throwing stones. This is why Palestinians often express solidarity for the BLM movement; they understand what it is like to be killed based on their ethnicity, and for the world to ignore this crime.

This highlights one of the biggest problems with contemporary debates about terrorism: in the age of American empire, terror has been reconfigured to exclude state terrorism and include anti-imperialist, anti-racist or even pro-diversity actors who seek greater equality in diverse societies like Israel and the United States. As I wrote in my first book:

The modern notion of terror emerged during the French Revolution (1789–99). Maximilien de Robespierre, one of the leaders of the revolution and an architect of the ensuing violence, explained to his peers during the infamous ‘Reign of Terror’ that: ‘If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror – virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent’ (quoted in F. Lincoln Grahlfs 2009: 190) According to Robespierre, what differentiates terror from barbarism is that the former is inherently political in nature; terrorist violence is committed to achieving particular political objectives. In the case of the French Revolution, the revolutionary government terrorised reactionaries and the wider population with the aim of radically re-imaging and re-structuring contemporary French society and culture in the name of liberty and equality, however brutal the intermediate results. In the following two centuries, authoritarian states and revolutionary movements both practiced acts of terror to achieve political ends that have ranged from emancipatory to fascist. It is only in the last two or three decades that the hegemonic discourse on terrorism has become increasingly divorced from politics, not to mention the state (Marusek 2018: 63-64).

When violence is removed from politics in this way, it becomes the military might of the status quo, whereas movements like BLM require the systematic reconfiguration of rights and liberties to include all Americans, not just those with a certain colour of skin. The same applies for Palestinians who do not currently have rights simply because they are not Jewish. Reflecting on the current situation, some are finally calling out commentators for demanding that the BLM protesters be peaceful, with the Houston Chronicle pointing to the experience of American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who lost his sports career merely for kneeling in solidarity with BLM during the national anthem. When such a calm, cool and debonair anti-racist act is punished so harshly, and when those who support the rights of Palestinians are censored and removed from power, we must speak out.

Works Cited

Marusek, Sarah. 2018. Faith and Resistance: The Politics of Love and War in Lebanon, London: Pluto Press. 

[1] The mainstream Israeli discourse dehumanises Palestinians as it frames their resistance to occupation as terrorism. How else could Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour be sentenced to five months in prison on terror related charges merely for sharing one of her poems on social media, which is entitled ‘Qawim ya sha’abi, qawimhum’ (‘Resist, my people, resist them’)?