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The term "terrorism" - What does it mean these days?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 13, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - Was it terrorism?

This question became, for a moment, an important subject of debate last week in Chapel Hill as students, faculty, and townspeople struggled to find a proper response to a frightening event in the center of the campus.

A recent Carolina graduate drove a rented Jeep Cherokee into the crowd of students that gathers at lunchtime near the Lenoir Dining Hall. The car struck nine students and six were injured, none seriously. Shortly afterwards, the driver, Mohammed Taheri-azar, called 911 and calmly advised the authorities what he had done and where they could find and arrest him.

Reportedly, Taheri-azar asserted that he had intended to kill students in an effort to call attention to American treatment of Muslims. On his 911 call, he said: “It really is to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.”

Police found evidence that Taheri-azar had been planning his action for months, but they found no indication that any other person was involved.

Taheri-azar is now in prison. At a preliminary hearing he told the judge that he elected to represent himself. According to a report in the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, District Attorney Jim Woodall said that Taheri-azar was going to use the court proceedings to “explain … the law of Allah.”

In the days following the incident a group of students organized a rally to urge that the incident be labeled “terrorism” on the grounds that it was a violent act aimed at non-combatants. One of their signs read, “Terrorism: Violence directed at noncombatants for an ideology.”

Other students objected to the rally and the use of the “terrorism” label because it would be divisive at a time when campus unity and calm should be a primary goal.

Some of us jumped to conclusions. Mine was different from most others. I thought Taheri-azar was mentally unstable and victim of religious fanaticism. Of course, he had shown himself to be dangerous, but he was, in my mind, definitely not the kind of terrorist pulled of the events of September11, 2001. Compared to 9/11 the incident at UNC-Chapel Hill seems minor.

An online poll conducted by The Daily Tar Heel showed that I was in a minority. The poll asked if Taheri-azar should be considered a terrorist? Three quarters of the respondents said, Yes.

I wonder if the term “terrorism” would have stuck so well if the driver of the Jeep Cherokee had been named John Smith and he had claimed that he wanted to secure a platform to speak against pornography.

Or has terrorism in our minds come to mean only “Islamic terrorism,” and underneath all our protestations to the contrary, do we equate the terms?

I hope we don’t. And I hope we won’t.

But I worry.

In a column recently reprinted in the Raleigh News and Observer, Los Angles Times columnist Max Boot urged us to learn about the wide varieties of Islam as it is practiced by differents peoples and in different countries.

Boot recently returned from travels in two predominently Muslim counties, Malaysia and Qutar. These countries, he writes, while not perfect democracies, have developed accomodations between Islamic values, religious freedom, and representative government that are the antithesis of terrorism.

Malaysia, Boot writes, is “a bastion of religious liberty. Although the majority Muslim population is forced to follow the dictates of religious Sharia courts in family law, Malaysia has substantial minorities of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Confucians who are free to worship as they please. Alcohol is available, and few women are veiled, at least in Kuala Lumpur. Some Muslim extremists who have formed vigilante squads to crack down on ‘sins’ like teenagers necking in public have been arrested by police. Although tensions exist among different ethnic and religious groups, Malaysia has for the most part been a showcase of ethnic and religious toleration.”

When I visited Malaysia last year, I was amazed at this general tolerance and how it contributes to a healthy and competitive economic climate.

My experience is certainly one reason I hope we can resist any tendency to make terrorism a code word for all things Islamic.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available at the Bulls Head Book Shop (919-962-5060) or through Our State Magazine

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The term "terrorism" - What does it mean these days?

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