Next time you hear someone use the words “passive terrorism,” please set them straight. Today you will learn where the term came from and why it is so wrong to use it.
The troubling phrase went viral last week after it was described in a white paper on extremism published by the U.S. Air Force. In the paper Dr. Tawfik Hamid, an ex-member of a radical Islamic organization and a medical doctor, argued that Muslim women who wear a head covering called the hijab “contribute to the idea of passive terrorism, which occurs when moderate segments of the population decline to speak against or actively resist terrorism.”
Muslim women around the world are pretty upset over the term, and so are civil-rights activists and academics. But even as Hamid’s work was being widely condemned, he doubled down on the phrase in a recent interview with Fusion.
Here’s what you need to know.
So what is “passive terrorism” anyway?
In his interview with Fusion, Hamid explained passive terrorism as “the contribution to the whole phenomenon of terrorism, sometimes intentionally or unintentionally, by being passive against it.”
“It is like you don’t do the bad thing, but you allow it to happen,” he said.
He went to give an example. “For example, I don’t steal the bank, but I open the door for the thief. The concept is simple: I’m not the thief—I didn’t steal a single cent—but I opened for him the door.”
Hamid’s argument is essentially that women who wear the Hijab are somehow enabling terrorism by not “denouncing it strongly.”
“In general, the lack of response is what I call passive terrorism,” Hamid said.
A handy flowchart titled ‘The Islamist Terrorism Cycle,” constructed by Hamid, accompanied his writings in the white paper.
Where did this phrase come from?
Hamid claims that he created the term himself. “I am the one who invented it. I am the originator of it,” he said in the interview.
It has been used at least once before, though. In an article called “Passive Sponsorship of Terrorism,” Dr. Daniel L. Byman, director of research at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, explained how some governments aid terrorism through turning a blind eye on extremist groups. However, Byman did not mention the hijab in his article.
How did people react to the term “passive terrorism”?
Not well! Tweeps took to Twitter to speak up against the term using the hashtag #PassiveTerrorism.
The National Network for Arab American Communities, which runs the grassroots campaign “Take On Hate” to raise awareness in the U.S. about “issues of bias and discrimination, particularly toward Arab and Muslim Americans,” released a video in response to Hamid’s paper. “Hijab is not #PassiveTerrorism,” it’s called.
What are the experts (or scholars) saying about it?
Dr. Eric Lob, who holds a Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton and teaches courses on terrorism at Florida International University spoke to Fusion about the term.
“Forget ‘passive,’” Lob said. “When just talking about terrorism, there is no international consensus on the definition. The debate on what terrorism is is a subjective debate within itself, and very complex when dissecting the label. Maybe [Hamid] is equating passive terrorism to collaboration or to passivity.”
Aside from that ambiguity, Lob said, It would be a mistake to “conflate the Hijab with passivity.”
“There are a lot of reasons that Muslim women chose to wear or not to wear the hijab and it has nothing to do with acts of violence and these organizations,” Lob said. “I would also add that targeting the hijab is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic, because it restricts civil rights and religious freedom. We have to be careful about compromising our laws and values in the name of counterterrorism and national security.”
We also gave the mic to a Muslim Arab American to respond:
“It’s ridiculous. It’s criminalizing identity,” said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, in an interview with Fusion. “Someone who wears the hijab wears it for modesty, because they believe it's their religious duty. And what someone like Tawfik is doing is criminalizing people not based on criminal behavior but merely their identity. This is exactly what we are fighting against.”
Rehab called any use of the phrase “buffoonery…it just makes no sense,” he said. “Makes no sense whatsoever.”
What did the U.S. Air Force say about it?
The U.S. Air Force replied within minutes of us reaching out to them. “The views do not reflect the official position of the USAF,” said Lieutenant Colonel Karen Roganov at the U.S. Air Force Press Desk.
“The document was not an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) report. It was edited by a member of AFRL as part of a wider initiative intended to stimulate discourse among senior government leaders on a variety of topics, in this instance Countering Violent Extremism. The particular writings were assembled not to endorse any particular thought or strategy, but to expose leaders to a wide range of ideas across multiple disciplines.”
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."