Submitted to (but rejected by) ZNet, on the occasion of the terrorist attacks in
Madrid on March 11, 2004.


Terrorism, sexism, racism and other lethal –isms.

Teun A. van Dijk


There are many deadly –isms that continue to afflict humanity. The oldest, most pernicious and deadliest of all is sexism: Many thousands of women are killed each year by their male (ex) partners, and millions of women are daily harassed, beaten or discriminated against by their husbands, friends, bosses or simply by male dominated society at large. Whatever other dangerous –isms we discuss, we should always be keenly aware that undoubtedly the worst enemy of humankind in general, and of women in particular, is the kind of masculinity that is the cause of this kind of daily repression and killings.

Closely related to this form of male dominance is the –ism that also has plagued humanity for millennia and that is the cause of arms, armies, wars and repression until today: militarism. When we sometimes have the illusion to live in a post-modern world, the reality of primitive male power abuse, combined in lethal militarism and vicious sexism, should perhaps remind us of the fact that we are still living in pre-modernism.

Perhaps less obviously and openly a threat to humankind is the kind of –ism that has become the dominant ideology of our time: neoliberalism: What is defended as the unlimited freedom and the blessings of the ‘market’ in fact is causing the misery, the poverty and death due to starvation and avoidable diseases of millions of women, men and children all over the world. Some would argue that also socially insensitive neoliberalism has been especially promoted by men, and that competition at any price is another form of aggressive masculinity.

On a less extensive scale, but sometimes no less deadly when engaged in by extremists, we witness the aggression and the killings by militant groups of nationalists around the globe, and not only in Northern Ireland, Spain or Kashmir. What may be rooted in legitimate claims for autonomy or independence may thus be distorted by those few (again, mostly men) who have the illusion they can realize their aims by violence that cannot be excused as a form of legitimate defense.

That aggressive extremism is lethal has become most spectacularly evident on September 11, 1991, and March 11, 2004, in the USA and Spain, respectively, as well as in many other cities of the world. Much more than any of the other deadly –isms mentioned above, it is terrorism that has provoked the most hostile reaction from those in power, also because they are the ones who are politically targeted or held ransom, even when mostly innocent people are killed in terrorist attacks. We also have witnessed that upon the instigation of the USA the prevailing response to terrorism has been counter-terrorism and militarism, thus leading to a spiral of killings or other ‘collateral damage’ with no end in sight. Again, some would again suggest that even when women may be involved such nationalist or religious extremism, the related forms of terrorism, counter-terrorism and militarism are largely part of the same major problem: masculine aggression.

Watching the horrible scenes of death and mutilation in New York and Madrid, it is hard not to declare terrorism the Nr. 1 problem of the world, and agree with Bush & Co that the only good terrorist is a dead or detained terrorist. And one can only agree with all those politicians, journalists, writers and other symbolic elites that shape our opinions, largely through the mass media, that there is no legitimate excuse for terrorist violence.

Only these politicians would be much more credible in their antiterrorist zeal if they would similarly combat the other forms of extremist and violent –isms mentioned above, beginning with sexist and militarist aggression. And we should all join the antiterrorist struggle as soon as it is conducted within an explanatory, political and ideological framework that establishes relationships between the different kinds of violent extremism mentioned above. In such a framework it is not so much the ‘terrorist’ who is the world’s Nr. 1 villain, but rather the violent men who, inspired by any –ism, feel licensed to kill, whether dressed as a possessive and sexist husband, a radical nationalist, a fundamentalist believer, a ruthless businessman or as a warrior.

Instead of developing such an explanatory framework that would force many men to closely look into the mirror, or at least to critically reflect upon the dominant ideologies and practices of many other men they do not seem to worry about so much, alternative explanations have been formulated within the framework of another kind of deadly –ism that has dominated especially the Western World for centuries: racism and ethnicism. In this perspective terrorism is not dealt with as a problem of ‘Us, men’, or of ‘Us, men of violence’, but attributed to the Others, such as Arabs or Muslims, or whomever else may function as Others elsewhere, such as Kashmir, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Basque country, and so on.

At the moment most prevalent among western politicians and media, however, is the close association between terrorism, Arabs and Islam. This amalgamation perfectly fits the age-old polarization, studied by the late Edward Said and many others, between Us in the West and Them in the (Middle) East, between Occidentalism and Orientalism, between Christendom and Islam. Whatever disclaimers Bush & Co may repeat about not blaming all Arabs and Muslims, the more radical right wing media and advisors that support them and keep them in power are less subtle, and transmit the message loud and clear about who is to blame for terrorism.

Even a good newspaper such as El País in Spain may thus openly wonder (e.g., on Sunday March 28, barely two weeks after the terrorist attacks in Madrid) about how to describe and identify the terrorists if not as ‘Moroccan’, ‘Arab’, ‘Islamic’, ‘Islamist’, ‘Muslims’, ‘fundamentalist’, and so on, where all specialists concur that any of the above is a generalization and bound to lead to more stereotypes, prejudice, racism and ethnicism.

Besides all the forms of sexism and militarism mentioned above, the most ignored and denied form of –ism today is racism. Thus, whereas sexism especially addresses Us all as men, racism addresses Us all as white, western, European people – and since few of us feel guilty or responsible, racism is as much denied and ignored as is sexism. And yet, much of the contemporary problem of the many forms of closely related terrorisms and counterterrorisms is rooted in racism and ethnicism. When the USA (and others) support or condone Israeli occupation and aggression against Palestinians, many Arabs will experience this (also) as a form of anti-Arab racism. When fundamentalist Islam is blamed for terrorism if not for many other ills of the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia, but not the fundamentalist Christian coalition that brought Bush, Rumsfeld and other hawks to power in the USA, and hence over the rest of the world, then it should not surprise us that many Muslims, as well as others, can only interpret this as another form of ethnicism. The logic of ethnicism and racism is as straightforward as any form of –ism: We are good and They are evil, and our wrongs are ignored and theirs magnified.

In sum, if our response to the terrible reality of terrorism continues to be a combination of ‘male’, militarist counter-terrorism, and ‘western’ racism and ethnicism, which simply target and blame the convenient Others, instead of examining and dealing with the deeper causes of terrorism, then we may be sure that terrorism will not be vanquished, but only exacerbated.

Teun A. van Dijk, recently retired from the University of Amsterdam, is professor of discourse studies at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, and editor of Discourse & Society.
His latest books are Elite Discourse and Racism (1993), Discourse Studies (Ed., 2 vols., 1997), Ideology (1998), Racism at the Top (Eds. With Ruth Wodak, 2000), Dominación étnica y racismo discursivo en España y América Latina (2003). E-mail: Internet: