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As is common in modern history, the last few decades have seen superpowers and great powers invading sovereign countries in the Middle East, Africa, South America and Central Asia under various pretexts (most notably to "foster or preserve" democracy) for various clandestine reasons including force projection, grabbing natural resources, to secure a regional ally, to limit the influence of competing powers, to empower their military industrial complex etc.

In all such cases, when the invading army defeated and toppled a government, resistance emerged from civilian militias who took arms into their own hands under some local religious or nationalist leaders (with varying ideologies). The sheer disparity of the military power between the invading army and the resistance led to the emergence of unconventional tactics, like suicide bombing, etc., by the resistance forces. So the invading power found an easy pretext in such violent military tactics to brand them as "Terrorists" to attain their own political or military goals.

  1. What alternative ways could those resisting forces have pursued to keep themselves from getting branded as "Terrorists" while continuing their struggle against the invading power?

  2. What other political options are available for a weaker military resistance force to fight a superior power invading them that can avoid the "terrorist" label?

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    I don't understand the meaning of the question. As far as I know there's no such thing as an "internationally recognized way of protesting/struggling" Jan 11, 2023 at 3:14
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    Voting to close as not in good faith, as the asker appears to be using this question as a vehicle to argue that Muslims cannot be called terrorists because their actions are solely in response to being invaded by other parties; see also their comments on the top-rated answer How would someone know the CIA isn't behind ISIS or Al-Qaeda's rise and sustenance? which falls securely into the category of conspiracy theory and attempts to abrogate responsibility for Muslim terrorism.
    – Ian Kemp
    Jan 11, 2023 at 10:57
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    Another VTC. The OP explicitly rejects the possibility that they are labelled as terrorists because they carry out acts designed to inspire terror - not in the "occupiers", but in the fraction of the civilian population who welcomed the change of government (which in both Afghanistan and Iraq was the majority at the time of "invasions").
    – Graham
    Jan 11, 2023 at 11:43
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    In any case, could you please add references in your question where Media branded people as terrorists who were freedom fighters? The 9/11 attackers or someone wanting to create a world islamic caliphate (such as al qaeda or isis) can definitely not be called freedom fighters.
    – whoisit
    Jan 11, 2023 at 12:09
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    It would be reasonable to ask what is allowed under international law and convention. It might be reasonable to ask what has worked in the past. But all the stuff about being called terrorists makes this a rant, and one that attracts other rants from islamophobic assholes, so it's not in anyone's interest except those promoting religious war.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 14, 2023 at 9:38

4 Answers 4

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Well, first you can wage a conventional war. But let's start with your premise that you are overmatched, have lost and your government has surrendered.

Cynically, there's no real way to avoid the designation.

First, look at the news, everyone bandies the term terrorist around willy-nilly. Even when people are not actually getting killed the term is being claimed as appropriate nowadays.

Once a war switches to guerilla warfare without clear lines and uniforms, of course, the party that is targeted is going to that term liberally. Head of occupation in Kherson gets assassinated? Terrorism, as per Russia.

US Humvee IED'd in Baghdad? Ditto. As the old cliché goes, one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist.

Heck, it's gotten to the point where Russia claims drone strikes on their strategic air bases - hosting aircraft which launch cruise missile strikes on Ukrainian civilians and civilian assets is... terrorism.

By that logic the French Resistance in 43-44 were all terrorists.

So the term can be applied based on differing PoV or for cynical propaganda reasons.

But maybe it is simple to avoid being a terrorist

The examples I took above all targeted mostly military personnel as well as collaborators. I would just call them guerillas myself.

But let's look at the details of the Iraq occupation. It was not uncommon * for Sunni attackers to truck bomb Shia mosques or markets (Or Shia on Sunni). That's pretty clearly terrorism, innit? What about the ISIS bomber who killed 13 US soldiers @ Baghram airbase and dozens upon dozens of Afghan civilians? What about all the bombs that were set off in Kabul in 2019-2020, often in purely civilian areas?

See, not that difficult. Target primarily military forces and many people will consider that to be an irregular war, not necessarily terrorism. Behave like ISIS did in Syria and you have a, justifiably, very different judgment.


And that's before we get into the groups that primarily attack civilians rather than trying to kill soldiers. ETA, IRA (though they sometimes called in their bombs ahead of time). OAS (France, early 60s) didn't and aimed for maximum civilian casualties. ISIS... what can you call something like the Bataclan attack if not pure terrorism?

* I am not trying to paint all/most/many the forces that targeted US and pro-US Iraqi administrators as terrorists (no idea about percentages). Only that it happened and those doing it were terrorists.

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    No, I upvoted the Q. It's a good Q and I did not miss the first paragraph. But you cant look at all the mess ISIS and Al Qaeda have done and think that is no reason for Westerners to be pissed at some interpretations of Islam. Just like Iranians cant look at 1953 and have some very good reasons to be pissed at USA and UK. Jan 11, 2023 at 5:21
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    No I did not miss the point. USA was occupying Iraq in 2003. Fighting to get them out isn't terrorism, it's a guerilla war. As I clarified, that really is a very different thing than ETA/IRA/OSS/ISIS and that whole menagerie. You might however be missing the point that Westerners didn't necessarily consider Talibans and ISIS to be equivalent (that said, the Taliban have been unconscionably nasty since their takeover). Jan 11, 2023 at 5:28
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    As an example of 'designation as a terrorist': members of the group 'the last generation' used glue to fix themselves on roads to block the traffic there. Some conservative politicians designated them as 'climate terrorists' afterwards.
    – quarague
    Jan 11, 2023 at 9:51
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    @quarague Also, to add to the fat binder of "Things that can be called terrorism now", people who are advocating for the councils to install more cycle lanes and low traffic zones are being labelled as "transport terrorists".
    – Eric Nolan
    Jan 11, 2023 at 11:42
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    "How would someone know the CIA isn't behind ISIS or Al-Qaeda's rise and sustenance?" Or how would someone know that the green aliens from the moons of Saturn aren't behind it? You can't prove a negative. And by the way, people nowadays are sure who created ISIS and Al-Qaeda, because we have good evidence; and likewise for funding.
    – Graham
    Jan 11, 2023 at 11:46
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What alternative ways could those protestors/strugglers have pursued to keep themselves from the invading powers branding them as "Terrorists" while continuing their struggle against them?

Those who are in power, write the history. If you fight your government and win, the history that you write will call you a "freedom fighter". If you lose, your government's history will call you a "terrorist" or ignore you and your struggle completely. Even if the protest is for a legitimate reason and done peacefully, those in power will always try to demonise those who protest against it.

So any political struggle, as you rightly recognized, has to prevent this kind of demonisation or to reduce its impact on those who support it.

What is the way of protesting/struggling for a comparative weaker resistance force without being branded as "Terrorists" when an external power invades a country?

When you use non-violent means of political actions, it is harder to criticise and demonise such politics. Thus, the safest way to do politics, when oppressed by a superior force, is the Gandhian political philosophy of non-violent resistance or civil resistance.

It is important to understand that Gandhi's ingenuity was combining politics with spiritual elements. Due to this, the political opposition he created was high in morality and thus easy for everyone to respect and relate to (even against whom it was directed), and hard for anyone to criticise or demonise because our moral values spring from spirituality which is a dominant aspect of human society everywhere (since we discovered religion).

For Gandhi, the root of non-violent resistance or civil resistance stems from the spiritual idea of Ahimsa. Though the word Ahimsa is indian in origin, and from indian religious texts, it is a spiritual idea that all the major religion also advocate. It prescribes prioritising compassion (for self and others) and self-control in everything we do and to find a peaceful resolution to conflicts through non-violence (by not hurting anyone through thoughts, words or deeds and recognising that we are all one with humanity).

While Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela adopted Gandhi's political philosophy, they imbibed it more with Christian and African spiritual values respectively, drawing upon the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and African Ubuntu culture to incorporate the Ahimsa elements that Gandhi suggested. The muslims of middle-east can also do something similar as they too already have a great historic example of this political philosophy in the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Prophet Muhammad described the idea of Ahimsa as the "greater Jihad" through the virtue of hilm to fight jahiliyyah:

His life was a jihad: as we shall see, this word does not mean “holy war,” it means “struggle.” Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia ... His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance. He realized that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution. ...

Muhammad was not trying to impose religious orthodoxy - he was not much interested in metaphysics — but to change people's hearts and minds ... This was a frightening period. The incessant wars between Persia and Byzantium seemed to herald the end of the old world order, and even within Arabia, tribal warfare had reached chronic proportions. During the last twenty years, the ghazu, which had traditionally been short and sharp, had escalated into long, drawn out military campaigns as a result of unprecedented drought and famine. There was an apocalyptic sense of impending catastrophe. Muhammad was convinced that unless the Quraysh reformed their attitudes and behavior, they too would fall prey to the anarchy that threatened to engulf the world.

... The chief vice of the kafirun was jahiliyyah ... although the root JHL has some connotations of “ignorance,” its primary meaning is “irascibility”: an acute sensitivity to honor and prestige; arrogance, excess, and above all, a chronic tendency to violence and retaliation. Jahili people were too proud to make the surrender of Islam; why should a karim moderate his behavior and act like a slave (abd), praying with his nose on the ground and treating the base-born like equals? ...

Instead of succumbing to the jahili spirit, the Qur’an urges Muslims to behave with hilm, a traditional Arab virtue. Men and women of hilm were forbearing, patient, and merciful. They could control their anger and remain calm in the most difficult circumstances instead of exploding with rage; they were slow to retaliate; they did not hit back when they suffered injury, but left revenge to Allah. Hilm also inspired positive action: if they practiced hilm, Muslims would look after the weak and disadvantaged, liberate their slaves, counsel each other to patience and compassion, and feed the destitute, even when they were hungry themselves. Muslims must always behave with consummate gentleness and courtesy. They were men and women of peace: "For true servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk gently on the earth, and who, whenever the jahilun address them, reply 'Peace' (Salam!)"

... After the affair of the “satanic verses,” the conflict with the kafirun became very nasty. Abu Jahl regularly subjected any Muslims he met to vitriolic verbal abuse and slandered them with vicious lies and rumor; he threatened merchants with ruin, and simply beat up the “weaker” Muslims ... It must have been very difficult indeed for the Muslims, brought up in the jahili spirit, to practice hilm and turn the other cheek. Even Muhammad sometimes had to struggle to maintain his composure. (Source: Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet by Karen Armstrong).

Gandhi's use of spiritual elements derived from indian philosophy and religion in his politics also helped him counter the colonial propaganda that western civilisation was superior because of Christian values. If muslims imbibe the actual philosophy of Islam as advocated by Prophet Muhamed (PBUH) into Gandhi's political philosophy, they too can easily counter the western propaganda of Islam as a militaristic religion of violence and hate.

Another advantage of using Gandhi's political philosophy is that his non-violent means of political protests are now accepted as one of the highlighting feature of democracy as violence in democracy is seen as a failure of democracy. Thus, oppressors who invade a country to make it "democratic" can't use violence against those protesting non-violently, without inviting criticism from democrat of their own country.

His book Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) (PDF) gives an outline of his early political theory. More information on Gandhi's political philosophy can be found on this website - A Place to learn about Gandhi, his life, work & philosophy.


Someone commented:

I found that military invasions were never successfully opposed using Satyagraha. This was used only in the case of securing civil rights. British Raj was toppled only because of UK's bankruptcy due to WW2. Satyagraha was never enough to kick them out.

It is true that satyagraha isn't about fighting an invading army. But the question was never about fighting an invading army, but an occupying force that has already defeated a country. When a country invades another, it is obviously the military forces that fight each other. That is what armies are for, after all, and why every country has one.

Gandhi's political concepts are designed to fight an occupying force that governs you. Note that even though the British occupied and controlled India, they still needed Indians to run the country - the bureaucrats were indians, the police were indians, even the army had indians. (It is the same in, say Iraq or Afghanistan, where the Americans still needed to rely on the locals to administer the country). Gandhi rightly pointed out that if violence was chosen we indians would still be fighting indians, and that only weakens us further. It would give the British another route to use their "divide and rule" policy - for example, by favouring only muslims or or christians or upper caste hindus to run the administration, which would mean any attack on them could be used for communal propaganda. (And in fact, that is exactly what happened in Iraq - the Iraqi resistance fighters that were mostly Sunnis, targeted the Shias and Kurds who the Americans deliberately favoured with the excuse that Saddam Hussein persecuted them for their identity. This further broke the unity of the people of Iraq and helped the occupation. Meanwhile, it provided Iran an excuse to enter the arena to "defend" the Shias against the Sunni muslims, further widening the sectarian gap and increasing conflict, giving the occupying force more excuse to stay and "create" peace.

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    I am unselecting the answer. I found that military invasions were never successfully opposed using Satyagraha. This was used only in the case of securing civil rights. British Raj was toppled only because of UK's bankruptcy due to WW2. Satyagraha was never enough to kick them out.
    – user366312
    Jan 11, 2023 at 23:09
  • @user366312 See my updated answer. (And you are wrong that the British left India only because it got bankrupted. In fact, because of its bankruptcy, it wanted to retain India as a colony. It was international pressure, mainly from the US who Nehru convinced, that pressured the British to cave in and grant India its freedom. Satyagraha was still integral here ...)
    – sfxedit
    Jan 12, 2023 at 0:42
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    Its multivariate @user366312.Gandhi and his satyagraha is one variable. There are others... WWII, ending in total victory for Churchill&co combined with his landslide defeat in the elections. Atlee diametrically opposite to Churchill. You seriously think Churchill would have allowed independence?? Under him the Naval MutinyCabinet Mission to India → Mountbatten → Independence/Partition.[Pope/Dalai link corrected: politics.stackexchange.com/a/76476/44167]
    – user44167
    Jan 12, 2023 at 3:11
  • @Raveesh I agree that many things ultimately worked in India's favour to the point culminating in India's freedom. America wanting to cutting down British power, the millions of battle hardened WW2 indian soldiers who wouldn't have been happy to return to an occupied India, Netaji's army fighting for Japan, the British is no mood for another major fight in a colony etc. But without Gandhi's satyagraha to rebuild our nation's self-esteem, raise all our consciousness to ultimately demand freedom and create a new generation of politician able to run a nation we wouldn't have modern India today.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 12, 2023 at 9:03
  • @Ravessh I have no idea what issue you have with what I said about Gandhi. You are absolutely free to not admire him if you find his philosophy or political acts don't suit your ideology.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 16, 2023 at 9:47
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I think there is a difference between being branded as a terrorist by a government than being branded as a terrorist by the court of public opinion. A government's position will always be questioned, because even in the most despotic dictatorship you still have people opposing them. If you only fight against military target, use wits and tactics to outsmart them, follows Geneva Convention (having identifiable uniforms and such), and use media (especially social media) well, then you will be seen as a rag tag band of misfit fighting a war of resistance against a big power by the court of public opinion. If you do it well (just like those strategist of Vietnam during the Vietnam War), you can even turn the people of the country invading you against their own government, bring victory to you without too many blookshed.

So if someone asks you to choose between buying a nuke and buying the attention of a media with very high credibility...get the media! Accountability worth more than any weapon on the planet!

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    And ofcourse, the Vietnamese were vilified by the west till they won. (Note though that they too indulged in terrorism targeting civilians who sided with the US).
    – sfxedit
    Jan 15, 2023 at 3:59
  • @sfxedit but wasn't that this vilification doesn't work and the american people turned against the government, demanding them to withdraw from vietnam?
    – Faito Dayo
    Jan 15, 2023 at 16:23
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    From what I remember reading, Americans got tired of all the wars they were fighting over the decade, and the draft for the Vietnam war (which people knew was going badly through the returning soldiers and dead bodies) was what really tipped the people against the administration. The American public certainly wasn't speaking up for the Vietnamese or cheering them.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 16, 2023 at 3:40
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By the propaganda of the invading country, you are very likely to be called in all most nasty words a human language possess, "terrorist" including. This is just how propaganda works. But this is mostly efficient just inside the propaganda cage of the attacking country (where other opinions cannot be said).

What is matters is the position of "the third side", countries and parts of the population that may listen for the both sides and may actually change they view, whom do they support. Because of them, it is strategically unwise to give too many real, serious arguments for the the opposing side.

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