Terrorism has no face

The tragic death of the Russian ambassador to Turkey serves as a reminder to the depth of the stereotypical images we have of terrorists. When people of think of a terrorist, they almost exclusively associate it with the image of an Eastern male with a beard and an Eastern outfit. I thought this stereotype is more common amongst Westerners, but many Arabs also think in this same way.

A lot of the analysis on the murder was about its political fallouts. Some went as far as comparing it with the murder of Archduke Ferdinand. There will be consequences of course, but nothing even close to a World War. Russia and Turkey have already embarked on a new course of cooperation which will not be hindered by this tragic event.

Almost as much analysis was about the image of the murderer. For so many people this simply did not look like a terrorist act, and the murderer did not look like a terrorist. As the images of the murderer came out, I found so many comments expressing surprise. One of the popular ones said: “this image contains more than what Kafka’s mind could digest… a white wall, works of art, a gun, and a man standing over a dead body with his finger pointing towards God.”

Another comment, written by a well-known film critic, said that if we did not know the news behind the image we would have thought this was a poster for a film… the whole scene, including the words uttered, might have well been part of a Shakespearean play. The image was “too clean: and the scene was too white to fit into our set conceptions of how a terrorist killing should look like. We’ve gotten used to bearded men, making statements behind cameras, in front of walls decorated with slogans. This is not good!

An urgent psychological need

Giving terrorism a specific face serves an urgent psychological need. It gives us a sense of security, albeit false one, when mingling with other people. It makes us divide faces into safe ones with whom we can interact with little fear, and dangerous faces whom we must be careful from. But giving terrorism a face also has serious and painful consequences. It had led to hate acts against those whose complexions are similar to that of the terrorist.

Giving terrorism a specific face serves an urgent psychological need. It gives us a sense of security, albeit false one, when mingling with other people

Abdullah Hamidaddin

One of many incidents was an assault on a Sikh on the basis of him being a potential terrorist. He was wearing a turban which, in the mind of the attacker, qualified him to fit the image of the terrorist. Moreover, it can make us less suspicious of those who don’t fit the image even if they do a suspicious act. A white clean shaven man forgetting his bag on a train would not attract the same attention as a bearded man wearing traditional Arab garb doing the same thing. It also draws our attention away from state sponsored terrorism, or internet terrorism all perpetrated by people who also don’t fit that classic image.

Terrorism, of course, has no face. Terrorists do not belong to one specific cultural or ethnic group. The image of the terrorist should not be a matter of discussion and analysis. It should not distract us from the act itself. There is one lesson I can draw from the reactions to the image of this clean shaven terrorist, and that is when thinking of combating terrorism we should also be thinking about combating stereotypical images of terrorists.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1



Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:48 - GMT 06:48
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