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IE Insights The Hypocrisy of Labeling Terrorists as ‘Militants’

May 2023
In our global media landscape, words matter. They shape perceptions, mold narratives, and influence our understanding of complex issues. One worrying trend is the soft-pedaling of violent non-state actors, particularly Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with the term ‘militant’ instead of ‘terrorist’. This linguistic choice is not benign; it’s a disquieting hypocrisy that masks the brutal reality of these groups and confers upon them a legitimacy they do not deserve.

Hezbollah, a Shia political and militant organization, emerged during the Lebanese Civil War in the early 1980s with an explicit aim to destroy Israel. Yet, its brutal actions often get diluted in media narratives. A stark example is the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. Despite this ruthless attack on civilians, some media outlets continue to use the term ‘militant’ to describe Hezbollah, downplaying the severity of their actions and the fact that they’re designated a terrorist organization by numerous countries.
Similarly, Hamas, established during the First Intifada in 1987, also advocates for Israel’s destruction. Hamas’s violent history includes the infamous Passover Massacre in 2002, where a suicide bomber attacked a Passover Seder in a hotel, killing 30 civilians and injuring 140. Despite this brutal attack on civilians, media narratives persistently refer to Hamas as ‘militant’, a stark contrast to its designation as a terrorist organization by entities such as the U.S., EU, and Canada.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), although smaller, has a significant impact. Its violent intent was evident in the 2019 rocket attacks on Israel, where over 450 rockets were fired indiscriminately towards civilian areas, killing and injuring several people. Still, the ‘militant’ label stubbornly clings to PIJ in media descriptions, obscuring the reality of their violent tactics and their status as a recognized terrorist organization.

The dichotomy between ‘terrorist’ and ‘militant’ is crucial. A ‘terrorist’ is a person or group deliberately employing violence against civilians to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives. A ‘militant’, however, can refer to any person or group aggressively supporting a political or social cause. In labeling groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PIJ as ‘militants’, media outlets effectively blur the reality of their violent actions and destructive goals.
This linguistic trend is more than inconsistent labeling; it’s a blatant double standard. When ISIS-led attacks devastated Paris in 2015, media outlets worldwide did not shy away from the ‘terrorist’ label. This clarity should apply uniformly to any group employing violence against civilians for political ends, irrespective of geographical context or cause.

Replacing ‘terrorist’ with ‘militant’ sanitizes the actions of these groups, obfuscates their violent tactics, and can mislead audiences about the nature of their actions. This practice undermines the harsh realities of terrorism and the destructive goals of groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PIJ.
The media ought to address this hypocrisy. Clear, accurate reporting requires precise language, consistent with international designations and the groups’ actions. Anything less is a disservice to audiences and a distortion of the realities of these organizations.