On “Terrorism” and the Politics of Naming

From the Series: Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet

“While I understand their desperation, this kind of self-damage seems a very far cry from the fundamental tenets of Buddhism,” observed an American acquaintance who frequently travels to Tibet. His is a common sentiment. The Chinese government makes this argument too. What is it about Tibetan self-immolation that leads—in an inverse of suicide bombing, reflexively and incorrectly read as a transhistorical Islamic act—so many to question first and foremost whether those who have engaged in it have turned against their own religion? Such claims have led numerous scholars to argue recently that, though unprecedented in Tibet, self-immolation as sacrifice and more generally, self-sacrifice for a noble cause, has a long history in Buddhism.

I gave the taxi driver at Shuangliu airport the name of the hotel in Wuhouci, the small Tibetan neighborhood in Chengdu [1], where I often stay. “Don’t go there,” he immediately advised, “The security is bad. I’m telling you the truth. That entire street is full of Tibetans. Everyone there is a Tibetan. There are security vehicles everywhere. It’s no good.” He tried to persuade me to go elsewhere and fell silent when I refused. As we arrived, he pointed out the police car with flashing lights by the side of the road, then another, and another. “See?” he said, “I told you.” “But why is the security bad? Did something happen?” I asked. “This whole street is full of Tibetans,” he said, as if he had offered an adequate explanation. “Who knows? You know, they have guns and stuff.”

To what extent do those who self-immolate mean for their acts to be understood as political protest and/or religious sacrifice? Were they inspired by the Arab spring? By Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation? Did they know about these? Or rather, were they deliberately and creatively searching for a new form of protest different from those that transpired in Tibet in 2008? Such questions should be asked. But at the same time, individual acts of self-immolation are in a sense ultimately unknowable, not only due to the sealing off of many Tibetan areas at present, but also due to the very nature of suicide in general.

Tibetan reactions vary. “I don’t think it’s a good method,” remarked one scholar. “The people have gone mad. The government has gone mad. We don’t know what to think or do anymore,” a local intellectual, a respected monk, told me. Another, also a learned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, remarked sadly that he thought the new Kalon Tripa’s calling them Tibetan heroes played a role. “Who knows what the circumstances of those first few individuals’ actions were, but now everyone has spread the word that they are heroes. They think they are doing something, but all that is happening is a closing down of what little space remained.” But another observer says, “They’ve given us courage. No one thinks that self-immolation will lead immediately to independence. But this is a way of letting the world know what is happening, so that the world can see the truth.” All agree that, whatever else, the recent events cannot be divorced from the forms of governance currently in place in Tibetan areas.

Rather than probe further into motivations, I look instead at how the acts have been interpreted. In particular, I am interested in why the state labels these acts of terrorism. Let me be clear that I do not consider self-immolation terrorism. Why, given the absence of any harm to innocent others from these acts, are they thus labeled? One obvious answer is that, as Stuart Elden has pointed out, the linkage between “terror” and “territory” is hardly coincidental. Maintaining bounded spaces of territory requires the constant mobilization of threat. Almost all groups on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations are self-determination movements. Just as the tenet of territorial preservation of existing boundaries has become split from internal territorial sovereignty in and by the U.S. War on Terror (Elden, 2007), the labeling of Tibetan self-immolation as “terrorism” in China today performs another kind of splitting of sovereignty, creating a disjuncture of methods and aims. In this new formation, the state declares a form of terror any perceived threat to state territorial sovereignty, regardless of its actual methods or effects vis-à-vis harm to others.

“Look at this place,” he said. “It’s not Wuhouci. It should be called Wujingci.[2] One can survey all kinds of People’s Armed Police here, their manifold weapons and techniques.” The government’s preoccupation with appearances is puzzling. Because so few Tibetans were celebrating Losar, cadres and work units and universities were ordered to buy firecrackers and put on festive appearances. Yet smack in the downtown of the bustling metropolis, a few streets take on the appearance in broad daylight of occupied Baghdad. No photography allowed. Flashing lights and paramilitary cars, vans, and buses every hundred meters. The drive to happy appearances is finally conquered by the even greater drive to suppress in the name of security.

Beyond the relation between terror and territory is the fact the nation-state does not allow for suicide, but only authorized death. As Talal Asad reminds us, individuals have no right to kill themselves; only the state (and God) gives them the right to be punished (or killed). What appears terrifying, then, is a death unregulated by the nation-state, “the illusion of an uncoerced interiority that can withstand the force of institutional discipline” (Asad, 2007: 91). The state of siege enacted throughout Tibetan areas since 2008 interpellates Tibetans as always already guilty, positioning them in a zone in which “violence passes over into law and the law into violence,” where what matters is the pure force of the law rather than any actual distinction between the forbidden and the authorized (Agamben, 1998:27, 32). More than ever, this has denied Tibetans the right to act politically, which Hannah Arendt long ago suggested is the basis of the possibility of being individual and thus human. In this sense, self-immolation is a reclamation of sovereignty over one’s own self within a state of siege. Biological life is taken in an assertion of a political life. It is this possibility that is terrifying to the state in its quest to stabilize territorial sovereignty.

24 March 2012


[1] Capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu is a gateway to the Tibetan regions in northern and western Sichuan, as well as an important transportation hub to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

[2] Wujing refers to the People’s Armed Police. Wuhouci, or Wuhou Temple, is a Tibetan neighborhood in Chengdu.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Asad, Talal. 2007. On Suicide Bombing. Columbia University Press.

Elden, Stuart. 2007. “Terror and Territory.” Antipode. 39(5):821-854.

Emily T. Yeh, Department of Geography, University of Colorado-Boulder