The Discourse of Terror, Mistaken Identity and Reframing the Story

Terrorists control and perpetuate terror through using identity and creating a discourse of power.  Terror controls reality through creating fear.  Terrorists use identity to make themselves seem stronger than they are. Reactions -personal, political and media- reinforce terror and the discourse that birthed it.  A counter discourse that is stronger and moves more quickly needs to be created to silence the voice of terror.

Nine months ago I sat in a small grass hut in the Southern Philippines. I interviewed a women for a project I was working on about what people living in an ebb and flow conflict environment would describe as a good life. She was a Muslim by birth and choice. Because her religion and ethnicity was similar to people in the Abu Sayyaf -A local terrorist group- she lived daily with the reality of aggression towards her.

She told me a story about mistaken identity. Her words –mistaken identity– held in the air draped in pain and fear. The meaning was deeper and more painful than the words that formed them conveyed. Further, the phrase was said in English, not Yakan (the local language) and not Tagalog (the national language).  The language choose -English- reflected this concept, in this form -mistaken identity- is fairly new.  Her story – her crisis, reflects a larger one (national and possibly global). Her crisis was due to the discourse of terror. It was due to mistaken identity.

Her father had been imprisoned because of mistaken identity.  For her mistaken identity meant a father imprisoned without trial, a constant fear of her own possible mistaken identity, death of loved ones, and an increasing mountain of poverty.

The idea of mistaken identity is prevalent in the Southern Philippines. It imprisons people in fear and strengthens terrorist movements. Mistaken identity is one of the most powerful ideological weapons that terrorists wield. Through its use they create fear –because of discrimination- in peace loving Muslims. Through its use they wrongly make non-Muslims believe all Muslim’s hold a discourse of terror (making the terrorist discourse seem more powerful than it really is).

Mistaken identity is when a peace loving person is mistaken as a terrorist.  Effects of mistaken identity range from discrimination to imprisonment or death. The below stories from the Southern Philippines show the power of mistaken identity. These stories illustrate the power of terror to control people’s lives through the use of discourse. They further illustrate how the discourse of terror can be spread through uninformed reaction (personal, political and media).

Story 1- Risk Assessment Bombs or Arrest.

Recalling a story about a fight that had taken place between the government and rebels two weeks early one women stated,

“It was really loud! It’s as if shots are just in our yard!”

Talking about the same event a young mother stated, “it was okay for me, because I have experienced that before. But this time, I was afraid not for myself, but because I already have a baby. What if the situation gets worse? I don’t know what to do.” She went onto say that the fighting lasted for “3 days, but the bombing for 5”.

She had considered going to a safer place, but, on weighing the risks of traveling elsewhere, had decided that enduring the bombing was safer than being mistaken as a rebel.

“We just stayed at home, because it’s not safe, especially to us Muslims. They have picked up few [Muslim] women already… Even if you just resemble an MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front] member, they [the military] will capture you.”

She also expressed a fear of being shot by stray bullets if she traveled: “we are afraid because some of the members of the military are firing anywhere.”

Her fear of mistaken identity –mistaken arrest or shooting – lead her to stay in her home. She felt staying near the bombs and bullets was safer than risking life in prison or death because of mistaken identity.

Story 2 – Father awaits trial while his family lives in hope.

Another young female told the story of her fathers capture by the military, who thought he was a rebel, a member of Abu Sayyaf (A terrorist group in the Southern Philippines). She said,

“Right now, my father is in prison. He was being suspected as Abu Sayyaf, which is not true.” She said it is a case of mistaken identity.

He has been awaiting sentencing for more than 4 years. “It’s not still sentence,” she said. “We are still waiting.” While her father waits in jail, her family is suffering in his absence.

Her family feels the effects of not having a father at home. “I just finished high school [when he was arrested],” the daughter continued. “I was not able to go to college, so I have stopped for 4 years already.” Now, with her father jailed and no longer able to work, the family’s finances are strained, and money is not available for her to continue her education. Her plan is to “go and work abroad” so she will be able to “help my parents.” She cried as she said, “They are counting on me.”

Islam: taken hostage by terror.

Terrorists in the southern Philippines have taken the Islamic identity hostage. In so doing they have captured people (both Muslim and non-Muslim) in fear. Mistaken identity has created fear within Muslims who hold to Islam as a path to peace. It has made a false sense of power among terrorists who use Islamic identity to wrongly claim the entire community holds to their ideology. This use of power has created aggression (micro and macro).

Terrorist build power through fear and illusion. Mistaken Identity is used by terrorists, further developed in reaction to terrorist acts, reported by media as truth, and impacts political decisions. The more reaction there is to discourses of terror, in ways that terrorist design, the faster terror spreads.  Acts of terror have little to do with the acts themselves. Terrorist acts are supporting a deeper discourse. Our reactions can either support or challenge this discourse.  We need a discourse which centers on dignity, humanity, and freedom and spreads more quickly than one built on fear, terror and mistaken identity.


  1. Have others seen “mistaken identity” in similar situations?  Although these stories represent a local situation is it a global issue?
  2. What would be the starting place of a counter discourse?

About the Author: Dr Matthew S. Will has over a decade of experience in International Development and Humanitarian Aid working and living in South East Asia and the Pacific.  He worked in Mindanao for eight years which is also where he completed his doctoral research.  This article is derived from research done in partnership with Sirat (a local NGO in Mindanao) and the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

This research was derived from a qualitative research method that used grounded theory analysis.

If you would like to talk to him about innovative ways for a partnering towards a flourishing society click here.   Other articles on Mindanao by Dr. Will include:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Pingbacks & Trackbacks