Monday, March 20, 2017

Language and Terrorism: The Case of ETA

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Language and Terrorism: The Case of ETA

By Melissa Wagner

Melissa Wagner is a senior studying Communication and Spanish. After graduating, she will pursue a career in Human Resources. She studied abroad in Bilbao, Spain in the Spring of 2015, where she was immersed in the Basque culture and was surrounded by the unique language. This blog entry is based on her experiences and research on the interface of political and linguistic issues regarding Basque.

For forty years, the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) brought violence to the Spanish Basque Country (Bieter, 2013). Even five years after a permanent cease-fire was announced in 2011 (Bieter, 2013), graffiti in Euskera, the ancient Basque language that now holds co-official status in the region (Heidemann, 2004), supporting the ideals of ETA can be seen around the streets of Bilbao, Spain. Like elsewhere in Europe, nationalistic ideals among Basque people grew in the late 19th century, especially with the activity of Sabino Arana (Pereltsvaig, 2011). There was an industrial boom when iron deposits were found around Bilbao, and the industrialization of the area brought many migrant workers, causing what Arana and others believed to be a threat to the Basque people (Putnam-Pite, 2012). Arana started a Basque nationalist movement to “preserve Basques’ unique identity – their language, their rural, agricultural traditions, even their physical characteristics” (Bieter, 2013) as a solution to combat the effects of industrialization. The goal of ETA aligns with these ideals, working towards “an independent Basque Country that included the three provinces lost to France… using all means possible, including violence” (Bieter, 2013). The biggest difference between the ideals of Arana and ETA is that ETA shifted away from emphasizing race and ethnicity as the foundation of the Basque nation, and replaced it with the use of the Euskera (Putnam-Pite, 2012).

Additionally, the ETA terrorist group, listed as the fourth most active terrorist group in the world from 1970 to 2010 in the University of Maryland terrorism database (Bieter, 2013), has rightfully been criticized by many. One of those critics is journalist Stephen Mackey (2008, May) who argued that ETA was causing harm to the Basque language by turning it into an ideological choice instead of an open language. Their broad concept of nationalism tends to create a divide that excludes “others” or those who do not speak the language. This is the type of exclusion created the extreme unity that ETA emphasized in order to justify their cause. Euskera provided a source of togetherness that Basque people could rally behind since many would condone the extreme violence. Mackey (2008, May) also wrote about different instances where the younger generation had been taught to support ETA using the Basque language in the settings of privately-owned Basque language centers. In one center, students were given directions in Basque on how to create Molotov cocktails, while in another they wrote letters in Basque to prisoners who had been convicted for terrorist activities. Conducting extremist behavior in a minority language gives the impression that these young citizens are part of an exclusive club, and encourages the use of Euskera when supporting the agenda of ETA.

Continuing on, the ability for Basques to speak their language is a right that had been confiscated numerous times throughout history, most notably during the Franco regime of 1936 to 1975 (Putnam-Pite, 2012). One of Franco’s governors was first to enact the public use of Euskera. The reasoning behind this act was to prohibit the public use of Euskera, and hefty punishments were used to enforce this prohibition (Putnam-Pite, 2012). This lack of respect undoubtedly inspired a unified people, who were denied a piece of their freedom; ETA utilized the leftover unified populous to rally support for their agenda. Language in general makes up a significant part of a national identity; as such it was a smart decision by ETA to pick Euskera as a unifying factor for the Basque people who backed their ideological goals. For ETA, Euskera was their only sense of togetherness due to the fact that many of their other objectives were extreme; anyone who could speak Euskera became a Basque, and was included in their movement for an independent and unified Basque Country (Pereltsvaig, 2011). This inclusiveness and unity of a large group of unique people is almost admirable, if it were not for the violent ways they attempted to achieve their goals. These atrocious behaviors distracted the public from their unified vision; branding ETA as a terrorist organization rather than a group fighting for a national identity.

In this picture, the ETA symbol has been spray painted on a building. The symbol consists of an axe, which represents armed struggle, and a snake which represents either watchfulness or politics. The slogan “bietan jarrai” means “go forward both ways” which is sometimes interpreted as ETA will pursue both violent and political routes to get Basque independence (Tremlett, 2010).

Works Cited

Bieter, M. (2013, November). The rise and fall of ETA.

Heidemann, K. (2004). Education and minority language revitalization: Stories of struggle and success from the basque country. Conference Papers – American Sociological Association, 1-30. doi:asa_proceeding_34313.PDF

Mackey, S. (2008, May). Basque language schools in ETA row.

Pereltsvaig, A. (2011, December). Linguistic nationalism among the basques.

Putnam-Pite, C. (2012, July). Terrorism in the basque country: Violations and protections of human rights.

Tremlett, G. (2010, September). ETA’s ceasefire statement decoded.

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