Militant, in contemporary academic, activist, and journalistic interpretations, refers to an individual (as a noun) or to a party, a struggle or a state (as an adjective), engaged in aggressive forms of social and political resistance. This aggression is demonstrated in a range of behavior: from oral abuse, to the threat of violence, to physical attacks on people and property. The word has its origin in the fifteenth-century Latin word militare, the latter signifying civilians acting as soldiers during war, conflict, famine, and other periods of crises. Militant was used in the English language to represent public activism, as an assertion of speech, ideas, and self-determination (for example, human rights activism, militant environmentalism); but the moderate meaning of the term has undergone substantial change. In popular usage, militants are described as people with an ideology who are forceful, energetic, and dynamic supporters of their collective principles. This ideology may be personal or political. The individual militant, however, is increasingly lost in the clamor of rising global violence.
More recent understanding of militants implies that they are forced or voluntary recruits in an organization/militia. Their methods of action rarely have similar patterns. Some militants may be rigorously trained for serving a particular cause, and may easily employ force as a form of offense. For example, the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant secessionist movement in the north of Sri Lanka, help their recruits to acquire skills in guerrilla warfare against the state (Daniel 1996). Other militant groups may use the display of arms or antagonistic body language to sustain their movement. A depleted police force and rise in crime has given birth to militant citizens’ organizations in urban Nicaragua. This form of vigilantism, endorsed by Nicaraguan youth, involves armed patrolling of neighborhoods at night (Rodgers 2006). This is an example of how militants manipulate notions of counterviolence and retaliation in pursuit of their cause, organizing their activities around the mere promise of violent action. Thus, militancy can also be a performance to contest the vast indeterminacies of everyday social life.
The definition of militant raises some vital questions. Do militants always rationalize overt or covert violence? Gandhi’s resistance to colonial rule in India was described as militant nonviolence by scholars and administrators alike. So militancy may involve promoting intolerance, but the task of militants may be to collect in preordained spaces and take part peacefully in civil disobedience. Buddhist nationalism in Southeast Asia is also an example of passive resistance to oppressive state rule. Do militants remain within movements for ideological reasons? Many men within militant movements remain committed, not to the ideology, but to “violence as sport” (Tambiah 1996). Several scholars exploring the worlds of militant outfits show how the members get pleasure from indulging in violence for voyeurism, entertainment, and excitement. Further, loyalty to militant philosophies is usually a reflection of masculinity, especially in conflict-riddled societies where membership of warring factions is a rite of passage into manhood. In this context of gendered identity politics, who is the woman militant? During the moderate use of the term, feminist activists, right-wing and left-wing demonstrators, and campaigners for women’s rights were known to be militant women. However, research into the changing nature of female militancy has shown that women are the new recruits into self-styled militia. Often entering the movement due to a shortage in manpower, women can even offer militant leadership. Statistics from United Nations (UN) surveys show that 40 percent of suicide bombers are women, affiliated with various national and international militant organizations (UN Report on Suicide Bombers, 2006). Most women militants can enter public places without raising suspicion, and their engagement in violence stems from a determination to display their equality with male counterparts. The final goal of all militants, however, is to assert or establish their own social and political worldview, whether by influencing state policies or taking over a government through force or passive resistance.
Changing alliances between world leaders and chaotic political events are transforming the flexible definition of the term militant. Before the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York (September 11, 2001), terrorists were characterized as having covert collective missions, and they carried out indiscriminate, violent attacks on civilian targets. They could be placed across a broad spectrum of faiths and convictions, from white xenophobia to radical fundamentalism. However, the media nowadays readily use the label militant as synonymous with terrorist, suggesting that militancy in the modern world necessarily involves extreme forms of political action. The term militant is intricately tied to notions of international law, the Geneva Convention, the human rights discourse and, of course, Islam. “The militant Muslim” is the new label being attached to nationalistic activities especially in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While militancy could earlier be used to describe subversive activities by marginalized groups and “a weapon of the weak,” to use Scott’s celebrated phrase (1985), it has now developed a negative connotation in being reinterpreted in the context of the War on Terror. Sadly, this adherence to a static meaning relegates the broader concept to the fringes of scholarly debate.
SEE ALSO Black Panthers; Black Power; Civil Disobedience; Liberation; Liberation Movements; Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); Passive Resistance; Performance; Protest; Resistance; Revolution; Social Movements; Suicide Bombers; Terror; Violence; Women’s Liberation; Women’s Movement
Daniel, E. Valentine 1996. Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rodgers, Dennis. 2006. Living in the Shadow of Death: Gangs, Violence and Social Order in Urban Nicaragua, 1996–2002. Journal of Latin American Studies 38 (2): 267–292.