25 July 2011

A terrorist by any other name

I watched the BBC’s live coverage of the Oslo bombing just minutes after it happened. It wasn’t long before reporters and interviewed commenters mentioned the ‘I’ word. Despite the paucity of facts at the time, there were knee-jerk assumptions that the Oslo bombing was carried out by Islamist terrorists. I confess that I had the same assumption. Now we know that the bombing and the subsequent mass murder of people at a youth camp were all the work of one white, Christian, Islamophobic, right wing extremist Norwegian.

Waleed Aly has written an eloquent essay that spotlights our post-9/11 tendency to associate the word ‘terrorist’ almost strictly with Islamists. When non-Muslims like Anders Behring Breivik, or white supremacists, or violent environmentalists commit politically motivated atrocities targeting innocents, they’re usually described as insane, or slapped with epithets like ‘lone gunman’. They may eventually be (correctly) called terrorists. But when Muslims commit similarly terrible acts, charges of terrorism come with greater alacrity.

Waleed writes:

Today's domestic terrorists are a broad bunch, as the FBI notes: “From hate-filled white supremacists… to highly destructive eco-terrorists… to violence-prone anti-government extremists… to radical separatist groups.” And that is to say nothing of anti-abortion violence, which is quite common. These attacks don't get international headlines, or blanket domestic coverage. As a consequence, they don't generate the broad fear that Islamist terrorism does. But when they succeed, and they do, the dead are just as dead.

Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism. We may have been conditioned by the media’s biased reporting to immediately link brutal, indiscriminate, politically motivated violence with Islamists, but this Pavlovian response is inappropriate, even dangerously complacent. Terrorism risks becoming something that the alien Other engages in, but not ‘us’, however ‘us’ is defined. But any “fear-inducing violence by a non-state actor in the service of a political cause”, according to Waleed, is a “textbook case of terrorism”, regardless of the ethnicity or beliefs of the perpetrator. The ideology and actions of both Al-Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik are equally despicable. Our language should reflect this.


UPDATE: ABC News has an article criticising the media for quickly jumping to the conclusion that the Oslo bombing was carried out by Muslim terrorists. Waleed Aly was interviewed for this piece, where he expands on a few points he made in his essay.

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