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Charlie Hebdo: When is 'terrorism' not 'terrorism'?

January 14, 2015 at 12:06 pm

In the immediate wake of last week’s hideous attacks on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, a former deputy director of the CIA told the New York Times it was “the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the attacks in London in July of 2005”.

This quote was soon sneakily edited out of the online copy of the article without so much as an editor’s note. The original is preserved in a screen shot on Twitter and syndicated copies of the article.

Why it was edited out (as soon the hypocrisy was pointed out) is clear: Michael J. Morell clearly failed to mention the 2011 attack by Anders Breivik in Norway. This attack killed 77, far more than those murdered in Paris last week.

This was no simple faux pas on Morell’s part; it was a very revealing choice of words.

What it illustrates is that, in the dominant political culture of the West, “terrorist” is in fact a code word that excludes white people. It is a fear-mongering, demonizing term intended to stir up hatred against Muslims. White people who engage in shoot-outs against innocent civilians can be considered “crazed” or “imbalanced” individuals, not representative of white society or of Christians in general.

The same never holds true of the press and general political culture’s attitude towards Muslims.

In November 2014, a young British soldier was jailed for only two years after constructing a viable nail bomb. Ryan McGee was “obsessed with far-right politics” and interested in the fascist English Defence League. In a journal he wrote: “I vow to drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell with me”. Amazingly, the prosecutor claimed that McGee was not a terrorist but just an “immature teenager”. With such a soft-touch treatment by the system, it’s not surprising this man escaped a terrorism charge.

It is simply impossible to imagine that a 20-year-old Muslim, caught red-handed with a nail bomb and a cache of weapons, who expressed sympathy with al-Qaida and ISIS, who wrote of his desire to kill non-believers would escape terror charges, and be written off as an “immature teenager”.

At the time, I challenged people on Twitter to find a single press headline describing McGee as a terrorist. Despite this being retweeted 888 times, not one such headline was found.

In fact, it’s extremely rare for Breivik to ever be described as a “terrorist”, despite the fact that he actually did viciously murder 77 people, and had very strong fascist, Islamophobic political convictions – clearly expressed in his “manifesto”.

So the former CIA deputy director’s omission of Breivik was telling. As is the way The New York Times has attempted to disappear the quote. “Terror” is only terror when it is “them” not “us”.

While these vile attacks (by gunmen apparently trained by al-Qaida in Yemen, as well as possibly in Syria) should certainly be condemned, those who engaged in “We are all Charlie” slogans (including, shamefully, my own union, the NUJ) are utterly mistaken and wrong-headed. I will never identify or align myself with such a vile and racist magazine.

As Richard Seymour and Asad AbuKhalil have all pointed out, Charlie Hebdo was simply a racist magazine. It was not brave satire, it simply specialised in crude and vicious Islamophobic cartoons. A publication that gloats at the deaths of unarmed Muslim protesters in Egypt with the headline “The Quran is shit: it does not stop bullets” (10 July 2013) is not satire: it is simply vicious, blood-thirsty bigotry.

The word “terrorist” then, has no dictionary definition which is observed and respected in the dominant political and media culture. It is simply used as an Islamophobic code word. There is an urgent need to resist this, before al-Qaida really does get want it wants: to drag the world into a clash of civilizations.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.