Following the tragic killings in Charleston Church, many noticed, once again, the striking difference between the mainstream media and political establishment’s coverage of violent crimes perpetrated by Muslims and those carried out by non-Muslims. It reinforced the widely held perception of media prejudice in the labelling of violence committed by Muslims as “terrorism” and violence perpetrated by (especially white) non-Muslims as, well, just violence. This further underlies the fact that the mainstream media and politicians are using the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” calculatedly for their own political purposes.
In their effort to maintain the necessary myth that “all terrorist are Muslims” the plainly obvious is substituted for the barely apparent. As we saw with the mass killing in South Carolina, non-Muslim killers are usually portrayed as psychologically and socially maladjusted – which person who kills innocent people or blows themselves up on a bus isn’t, by the way? – with no connections to a broader ideology. Hate-filled killers are demoted to lone gunman status, unconnected to a wider conspiracy, even if they originate from sub-cultures and traditions that have produced mass killers on an almost regular basis.
Officials move to devalue the wider socio-political implications by focusing on the event’s unspeakable and unintelligible barbarity. In the case of the Charleston Church we even heard fatalistic pronouncements like that made by the governor of South Carolina: “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
Muslims carrying out similar acts of violence are treated very differently: the media go into 24/7 overdrive; the perpetrator is labelled a terrorist as a matter of course and a queue of so called terrorism experts and pseudo-theories are stacked-up to speculate about the alleged organised structure of the terrorist plot. Specialists are also employed to reinforce the wider narrative of the war on terror, while politicians clamour to exploit the tragedy by insisting that it’s an attack on “our values and way of life”.
None would dare to say that “we’ll never understand what motivates the [Muslim] killers”. Instead, what follows is a post-tragedy ritual of blaming Islam with the usual devotees making incantations about Islam’s failure to modernise; the alienation of Muslims and their failure to integrate; and the failure of Muslim community leadership. Politicians and commentators alike exhibit concrete certainty about the reasons for “them” attacking “us”; it is because “they hate our values”, they will claim, and now we have to spend trillions to combat that hate.
Dylann Roof, the suspect in the murder of nine people in Charleston, obviously hated the United States of America beloved by the vast majority of Americans. He may even have felt that he was defending his vision of the US; even upholding its constitution faithfully by zealously observing two parts of the Constitution which continue to haunt America: the right to bear arms and the insistence in the very first article of the founding document that those “bound to service for a term of years” – slaves – would count as “three fifths of all other Persons”.
His interpretation of the US Constitution and notion of America is of course warped, fatally so, but Roof represents an ideological fringe in America who, because of their deep seated racist beliefs and the right to bear arms, pose a far greater threat to American lives than any Muslim terrorist.
Unlike the governor who is urging resignation and refrains from calling for a “war on hate crimes” or a “war on white supremacists”, no American official would commit political suicide by calling for restraint. More disastrously for the rest of us, nor would any display a lack of conviction in proclaiming their readiness to perpetuate foreign conflicts and continue the “war on terror” in order to prevent further terrorist attacks and protect American lives.
Does it matter whether the murderer is called a terrorist or not? After all, he is a killer either way and it makes no difference to the victims. There is, though, a very serious point behind the contention; it’s not just a case of pointing out the blatant prejudice within the media and the political establishment. This kind of bias leads to a perception that there is a conscious downplaying of violence perpetrated against Muslims and overplaying of violence committed by Muslims.
By downplaying, I don’t mean that law enforcement officers and agencies will treat the lives of Muslim victims differently. I am pointing to the fact that one is assigned a much higher social and political currency than the other.
The small minority convinced by the jihadi narrative, which the west is fully determined to dent but is totally incapable of doing so due to its own foreign policies and clumsy mishandling of domestic issues, provide yet another example of western hypocrisy when it comes to its treatment of Muslims. More crucially, appropriating terrorism for its propaganda utility serves “the war on terror” narrative. It’s driven by the right wing media and the “military industrial complex”, about which President Eisenhower warned the American people in his last speech.
While it was the communist threat that prompted dangerous levels of militarisation during Eisenhower’s period in office (and alarmed the most decorated general in US history), the necessary “bogey” to preserve the bellicose blueprint for even greater militarisation today is the exaggerated threat posed by Muslims.
The war on terror feeds off the perception of a global Muslim conspiracy, not unlike the conspiracy of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” used to “prove” a Jewish/Zionist/pro-Israel conspiracy. It’s a narrative that’s exploited further by agents of the anti-Islam industry, which portrays Muslims as a disloyal, subversive community serving the agenda of “global Islamists”.
While more Americans are being killed by fellow Americans through acts of extreme violence – some of which are clearly acts of terrorism and motivated by hatred for America’s progressive and cherished values – the war on terror has constructed a distorted image of the world. It has been crafted using a false narrative that is just as flawed, if not more so, as the jihadi narrative, which similarly hijacked Islam and portrays adherents as the “protector of Islam and Muslims”.
Americans are told that their country needs to invade other countries; they must topple foreign governments; and they have to spend trillions of dollars and sacrifice thousands of American lives to keep themselves safe at home. Successive presidents insist that they “will do whatever it takes” to keep the country safe; even torture, if necessary.
This dangerous narrative has not only led to military blunders in the Middle East but also blinded America to the threats posed by the home-grown terrorists, the anti-federal white supremacist militias. Even though Americans are led to believe that they need to spend billions of dollars on a burgeoning “intelligence” infrastructure and mass surveillance in order to detect would-be Muslim terrorists, they have failed to prevent terrorism committed by non-Muslim white men. How else can we explain the fact that Dylan Roof was able to spout his hate and bile all over the social media without attracting the attention of the security services?
This is the 14th time that President Obama has had to face the US people to condemn this sort of attack against US citizens by so called “lunatic loners”. Is the intelligence community failing to detect non-Muslim white terrorists because they are programmed only to see Muslims as terrorists?
In maintaining near exclusive use of the term terrorist for Muslims, Western governments have subjected Muslim citizens to intrusive levels of scrutiny and cast a blanket of suspicion on their communities, at a huge cost to the treasury. Citizens have a right to know if such disproportionate level of scrutiny of one community is actually also being paid for by American lives due to the security services’ failure to look in the right places for the people who really threaten the United States and its people. I’ll give them a hint: the statistics tell us that they tend not to live in Muslim-communities.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.