Semantic shifts in “terrorism”: the demonization of Muslims in the mainstream media.

The recent terrorist tragedy in Norway has garnered major attention in the news as of late, and also sparked much outrage at the instant accusations launched against Muslims for the attack. The media ran purely on speculation that the attacks were linked to an Islamist group based on incomplete and unverified information, and although the real culprit, a blonde and blue eyed Norwegian, has now been caught, the vast majority of the media has shown that so-called “Islamic” terrorists and terrorists of European descent are treated very differently within their pages. By following the media’s tone and usage of language, one can easily see that the word “terrorist” is now a label that is primarily reserved for Muslims.

On July 22nd, reporters were quick to speculate that Islamists, notably an al-Qaeda linked faction, were likely responsible for the attacks on Oslo that killed some 76 people; that the attack was to “punish Norway for deploying troops in Afghanistan” or Libya and for “unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad” (PBUH), including the reprinted series of offensive Danish cartoons in a Norwegian newspaper. Some reporters even went so far as to use the opportunity to defend Defense Spending against jihadists, make outrageous accusations that the “presence of so many Muslims in… Europe… is (in fact) leading to ‘cultural annihilation’”; that those attacked essentially deserved to be targeted because they “sided with Islamic terrorists”, and other strong and rather ridiculous anti-Muslim propaganda.

After it was learned that the terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, was actually Norwegian, wide speculation began that he was in fact a convert to Islam, a radical Islamist, influenced by Islam, or learned the techniques from Islamic terrorists, as if Islamists were the only ones capable of terrorism. Islam was still seen as somehow to blame for this horrendous terrorist action, ignoring Breivik’s claims that he was influenced by a small group of American bloggers and had clearly copied multiple passages of his Manifesto from Ted Kaczynski, the American Unabomber. Former UN ambassador John Bolton even noted how “(t)his kind of behavior is very un-Norwegian” and that it was classic “Islamist terrorism”. As could be expected, the commentary and public reaction was quick to turn this assumed blame into bigoted ramblings about “rag heads“, “Muzzie scum”; calling for borders to be shut against all Muslims, lumping all Muslims together and labeling Islam as a violent hypocritical religion. A few commenters realized the dangers of the impulse to place blame without full knowledge, and spoke out against the biased attacks and rush to judgment, but the vast majority across the media seemed to be intent on anti-Islamic hatred.

A UN human rights expert was quick to condemn the unverified reports, calling them “revealing” and “embarrassing” examples of “the powerful impact of prejudices and their capacity to enshrine stereotypes”, while reiterating that “proper respect for the victims… should have precluded the drawing of conclusions based on pure conjecture”. Despite printing incorrect information, many of the papers issued no public retractions or apologies for their mistake, and some even went so far as to defend the error by suggesting that it was “not unreasonable to suspect the atrocities in Norway were committed by Islamists” under the assumption that Muslims are “predominant” in committing “mass-atrocity”. Many left their publicized mistakes as is, while others quickly changed their previous content without offering apologies, retractions, or even noting the changes publicly, contrary to good journalistic practices.

Besides the initial reaction to blame Muslims, the language used by the vast majority of the media in describing the attacks and the attacker shows how the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” seem now almost exclusively reserved for describing attacks committed by Muslims. A survey of the evolution of articles following the attacks clearly demonstrates this.

For example, Reuters, an incredibly popular and reputable news site that is widely known as a first line of reporting, who describes itself as “the world’s leading source of intelligent information”, fell into the trap of relaying incorrect information and has yet to apologize or retract their mistake. Since the identity of the accused has been released, they have also, subconsciously or not, used language that avoids the “terrorist” or “terrorism” label when describing the Norwegian events.  On July 22nd, Reuters issued an article with the headline “Islamist militant attacks in Europe”, that described all the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe and painted the Norwegian event by clearly framing it as a “terrorist” attack. There were six stories filed about Norway that day by Reuters, five of them extensive in their language suggesting Islamist terrorists, and describing terrorism in general. Only one, with the headline “Man arrested after shootings is Norwegian”, which came out much later in the evening, had no mention of the words “terrorist” or “terrorism”, and instead described the accused as “a gunman” and was now labelling the terrorist attack “shootings”, and “a bombing”.

The next day, on July 23rd, after it was clear that the terrorist attack had been committed by a Norwegian and not an Islamist group, Reuters ran twenty-two articles about the event, of which only two even mentioned the word “terrorism”. In the first case, “terrorism” was only mentioned when describing that Breivik could be convicted of terrorism charges; and in the second case, terrorism was only mentioned to say that the terrorism threat level was not going to be raised, despite a lack of clarity of the attack. Instead of labeling the attack as “terrorist”, it was continually described as “a shooting spree and bomb attack” and the terrorist who committed the attack was constantly referred to as “a gunman”, “an assailant” or “the killer”.

On July 24th, Reuters printed eighteen articles on the Norway terrorist attack, and of those eighteen, only two had mention of “terrorism” or “terrorist” within them. In the first case, the word “terrorist” was only present from an excerpt of the attacker’s diary, where he ironically wrote, “(t)hey would probably get the wrong idea and think I was a terrorist, lol”. In the second case, the word “terrorism” only appeared when talking about the special anti-terrorism unit of the police that responded to the crisis.

On July 25th, Reuters ran an article about the news media’s quick blaming of Muslims, describing the numerous faults other media committed, without one mention that they themselves did the exact same thing, and without apology or retraction of their previous errors. They also ran eighteen other articles about the terrorist attack, of which, only two had mention of the words “terrorism” or “terror attack”. In the first case, the words “terror attack” appear only in a quote from a Norwegian who said “Ninety-nine percent of Norwegians immediately believed this was a Muslim terror attack. When it turned out not to be, that was the second shock”. In the second case, the word “terrorism” only appeared as a description for a “terrorism expert” who was quoted within the article. The attacks were repeatedly described in the articles as a “bombing and mass shooting”, a “shooting spree and bomb attack” or the “massacre”; and the suspect as a “lone wolf”, “the killer”, “mass killer” or “the gunman”.

On July 26th, Reuters filed ten articles, of which, only two had any mention of “terrorism”. In the first instance, which had the headline “Norwegian killer is probably insane, his lawyer says”, “terrorism” was only mentioned to describe that the threat level for terrorism was not being raised. In the second instance, “terrorism” was only used within the context of a quote by a woman of Arab nationality, that said “(i)t turns out that terrorism doesn’t have a nationality or a religion—they’re people who are sick inside”. Again, the articles described the attack as a “bombing and shooting massacre”, a “shooting rampage”, a “bomb attack”, and the suspect as a “killer” or a “gunman”. It was around this time that articles began questioning the sanity of the attacker, with six out of the ten articles mentioning that the accused was likely mentally unstable.

On July 27th, Reuters again filed ten articles about the Norway attack, of which, only two mentioned “terrorism”. The first only mentioned that Breivik would be charged under the terrorism act, while referring to the terrorist attack as the “killings”, and the “bombing and shooting attacks”. In the second, the word “terrorism” is only used to describe a professor who teaches at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence and the word “terrorists” shows up in a quote only after a discussion of al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. Again, the mentions of insanity showed up in three out of ten of the articles.

On July 28th, Reuters filed two articles on Norway, neither which mentioned terrorism nor called Breivik a “terrorist”. In one of the articles, the charge of terrorism was now referred to as “terror counts”.

On July 29th, Reuters filed six articles, this time four of the six mentioned “terrorist” or “terrorism”. In the first instance, the word “terrorist” was found in a quote by police that called the attacks “terrorist actions”, the first and only time that they were called as such in a Reuters article after Breivik had been identified by the media. In the second, the word “terrorist” shows up when describing efforts by the police to stop “terrorist networks” following 9/11; but that was careful to group Breivik into the less dangerous “lone wolves” category. The word “terrorism” was also used in that article but only to describe the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. In the third and fourth instances, the word “terrorist” is only used in the context of a quote that again reiterated that the terrorist threat has not been elevated.

On July 30th, Reuters issued three articles, two of which carried mention of “terrorists” or “terrorism”. In the first instance, the word “terrorist” was used only within a quote from a police attorney who suggested that the target locations were of “natural interest to a terrorist” without linking Breivik to the word in the slightest. In the second instance, the word “terrorism” occurs three times within the article, once within a quote and with all three cases talking about the threat of global terrorism and immigration.

Between August 1st and 3rd, there were four articles on the situation, only one of which mentions “terrorism” and only in the context of Breivik facing possible charges of terrorism. The other three articles again discuss Breivik’s possible insanity.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the terrorist attack in Sweden on December 11th, 2010 that injured two people, and killed the attacker, and how that attack was framed by Reuters. On December 11th, before the suspect was known, Reuters ran six articles, two of which talked of “terrorism” or “terrorists”, and another three that were only short headline clips with updates and not full articles. On December 12th, of the five articles Reuters ran, all five talked of “terrorism” or “terrorists”, while four described the attacker as a “militant” or referred to “militant Islamists”. Three of those articles also had a variation of “terror” within the headline. On December 13th, seven of the ten articles spoke of “terrorism” or “terrorists” and six spoke of the attacker being a “militant” or an “Islamist militant”. On December 14th, one of three articles posted spoke of “terrorism”, while painting the attacker as an “Islamist militant”. From December 15th to 17th, three out of four articles referred to “terrorism” or “terrorists”, while three spoke of “Islamist militancy” or “militants”. Not one of the articles discussed the sanity of the attacker. Reuters was not alone in this type of semantic slanting as many other reputable news sites discussed the situation in a similar context.

So what is “terrorism” exactly, and why has the media been avoiding using this term when describing Breivik’s actions?

The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”. Breivik’s actions were an unlawful use of violence to inculcate fear, with the intention of coercing or intimidating the society to pursue political and ideological goals, clearly falling within the definition of terrorism. So why are his attacks not being labelled as such? Why are they frequently referred to only under other terms and without the qualifier “terrorist”? Why does the media seem to preserve this term for only those of purported Islamic faith? Why does the media not look into the possible mental instability of Islamic terrorists after their attacks, but automatically assumes that a white European must be insane to carry out such an attack? Why are the terms “gunman”, “killer” or “attacker” used when discussing Breivik and not “militant”?  As Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations noted “(u)nless it has been committed by a Muslim, it’s not terrorism. If a non-Muslim commits an act of terrorism, they don’t call him a terrorist. They say he was ‘a madman’”.

So what? What difference does it make if the situation is framed in these terms? What danger did this speculation do?

Besides spreading fear and loathing for Muslims in general, which can clearly be seen by the ignorant commentary that follows most of the initial news stories, this type of language essentially assigns collective guilt to an entire group of people. Following 9/11 or the Stockholm, Sweden attack in 2010, racial profiling became more prevalent, as did violence against those of Islamic faith. Following the Norway attacks, Muslims faced increased harassment, or outright attacks on their person, even though, those who commit such terrorism in the name of Islam are a fringe, and mostly disrespected, teeny-tiny percentage of global Muslims. In fact, anyone who has actually read the Qur’an or studied it in any great depth can tell you that it clearly states that it is wrong to kill innocents and also wrong to kill oneself. Yet, the actions of a small few is manipulated and misunderstood by the general Western public, who prefers to frame all Muslims as their enemy and Islam as a religion of violence, without actually researching enough to dispel themselves of their own ignorance.

What about that common axiom that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”, there must be something to that that leads to the necessity of profiling against Muslims in the Western world, right?

Despite data to the contrary, many are still under the impression that Muslims are responsible for the bulk of terrorist activity in Europe and North America. The FBI Terrorism Report that covered acts of terrorism in the United States from 2001-2005, reported that twenty-three of the twenty-four recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by domestic terrorists. Eight of the fourteen recorded terrorist preventions (when a terrorist activity is successfully interdicted by investigative activity) stemmed from “right-wing extremism”; while of the remaining six preventions only  three stemmed from foreign terrorist organizations and only one from a “Muslim” group.  In both their 2006 and 2007 reports, not one US fatality was reported as the result of a terrorist attack on American soil. According to Europol reports on European terrorism, in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009, there were only three recorded acts of terrorism by “Islamist” terrorists out of a total of 1,316 terrorist attacks, while domestic “separatist” movements were responsible for some nearly 90% of attacks.“Islamist” suspects were only arrested in 110 of the total 587 arrests for suspicion of terrorism, while 413 suspects were considered domestic “separatists”. In fact, their report showed that “leftist” groups accounted for over sixteen times as many terrorist attacks as radical “Islamic” groups during this time on European soil. A recent study has also suggested that the actual  terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans has been severely exaggerated and that only approximately 17 Muslim-American individuals could be classified as becoming radicalized per year. Despite this information and  threat assessment reports that had warned that “right-wing extremism” was on the rise in Europe and that there was some in Norway, the Norwegian PST police security service concluded that “far right groups pose(d) no ‘serious threat’ to Norway”, instead claiming that their number one priority was with “Islamic extremism”.

So why are those in the Western world so willing to place the blame squarely at Muslims? Clearly, if it was ok to profile against Muslims following previous attacks, we can now ““start racially profiling blond, blue-eyed white guys… Fair is fair.” Right?

Europol's 2006 Terrorist Attack by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2006 Terrorist Attack by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2007 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2007 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2008 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2008 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2009 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2009 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Islamophobia seems to be rising with the decline in domestic economic conditions. It’s a typical scape-goat senario—things aren’t going well at home—someone is responsible, and it can’t be us. Germany, France and Britain have all recently declared multiculturalism in their respective countries as a failure. In all three cases, these leaders cited a lack of a strong nationalist identity as fostering “Islamist extremism”. This trend also seems to be happening in Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, the US, Australia and all across Europe, with anti-immigrant political parties gaining steam in elections and intolerance for immigrants or Muslims moving more into the mainstream. Obviously, the military and political interference throughout the Middle East has very little to do with fostering Islamist extremism; multiculturalism, the acceptance and tolerance of other cultures and diversity, is clearly at fault here. Sadly, a political editor for a Norwegian newspaper points out that, “It’s impossible to discover a person like Breivik. If you see his blogs, he sounds quite normal. He’s anti-multi-culturalism, anti-Islam, but strange to say it, … I’ve seen much crueler words and slogans on the Internet than his blogs”. It’s unsurprising that this type of hatred and scapegoating can lead to violence.  Constantly being told that a certain group is going to attack  and that your very way of life is threatened can tend to have this effect. Norway, was no exception and there were a number of warning signs that these hateful sentiments were beginning to escalate into physical violence.

In June 2007, Pamela Geller, posted an “email from Norway” that talked of a Norwegian anti-immigration extremist who was “stockpiling and caching weapons, ammunition and equipment” to ward off the Islamist “threat”. In March of 2011, the Norwegian Police Security Service published in its annual threat assessment that “a higher degree of activism in groups hostile to Islam may lead to an increased use of violence”, though was still viewing Islamist extremism as a larger threat to society. In May of 2011, a junior high school in Bergen, west Norway, received a threat that a student, claiming to have a weapon, had the intention of shooting others, “especially Muslims”. Luckily, the incident did not escalate past the initial threat, but it clearly showed that anti-Muslim sentiment was becoming more violent. Weeks before the Oslo attack, in late June, Pat Condell made a public claim that “all the rapes in (Oslo) over the past three years—all of them—were committed by Muslim immigrants using rape as a weapon of cultural terrorism”, after a news report on Norwegian TV station NRK reported that all rapes were committed by men of “foreign origin”. The police report that they cited shows that their information was in fact, faulty, as more than 50% of all rapes were committed by those of Norwegian, other European or American origin, but the damage had already been done. Just as it is hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squeezed out, it is hard to dispel the stereotypical myths of evil and perceived threats once claims have been made, no matter if they are untrue.

While humans are certainly fallible and capable of making mistakes, the lack of apology  for or retractions of those mistakes, especially in a profession like journalism that supposedly seeks “the truth” of a situation, is unforgivable. Journalistic standards call for the verification of sources, not that personal or cultural biases can’t slip in, but that a consistent method be used to test information to ensure it is as accurate as possible. Journalists also have the responsibility, as much as possible, to avoid misrepresenting a situation or using stereotypes. In this case, the media ran with a single source of information that was based upon a single, unverified posting on a closed forum by an unknown author that even the expert who discovered it cautioned against trusting.

Language is everything in the media, and semantics and word choice makes a huge difference to the quality of the story that is being told. The media was blamed for its quick accusation of Muslims in the Oslo terrorist attack, but what has been largely ignored is the continual semantic culpability that is lumped on Muslims and the long-term effects that this can have in demonizing the Muslim population. If the media continually frames Muslims as the only ones capable of committing terrorism, it can be no surprise if public opinion is also swayed in this way.

UPDATE: “The National Secular Society” has been replaced by “Pat Condell” as the source of a quote after a reader corrected this error.

 

See Stephen Colbert and his incredibly appropriate “Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity” video:

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