When we talk of terrorism we often tiptoe around terminology. Even the word “terrorism” itself has caused some angst: witness the debate back and forth over what to call the killing of three US Muslims in North Carolina a few months ago by a crazed neighbour and the more recent slaughter of nine African Americans in a church by an alleged white supremacist.
This uneasiness is particularly strong when it comes to religious vocabulary. All too often, Muslims will protest that the phrases “Muslim terrorism” or “Islamic extremism” are thrown around easily while their equivalents in other faiths – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. – are nowhere to be found.
In is in this vein that I would like to discuss an article I came across in the Saudi Gazette last week. The author, Tariq Al-Maeena,bemoans this apparent double standard. Here is an excerpt from his op-ed piece (you can see the entire article here):
“In the past, the US news media flinched from identifying such acts as acts of terrorism simply because they did not fit the profile. I mean there was no one named Mohammed in the picture, no heavily bearded and swarthy individual that the public would love to hate, and no evidence of public rhetoric against the Western world. Therefore, it made sense for the right-wing US corporate media to dismiss acts such as the crime committed in Charleston by a young white male, the 21-year-old Dylann Roof, as anything but “terrorism””.
I can empathise with Mr. Al-Maeena, to an extent. It is certainly true that Muslims are widely, disproportionately and wrongly associated with terrorism and terrorists. And the right-wing media, as well as ignorant “opinion makers” such as Pamela Geller, Glen Beck and just about everyone on Fox News, sustain this gross error.
But if we are true to our analysis, we have to distinguish terrorism a) carried out allegedly in the name of a particular faith from b) an act carried out by someone who happens to be a member of that faith. The difference is important and if we try to understand the underlying motivations behind any given act of violence (provided it is ideological and not random) perhaps we can determine whether or not the event is a) or b).
Not every violent incident is terrorism and not every violent person from a faith tradition acts on behalf of that faith. But we have to acknowledge that the terrorism some call “jihadi” is clearly executed by groups and individuals who see themselves acting in the name of and at the behest of Islam. We see it in their vocabulary and the texts cited by the groups. Note that I am NOT saying that these extremists in fact represent Islam: however to deny any religious motivation is willful analytic blindness.
So, why don’t we call the IRA a “Christian” (or “Catholic”) terrorist group? Simply because they fit category b) above: they are not acting on behalf of Christianity but just happen to be Christian. Sure, there are religious overtones to what they see as right and wrong, but their cause – and their language – is more political. Yes, groups like Al Qaeda or Boko Haram also have political grievances, but the accounts of their actions are saturated with religious justification.
We are thus left with a conundrum. What do we call terrorism that uses religion as a prime motivator? We could say “religious extremism” but there is much usefulness in differentiating among specific types of religious extremism since there are significant distinctions among them. But we can’t (or shouldn’t) say “Islamic extremism” because it leads to the belief that all Muslims are terrorists or that there is something inherently “terroristic” about Islam. And it shuts down dialogue.
Whatever we decide to do, let’s do it well. We will never figure this problem out if we can’t get the foundations right.