the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US, Islam has become central to debates about
social cohesion and national security in Australia.
on Muslim immigration have been openly discussed – most recently by Senator
Fraser Anning in his maiden speech to parliament – and many believe another
terrorist attack in the name of “Islam” is inevitable.
with this reality, the media are playing an essential role in informing us
about Islam and influencing how we respond. But, perhaps due to a limited
understanding of Islam or a fear of antagonising Muslims, a fundamental point
has largely been absent from reporting: the threat of terrorism does not stem
from Islam. Rather, it stems from Islamism, a political ideology.
two terms may sound similar, but Islam and Islamism are not the same thing.
Islam is a faith observed by over 1.6 billion people, whereas Islamism is the
political ideology of relatively small groups that borrow concepts like shariah
and jihad from Islam and reinterpret them to gain legitimacy for their
the media legitimises the aims of terrorists
groups like al Qaida and the Islamic State use violence against non-Muslims
with the aim of establishing a political institution (“caliphate”) based on
shariah law – neither of which have a basis in the Quran or hadith (Islamic
of the appeal of the Islamic State comes from its insidious ability to
selectively use Islamic teachings and repackage them as legitimate religious
particular, Islamists have appropriated the concept of jihad to legitimise an
offensive “holy war” against non-Muslims. This interpretation, however, has
been rejected by studies that have examined the Quran’s principles concerning
war and peace.
teachings, for instance, prohibit terrorism and the use of violence against
civilians. Further, Muslim leaders and scholars around the world have
repeatedly condemned terrorism, issuing fatwas (Islamic legal rulings).
reporting on this misleading interpretation of jihad and under-reporting Muslim
condemnations, the Western news media reinforce the perceived connection between Islam and
some cases, media pundits explicitly make this link, pointing to the fact
terrorists specifically refer to “Islam” as the basis for their actions.
uncritical acceptance of terrorists’ claims and misrepresenting of Islam
legitimises and unwittingly promotes the Islamist agenda.
other words, the media plays into the hands of terrorists by allowing them to
become the representatives for Islam and Muslims in general.
State recruiting tool
terrorists have a strategic interest in propagating the belief that Islam and
the West are engaged in a civilisational war.
Islamic State outlined in its online magazine in February 2015:
in the West will soon find themselves between one of two choices.
group explained that, as the threat of further terrorist attacks looms, Western
Muslims will be treated with increased suspicion and distrust, forcing them to:
apostatize [convert] … or [migrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape
persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.
Islamic State’s divide-and-conquer strategy is crucial to its ability to
replenish its ranks with foreign recruits. The group targets disaffected and
marginalised Western Muslims and invokes an Islamist narrative with promises of
brotherhood, security and belonging.
turn, the Western news media indirectly advance the group’s interests by
repeatedly linking Muslim communities to terrorism and failing to meaningfully
distinguish the Islamic faith from Islamist political ideology.
example, as the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in the UK in 2015, The
Daily Mail warned of “the deadly threat of Britain’s enemy within” and
associated refugees with the threat of “Muslim extremists”.
midst of the 2014 Sydney siege, The Daily Telegraph prematurely linked the
Muslim hostage-taker with the Islamic State – a claim that was later dispelled
by terrorism experts.
impact of careless reporting
kind of overly simplistic and sensationalist media coverage serves the Islamic
State’s objective to pit Muslims and non-Muslims against one another.
study conducted at the University of Vienna in 2017 confirmed, media coverage
that does not explicitly distinguish between Muslims and Islamist terrorists fuels
hostile attitudes toward the general Muslim population.
growing awareness of the impact this kind of reporting, some media outlets like
CNN have tried to distinguish between “moderate Islam” and “radical Islam”,
“Islam” and “Islamic extremism”. But this, too, is misleading because it
focuses on presumed religious motivations and overlooks the central role of
Islamist political ideology.
survey of almost 1,200 foreigner fighters by the Combating Terrorism Center
revealed that over 85% had no formal religious education and were not lifelong,
strict adherents to Islam. The report suggests the Islamic State may prefer
such recruits because they are:
capable of critically scrutinising the jihadi narrative and ideology.
masquerades as religion, but is much more a post-colonial expression of
political grievances than a manifestation of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.
While the establishment of a caliphate or shariah-based order is the expressed
agenda of Islamist terrorists, this is not a religious obligation for Muslims.
is not an assault on Islam for non-Muslims to say so.
correctness, or a more nuanced discussion?
effort to strip the Islamic State of its legitimacy, some governments have
advised news outlets in the UK and France to use the derogatory acronym
“Da'esh” to refer to the group, although this is not always practised.
Turnbull, also adopted the term “Islamist terrorism” in order to differentiate
between those subscribing to the Islamist ideology and Muslim communities.
many politicians, such as Donald Trump continue to blur the distinction by
using rhetoric like “radical Islamic terrorism” instead.
argue that our “political correctness” inhibits us from tackling the problem
who say the problem stems from Islam are are mistaken. We should be able to
have a constructive conversation about the central concepts of Islam, including
whether establishing a “caliphate” and committing violence against non-Muslims
are indeed religious obligations or have legitimacy in Islam.
the extent to which concerns about Islam have impacted on our society, there is
an ethical obligation to differentiate between Islam and Islamism – or at least
present a counter to the Islamist perspective.
Audrey Courty is a PhD candidate, School of
Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University