By Khaled A Beydoun
white gunman walks into a synagogue outside of Pittsburgh and guns down 11
congregants after screaming, "All Jews must die!" during Sabbath
services. Another self-identifying white male sends a string of "mail
bombs" to democratic leaders and journalists from his hometown in Florida,
emboldened by nativist fervour and presidential rhetoric. "Whites don't
shoot whites," reveals another gunman, amid a racially motivated shooting
outside of a Kentucky grocery store that left two elderly Black customers dead.
separate incidents, in different parts of the United States, in three
consecutive days - all inspired by racial or religious bigotry that drove the
culprits to claim the lives of people they hated, or attempt to assassinate
people they deemed the enemy.
hate was explicitly visible through the verbal admissions of the gunmen, their
social media feeds, or in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man dubbed the
"MAGA bomber", a white van tattooed with "Make America Great
Again" stickers demonising a who's who of democrats.
three incidents had the touchstone elements of terrorism present: (1) an act of
violence that is (2) inspired or prompted by a specific ideology. Although the
US government does not adopt a uniform definition of terrorism, and competing
definitions of the term are often debated, these two elements are present in
almost every one.
despite the racially and religiously-driven murders that unfolded in Pittsburgh
and Kentucky, and the politically motivated mass violence prevented out of
Florida, the words "terror" or "terrorism" were seldom used
in the media coverage of these three incidents.
terror was uttered from the very mouth and inflicted from the gun of Robert Bowers
at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday in Pennsylvania. White supremacist
and anti-Black views unleashed by the round of bullets and tongue of Gregory
Bush in Kentucky on Thursday. And the zealous nativism and liberal scapegoating
trumpeted from the Oval Office radicalised Sayoc, who was arrested on the
Friday in between. The violence is indisputable, and the ideology sparking it
what was missing? With the ideological and action requirements established,
perhaps it was the identity of the actors in question. Certainly, one would
presume that a Muslim or Arab culprit involved in any of one of three incidents
would immediately trigger suspicion of terrorism. Even without the verbal
admissions or patent evidence indicating that some ideology spurred the
violence - which again, was present in Pittsburgh and Kentucky, and ample with
Sayoc in Florida.
that is precisely the problem with terrorism, a term predominantly wielded by
politicians, peddled by pundits and used by journalists when the culprit is a
label terrorism, whether we like it or not, has become synonymous with Muslim
in the American imagination. They are inextricably tied, if not
interchangeable. Despite the range of religiously and racially neutral
definitions that exist within statutes and government handbooks, the religious
caricature has supplanted the legal definitions. The force of the Muslim
terrorist caricature - and the constructed threat it emanates from - has
overpowered the very meaning of the term. We see this vividly in the three
incidents that unfolded over the course of the past three days, and the endless
list of mass and targeted attacks that took place before them.
is instantly imputed into attacks involving a (genuine or nominal) Muslim
actor, even when the requirements of ideological motivation or affiliation with
a terror organisation are absent. This evidence, when labelling an incident an
act of terrorism, is secondary or irrelevant when the actor is Muslim. The
Muslim body, in and of itself is evidence of terror ideology and affiliation.
other hand, when these elements are clearly established, terrorism is left off
the headlines and scarce in the coverage of violent attacks or conspiracies
involving non-Muslim actors, and specifically, white males. These culprits are
routinely dubbed "lone wolves" or mere "violent gunmen,"
labels that exempt them from the charge of terrorism in the minds of Americans,
and the public imagination at large. Whereas Muslim identity is conflated with
terrorism, whiteness has the effect of exempting a violent actor from the
presumption of terrorism, even when the elements of it are clearly
within the public and journalistic discourse, is more about phenotype than
facts, and religion than motive. Islam, for policymakers and much of the
mainstream media, holds a monopoly over the ideology that drives terrorism.
Following decades of Orientalist ideas and images in film and print, succeeded
by years of Islamophobia colouring the ink of authors and the policies of
presidents, it is high time to rethink the utility of the term
"terrorism." And reconsider whether it so far gone a concept, so
irreparably and irredeemably imbued with anti-Muslim meaning and venom, that we
must begin to remove it from our political language and start anew.
facts on the ground strongly suggest treading toward a new course. And the
ominous tide of violence rising from the right, which is seldom labelled
terrorism although the hate and the dead bodies scream otherwise, demands it.
the path toward ending terrorism begins with putting an end to the very term we
selectively deploy, and actively distort, after every tragedy. Even when they
follow one another, and expose the futility of a term that is not driven by
facts, but bigotry.
Khaled A Beydoun is a law professor, and author of
American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.