Muslims are still linked to the 9/11 attacks due to the vicious media coverage that followed. Now with the Christchurch attacks being conducted by people from Christian backgrounds, it's time to disentangle religion from terrorism.
With bated breath, Muslim communities around the world waited to hear how Friday’s mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, would be characterised.
Initially, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned it as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”, and “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence”.
When pushed by reporters for a better description of the attacks, she repeated: “I would describe it as an unprecedented act of violence. An act that has absolutely no place in New Zealand. This is not who we are.”
At least 49 people were killed in attacks on two mosques in the coastal New Zealand city of Christchurch, including one mosque’s imam, with around 20 others injured. They had gathered for the weekly Friday congregational prayer.
It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers publicly referred to the shootings as terrorist attacks.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said. “These are people who I would describe as having extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand.”
Other countries who were among the first to do the same were Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey, with Jakarta having the closest relative proximity to New Zealand.
The statements may have elicited reactions of consolation that an attack on Muslims was also being labelled as terrorism, but do they still have an element of hypocrisy, not by what they’ve stated, but by what they’ve left out?
Generally when a Muslim is the perpetrator of an attack, his race, origins, and religion make immediate headlines. In this case, one of the shooters, Brenton Tarrant, has not been referred to as a “white terrorist” or a “Christian terrorist”, even though his detailed 74-page manifesto has clear racial and religious references.
He wrote a specific message “To Turks." In it, he said: “You can live in peace in your own lands, and may no harm come to you. On the east side of the Bosphorus. But if you attempt to live in European lands, anywhere west of the Bosphorus. We will kill you and drive you roaches from our lands. We are coming for Constantinople and we will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city. The Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets and Constantinople will be rightfully christian owned once more. FLEE TO YOUR OWN LANDS, WHILE YOU STILL HAVE THE CHANCE.”
In another message addressed “To Christians”, he wrote: “The people worthy of glory, the people blessed by God Our Lord, moan and fall under the weight of these outrages and most shameful humiliations. The race of the elect suffers outrageous persecutions, and the impious race of the Saracens respects neither the virgins of the Lord nor the colleges of priests. They run over the weak and the elderly, they seize the children from their mothers so that they might forget, among the barbarians, the name of God. That perverse nation profanes the hospices ... The temple of the Lord is treated like a criminal and the ornaments of the sanctuary are robbed. What more shall I say to you?”
Through these statements, it is clear that Tarrant deliberately and carefully planned an attack against a specific type of people that he didn’t approve of.
No religion should come under attack as a result of violence committed by its adherents, but why has the term “Islamic terrorist” been normalised? Has this become a form of psychological warfare from the echelons of power, in an attempt to create some form of word recognition associating Islam with terrorism, without implicating anyone else in identical situations?
In her initial press statement, Ardern had said: “Many of those directly affected may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”
Although these are words of embrace and inclusion, they do not mention Muslims as the victims, even though it was already clear that the attacks were at local mosques and occurred at the time of Friday prayers.
Even in what has become common language, certain Christians with dreams of institutionalising their religion are called ‘evangelicals’ with no mention of Christianity, while Muslims are referred to as ‘Islamists’, with their religion implicated in the term.
When the perpetrators of such terror attacks turn out to be Muslims, it becomes common among journalists and TV anchors to use terms like ‘Islamic terror’, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘pan-Islamism’ and spend a lot of air time holding debates about the dangers of what many describe as an ‘Islamic Caliphate’. At times to sensationalise primetime shows, analysts espousing far-right views are given space to make insinuations about Muslims and immigrants.
The irony is also completely lost upon the world that one of the words that ‘Islam’ derives from is ‘salaam’ which means ‘peace’, whereas Islam has been associated with violence by people with political agendas. Other terms such as ‘white supremacist’ also don’t use the combination of ‘white terrorist’, as opposed to the common use of ‘Arab terrorist’.
The same often happens along racial lines when covering crimes in places like the United States. Crimes of theft and violence implicate black offenders, but after the Colorado theatre shooting in July 2012, James Holmes was not described as a ‘white shooter’.
In the wake of violent attacks, religious leaders, racial activists, and the general public tend to reach across the aisle to stand in solidarity with the groups affected by violent events.
For example on Friday, well-known Australian Anglican priest Father Rod Bower tweeted: “From Christ Church Gosford to #Christchurch New Zealand. Salam (peace) to the fallen. Salam to the injured. Salam to the grieving. Salam for our future.”
But the media and politicians are yet to follow suit on the equitable use of words when describing politically, racially, and religiously charged situations and tragedies.