Since the racist mass-murder in South Carolina there has been an avalanche of disingenuous claims about how if only perpetrator Dylann Roof had been someone else our reaction would have been different.
“Hang him,” shout Facebook posts, or “I don’t usually support the death penalty but now I do.” Demands to remove the confederate flag from a state-sponsored memorial or ban it altogether have been pouring in, even though the shooter wore a Rhodesian flag and an old Apartheid-era flag in photos. Those won’t be banned, apparently.
The dominant narrative is: “If Dylann was a Muslim, most of the world would blame Islam and Muslims.” Commentator Khaled Diab claimed, “When a Muslim blows up a mosque in Baghdad, it’s called terrorism. When a white guy shoots up a church in Charleston, it’s a hate crime.”
The media critique is a replay of the February murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill by Craig Stephen Hicks. At the time he was widely labeled a terrorist and The Nation reminded us that “the most common type of American terrorist is a white man with a weapon and a grudge.”
“We have been conditioned to accept that if the violence is committed by a Muslim, then it is terrorism,” claimed Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.” The theory is that Dylann Roof has not been judged as harshly because he is white.
University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler argues that “shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?” But judging by the media reaction, this is a straw man. In fact, white shooters are the ones called terrorists. For example, Brit Bennet wrote in The New York Times a day after the shooting that “white terrorism is as old as America.”
By contrast, the one group that these same commentators fear to call terrorists is Islamist extremists.
Remember Major Nidal Malik Hasan? He shouted “allahu akhbar” as he gunned down 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. He was in contact with the radical al-Qaida preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who supported his deeds. And yet his acts were deemed “workplace violence,” not terrorism. And yes, Hasan is every bit as “white” as Roof. They are both white terrorists.
If Roof had shouted “God is great” and been in touch with Islamic State (IS) leaders before his killing spree, the media would be calling him a militant, not a terrorist.
Remember Amedy Coulibaly, the murderer who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris last January? The BBC described his gun battle with police as “an Islamist militant shot dead by French special forces... after he attacked a Jewish supermarket.” If Roof had targeted Jews, he would be a militant, not a terrorist.
Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist group in Nigeria that has killed thousands of people, is always called a militant organization. When it blew up worshipers at a mosque, CNN noted, “It may seem counterintuitive that Islamic militants should stack a mosque.” In contract, it apparently didn’t occur to anyone at CNN to wonder why a white extremist like Roof had made the “counterintuitive” decision to attack a church.
And for all those who wanted to compare bombings in Baghdad to the killings in South Carolina: what does the media actually call those who blow up mosques and markets in Baghdad? “Attackers,” “militants,” “suicide bombers” – but never “terrorists.”
Al-Jazeera’s Tarek Abu-Esber even has a funny video at Al-Jazeera Plus to explain why they don’t use the words “terrorist” or “terrorism.”
He points out that they wouldn’t use the word for IS, the IRA or Timothy Mcveigh.
Most news media have come to agree with excising the word “terrorist” from their vocabularies since 9/11. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute told the Christian Science Monitor that “if you’re writing a report, one of the things reporters are taught to avoid is loaded language.”
The one exception seems to be white terrorism, or terrorism in the name of white supremacy. That is because being angry and demanding the death penalty for Roof is the easy thing to do. Hating the Boston bomber, Major Hasan, the “shoe bomber,” or so many others tends to be more complex. Their actions must be understood, their grievances acknowledged.
Roof is called a “white terrorist,” but why is he whiter than the jihadists in Syria who were born European Christians and converted to Islam to “enjoy the pleasures” IS provides them? Those extremists in Syria carried out a massacre of Yezidis, they sold women into slavery. And yet all the voices so outraged about Roof are more silent on IS. Where is the withering hatred for IS for its mass murder of thousands? People are right to be outraged by the persistence of American racism and mass murder; but they should be consistent in condemning all forms of mass murder.
When I was in Iraqi Kurdistan we peered through the binoculars toward Mosul to see the abandoned Christian villages that IS now uses as a base. The Times, the BBC, The Washington Post, CNN and all these media giants who are so quick to say “white terrorism” only see “militants” in these villages. IS wiped out entire villages; no, no terrorists here? It isn’t that “white terrorism” is needed to balance “Islamic terrorism.” I’ve often argued that the best way to illustrate the misplaced nature of the word “militant” is to categorize all KKK actions as “militant acts” because it shows how ridiculous and inapplicable this term is. The KKK are not “militants” and neither is Boko Haram. In the opposite, the media is comfortable with the term “white terrorism” and uncomfortable with the term “Islamic terrorism.” The media has excused the deaths of tens of thousands of people under the term “militants.” Remember “Taliban militants arrested over attack on school”? Those militants had killed 130 kids at a school.
What if Roof had killed 130 children? Would he qualify as a militant? If only he had bought along a black flag he’d have received a get-outof- terrorism-free card.
Often with Islamic terrorism there is a fear that labeling it is impugns all Muslims. That is why the knee-jerk reaction in the West following Islamist terrorist attacks is solidarity with Muslims. Within hours of the Sydney siege by deranged gunman Man Haron Monis in December of 2014, many people began tweeting “I’ll ride with you” because, as one Australian noted, “being Muslim in the wake of a terrorist attack can be horrifying.”
However, it’s easy in the West to blame “white terror” because there is no analogous “white identity.” It’s beating a dead horse. So the straw man of “I’m confronting white terrorism” can be bandied about by people who self-congratulate each other for “standing up to racism.” The fact is that standing up to the mass murder of the Roofs and Hicks is easy; no one supports them. Burning a confederate flag, as some students did at Oxford to supposedly protest the killings, is easy. Burning an IS flag? Not so much.
And that is the real elephant in the room.
The West is sick of terrorism, but fears to face the extremist and supremacist agenda being spouted by those who support IS or their fellow travelers. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Western white youths have journeyed to fight with IS. IS is every bit as disgusting a form of “white terrorism” as Roof’s killing spree in South Carolina. IS ideology stems from a similar supremacism. Yet everything is done to obscure the religious and supremacist origins of IS, and everything is done to exaggerate the threat of the “white terrorists” who are “as old as America.” Yes, there are lots of terrorists in American history – but some of them also have names like Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, Sirhan Sirhan and Omar Abdel-Rahman.
Does the Confederate flag really offend you? Why? Because it represents slavery? Ok. Well IS is practicing slavery.
Does Roof offend you? Good. Are you equally offended by Thomas Evans, the British convert who journeyed to Somalia to fight alongside Al-Shabab? Al-Shabab has been implicated in the mass murder of school teachers in Kenya, who were taken from buses and machine-gunned.
You’re offended by the murder of black people by white people? Well wake up: black people in Kenya are being murdered by Islamist-inspired white people. Indigenous Yezidi people in Iraq are being slaughtered by foreign fighters with a supremacist ideology.
Until people are as outraged by Islamist terrorism as they are about the mass murders in South Carolina, and take it equally seriously, they will continue to sacrifice the lives of people around the world under various excuses relating to “militants.” Don’t let the Roofs of the world off the hook just because some of them choose the black flag of extremism in Syria.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman