The Oslo Opportunity, Part 1: Talking about Terrorism

In the weeks since the terrorist attacks in Norway, I’ve read a lot of articles and op-eds attempting to flesh out their implications and identify the tensions that led to them.  Though the attacks were truly horrific, they present us with a much-needed opportunity to discuss a topic that is too often ignored in the post-9/11 world: the rise of right wing and anti-Muslim extremism.

The discussion resulting from the attacks has brought up some points that I’d like to further develop.  The discourse has also lacked in some respects, and I’d like to bring up some new thoughts for consideration as well.

In the next five posts, I’ll elaborate on the terminology of terrorism, Europe’s response to its increasing Muslim population, the role of American activists in shaping Islamophobia in Europe, FOX News’ hypocritical response to Breivik’s Christianty, and my optimism about the United States’ ability to avoid the widespread and entrenched prejudice—and now violence—we’ve seen in Europe.

Talking about terrorism

Anders Behring Breivik

In reports from the New York Times, NPR, and other well-respected news organizations, we’ve heard the suspected perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, referred to as the ‘attacker’ or ‘killer’ and his actions as ‘violent extremism.’  These classifications are clearly true, but we must also acknowledge that Breivik is also a ‘terrorist’ and that his actions are ‘terrorism.’  Given the ease with which the media and political commentators today jump to label violent attacks as ‘terrorism,’ it might seem surprising that they were much more wary of using the same terminology for the Norway event.

Why not call this attack what it is?  I think it’s because the word ‘terrorism’ has lost its original and intended meaning, and instead come to be understood as ‘violent Islamic extremism.’  I’d like to make the case as to why the Norway attacks are indeed terrorism, and why we must call it terrorism.

Here is the definition of ‘terrorism’ under U.S. law:

1) “premeditated, 2) politically- motivated 3) violence (or intimidation) 4) perpetrated against non-combatant targets 5) by subnational groups or clandestine agents”

For terrorists, high body counts are not their main concern.  More concerned about symbolism, their highest priority is to instill fear and destroy values and ideas.  Terrorism’s victims aren’t only those who die or are injured.  As Georgetown scholar Bruce Hoffman says, “designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target.”

It’s easy to think about how the 9/11 attacks fit into this definition.  So let’s look at the double Norway attacks to see how they fit the definition:

1) Breivik’s well-coordinated attack had been planning his attack for a long time—he even had a 1,500 page manifesto to “justify” it.
2) Concerned with the increased immigration of Muslims into Europe and his government’s failure to address the problem and willingness to submit to multiculturalism (his sentiment, not mine), he attacked a government building and a party camp for future political leaders.
3) After blowing up the building in downtown Oslo, he masqueraded as a police officer on Utoya island, offering comfort and safety before stalking through the woods and shore shooting teenagers.  His attacks claimed over 70 lives.
4) His victims were ordinary citizens—government workers and politically active young people.
5) He carried this attack out on his own, secretly planning it without law enforcement’s knowledge.

This is a plea to the media (and ordinary citizens) for consistency—we must call these attacks ‘terrorism.’  Doing otherwise is dangerous because it makes us take these attacks less seriously than attacks committed by Muslim terrorists.  No matter the ideology motivating them, terrorists and their actions should be treated with equal concern.

In my next post, I’ll talk about why Europe’s problem with Islamophobia is much bigger than in the U.S.

“What if Jared Loughner were a Muslim?”

The following commentary, written by Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah, asks us to think about how our reactions to the recent Tucson shootings might have been different if the perpetrator were Muslim.

What if Jared Loughner were a Muslim?

New York City (CNN) —“When the news first broke that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot at a political event, all Americans were united in our response of shock and outrage.

Shortly afterward, the media reported that a 22-year-old male had been arrested in the shooting. His name had not yet been released. I believe your reaction to that piece of news depended greatly on your status in American society — namely, whether you’re a Muslim.

If you are a typical white person, I would imagine your initial response was relief the suspect was caught, and an attempt to make sense of why he committed this horrible crime.

But if you are Muslim or of Arab heritage, your reaction to the news of the arrest was likely: “Please don’t let him be Arab … please don’t let him be Muslim.” Believe me, that was my reaction.

This reaction in not unique to American Arabs and Muslims — most minorities in America have a similar response when a horrific crime has been committed and the identity of the suspect is still unknown.

We desperately don’t want the person to be one of “us,” for fear that our entire minority group will suffer a backlash.

I doubt any white people hope a suspect isn’t one of them — it’s just not relevant. They don’t suffer as a group because of the actions of a few bad white people such as Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph.

Americans are trying to figure out why someone committed this heinous act. Was it because he was ostracized by society, or because his parents didn’t hug him enough?

But let’s be brutally honest. If the suspect’s name wasn’t Jared but was Jamil or Mahmud instead, America’s reaction might have been different. What if a Muslim-American had made anti-government statements and shot a U.S. congresswoman at a political event?

Jared Loughner

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week called the suspect Jared Loughner an “extremist” — but not a terrorist. Would Clinton and others be so hesitant to apply the terrorist label to an American Muslim or Arab-American?

By the way, what is Loughner’s religion? It’s not part of the news coverage, but we certainly know he isn’t Muslim. If he were, the media, elected officials and law enforcement would be discussing that issue extensively. When a terrible crime in America is committed by a non-Muslim, the suspect’s religion is simply not relevant.

In contrast, after Nidal Hasan, a Muslim-American, committed the despicable Fort Hood shootings, many called for him to be labeled a terrorist, including Rep. Peter King, R-New York.

Indeed, in King’s op-ed in December 2010, he labeled Hasan a “home-grown terrorist” and a big part of the reason his Homeland Security Committee will investigate “the radicalization of Muslims in America.” It’s unknown whether King has any interest in investigating non-Muslim threats to America, such as the ones that led to the attack on Giffords.

Major Nidal Hasan

Yes, I know Nidal yelled “Allah Akbar” at the time of the shooting, but does that mean he had a political agenda or was he just a delusional, sick person no different from Jared? When you compare the psychological profiles the media has painted of both, they are very similar: “Outsiders,” “troubled,” “loner.” Even their photos share the same crazed look in their eyes, but because one American is Muslim and the other isn’t, the presumption of terrorism differs.

Why can’t a Muslim-American be considered a crazed lone gunman? I’m not a psychiatrist, but I doubt mental illness distinguishes between religions.

And why is that every time a white American commits a horrible act — be it flying a plane into an IRS building or attacking a Muslim cab driver in New York City because he is opposed the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero — the presumption is that he is not a terrorist, just a poor delusional guy who has lost his mind.

My point is not to divide us as a nation any further — we are polarized enough by angry politics, race and, sadly, religion. But as we look for ways to heal our nation, which desperately needs it, applying the same standards to all Americans would be a great step.

If a Muslim-American is a terrorist under U.S. law, I have no problem applying that label, if the same goes for a non-Muslim.

As our Declaration of Independence famously states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” and I believe they should be treated that way as well.”