By Abubakar A. Bukar
Despite the surging unwillingness, one is overwhelmed to yield a bit, to break from these consuming academic researches and comment on the recent terror attacks in Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the globe perchance one’s conscience would have some rest. The multiple bomb attacks that targeted three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka during this Easter was widely reported for its timing and casualties. Lives, some estimated 350, were lost besides damages done to property. In a country that is a potpourri of ethnicities and religious diversity, the effect of the attacks is increasingly felt on the Christian-Muslim relation – both of whom minority groups of 7% and 10% respectively, and in alliance with each other for their vulnerability.
Before this, the country was recuperating from years-long civil war in which the Buddhist Sinhale majority and the Hindu Tamils tore each other ferociously. Bombings and gunshots were not uncommon during the reign of violence, but as Aslam Abdallah noted in his Post-9/11 Media and Muslim Identity…, ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ were rarely used, nay completely eschewed in media coverage of the groups’ atrocities against each other.
However, hours after ISIS had claimed the perpetration of the recent attacks, New York Times, Associated Press and other international news outlets reported that the largely Ahmadi Muslims who migrated from Pakistan to escape persecution, are now being assaulted with sticks and stones by their hitherto friendly Christian neighbours so much so that many had to relocate to remote, safer places. This obviously feed on the misconception that since the terrorists claim to be Muslims, retribution can be exerted on their ‘brethren’. So the Muslim always becomes guilty by association despite repeated disavowal, condemnation and dissociation from both the crimes and the criminals.
Western mainstream media, not to talk of the fringed and the springing Islamophobic network, are sadly a strong party in the narrative that conflate Islam and Muslim with terrorism – a conflation with significant hype of patented images which makes scapegoatic retaliation imminent. Few examples will suffice. . Where the terrorist is identified to be a Muslim, an average of 105 headlines represent the atrocity. But when the crime is found to be committed by terrorists from far right or other groups and religions, the frequency in the coverage boils down to 15 headlines on the average, and as Professor K. A. Powell noted elsewhere, the atrocity is toned down to a normal crime rather than terrorism. In a word, the Muslim extremist/terrorist is 357% more reported than terrorist and extremist from another enclave. It is so overwhelming as to make one forget that Conrad’s 1905 novel, The Secret Agent, is about terrorism precipitated by other ideological leanings – wherein one gets insight on the strategies, plotters, perpetrators and activators of (suicide) bombings, the physical and psychological effects of such, quite similar to those of modern times. This characterization of terrorism as Muslim monopoly equally calls to mind the case of the Norwegian Ander Brevik who, in July 2011, detonated bomb and followed that with gunshot that killed 77 innocent people. In a matter of hours, Western mainstream media, including The Washington Post, Atlantic and The New York Times, were speculating possible al-Qaeda connection. By the following morning the guy, quite shockingly and ‘disappointingly’, confessed that he was spurred by white nationalism to fight back Marxism and the threat of Islamic invasion.
Similarly, two weeks after the New Zealand’s Christchurch attacks in which the white supremacist and terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, killed 50 Muslims while praying in mosques, Signal Media Ltd, a London-based media monitoring company, studied over two hundred thousand (200,000) news stories in both print and broadcast outlets across the globe. Afterward, it juxtaposed the coverage of that incident and five other prominent far right terrorists’ attacks with six similar by the so-called Islamists. The findings revealed that the media as a whole is more hesitant to label violent attacks by white supremacists as ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ than they are willing to Muslim extremists. Specifically, 78.4% of the content analyzed described the violence by Muslim extremists as ‘terror’, while 23.6% attributed ‘terror and terrorism’ to the violence of far right groups.
It in respect of this hesitation and association by international Western media that on 20th February, right before the New Zealand attacks, I wrote on my Facebook timeline as comment to New York Times’ headline that says Coast Guard Officer Plotted to Kill democrats and Journalists…: “And which religion does he belong to? You may never know. Because it is not the Other that is involved.” Hence when a couple of weeks latter ‘terrorist’ was used to describe Brenton Tarrant, the New Zealand’s mosques attacker in The Telegraph and New York Times, I was surprised. So shared The Telegraph’s story and wrote as a comment: “Behold ‘terrorist’ is used here. And in New York Times too. I do not know whether Galtung holds onto this as war language indicator”.
The shift in adjectival deployment in the coverage of this case is a watershed in media reportage of terrorism. This happens, as Signal Media Ltd rightly observed, because New Zealand Prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, didn’t waste time in calling the spade by its name: “…He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist.” She unreservedly said. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.’) consequently cajoled differentiation framing along moderate Muslims and terrorist/extremist, according to Yenigun’s Muslims and the Media after 9/11:…
The Christchurch terror attack in Al-Noor mosque and Lindwood Islamic Center has some personal resonance. It was coming just some 48 hours after I have received an email (one of the many) from the Center of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, saying in quite apologetic tone, my PhD application could not be processed due to lack of experts that would supervise what I wanted to investigate.
In the same vein, during the 1986 MESA (Middle East Studies Association) debate on The Media, Scholars and the Middle East in Boston, the Jewish American journalist and literary editor of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, candidly admitted that there has been institutional pressure in the US to sustain such skewed narrative about Islam and repress any balancing element in the mainstream media.
This representation is a result of many factors: political, economic, religious. The Western audience has been accustomed to what Said called Orientalism. Any attempt to disrupt it, would be inimical to vested interests.
As a caveat, I’m not saying there is a neutral content or purveyor of information. Each media outlet is being manned by journalists who are themselves bunch of influences – from culture, to history, politics, religion, socio-economic status, education and so on. What is important is the awareness (and the expected fairness) of how endangering such framing is to human life, peace and happiness; how detrimental it is to the freedom of the victims – freedom of association, freedom from fear and discrimination, and so forth. Steady diet of simplistic, negative images and imageries can not only harbor rancor, but spur individuals with violent impulses to act thus. As calls are being made for Muslims to live an exemplary lives in accordance with the humane values of Islam perchance Islam could be reintroduced to the West, it is high time the wealth of the Muslim world is significantly directed to media investment. If the world has had half-a-dozen Aljazeeras, there would have been little hues and cries over Western media’s misrepresentation.
Bukar is an emerging Media & Communication scholar, and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org