By Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
20 December 2018
When on October 27, 2018, anti-Semite Robert Bowers opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh, killing 11 people, CNN and BBC called it a "mass shooting", while the Huffington Post described it as "slaughter".
When Islamophobe Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd near the Finsbury Park Mosque in London on June 19, 2017, re-enacting a terrorist modus operandi seen earlier in London, Berlin and Nice, the same news outlets also refrained from using the term terrorism for several hours, initially depicting the attack as a "collision". The same semantic tip-toeing was at play when, later that summer, white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr drove a car into a crowd peacefully protesting a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In a familiar pattern cemented over the past few years, Western mainstream media have conspicuously shied away from using the term "terrorist" in attacks when the perpetrator was not a Muslim. Yet, in similar cases, the same media - and media commentators in general - did not hesitate in resorting to the "t-word" when attackers were Muslims, in fact, they did so automatically.
It is hardly a surprise that what we can by now call a double standard on calling a criminal act terrorism has materialised. The international system is rife with such power asymmetries and one would be naive to expect discrimination not to find its way even in security issues that affect us all. The new racism does travel that way. Today, it is able to reinvent itself as per the security zeitgeist. Ensconced in the very phraseology that moves forward the securitisation narrative, racism has successfully coloured what terrorism is widely (mis)understood to be today.
Above and beyond the division it sows, this representation has now become conceptually and practically untenable. The notion of terrorism is in a state of conceptual deformation whereby the elasticity it has been given since the 9/11 attacks allows it to serve almost exclusively the purpose of identifying threats against Western states and societies coming primarily from faceless Muslim attackers.
To be certain, terrorism suffered by other regions is reported regularly and portrayed equally as an ill of our times to be dealt with urgently. For, in effect, according to the Global Terrorism Index released annually by the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP), the first casualties of terrorism this year, last year and the year before were Iraqis, Afghans, Nigerians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Indians and Yemenis. Yet the core representation of terrorism in the Western media and policy spheres is centrally and invariably the menace it represents to the West.
In such a context, where ethos stealthily becomes pathos, variations on the terrorism terminology were introduced in the early 2010s, when initiatives started proliferating on combating violent extremism (CVE) and preventing violent extremism (PVE).
On their face, these approaches, notably the "preventing" one, seek to de-militarise counterterrorism and "humanise" the fight against terrorism by tackling upstream its so-called "root causes". In practice, however, such perspectives have hardly strayed from the fundamental tenets of the post-9/11 discourse and in practice are overwhelmingly concerned not with extremism or radicalisation generically - say, of the far-right type in the US or the anti-immigration one in Germany - but principally with its Islamist, if not Islamic, incarnations.
In inviting law enforcement officers, social service workers, school teachers and indeed an ever-expanding circle of authorities to report individuals who might be susceptible to radicalisation or extremism - however problematically defined - such official programmes have more often than not resulted in the stigmatisation and alienation of specific communities, such as African-Americans and Arab-Americans in the United States and Muslims in the United Kingdom and France.
Evidently, ethnocentric and a sleight of hand, such disciplining of the radicalised/violent extremists travels paradigmatically as these actors are seen as being held by their cultural or religious predicaments; trapped, they have to reconcile so as to exit their near-natural violence and backwardness, or so goes the de-radicalisation narrative.
If such weaponisation of social work, martialisation of education and nurturing of a Big Brother mentality have been dangerously eating away at the fabric of social ties in the North and at democracy itself, things are not much better in the South. Bandwagoning on the fighting-terrorism mantra, many a neo-authoritarian southern leader, such as Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Syria's Bashar al-Assad or Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman have been able to repackage their repressive and dispossessive policies as part of the struggle against extremism.
Power cloaks itself in the irresistible, urgent and unquestionable language of terrorism, radicalisation and extremism. Elusive and ever imprecise scientifically, a fluid terminology - underwritten by a deterministic focus on religion - has come to dominate the discourse about the use of political violence, whether in conflicts around the world or in rising discontent at the heart of the Western metropolis.
The problematic larger setting of this call-and-response is, however, the absence of a culturally-consistent and politically-dispassionate intelligent framework to understand the question of contemporary extremism in its fullness and its postmodern permutations.
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.