Sunday, January 8, 2012

hijacking language: what is, and isn't, "terrorism"

Sometimes, I get restless. It's a bizarre nervous habit, but when I get antsy, I can't help but check the news. I check it on my phone at least ten times a day⎯in the car (to and from work, and anywhere in between), during meals, on my lunch break, while watching television.. anytime there is a dull moment, I flip my phone open and read. Since I spend such an exorbitant amount of time reading the news, I am able to notice patterns⎯patterns not only in the events, but, perhaps more importantly, patterns in how these events are described to us, the audience, the consumer. We swallow up what is handed to us; news, after all, is supposed to be just facts, so why bother to scrutinize it too much? ("Don't pick at your food, Leila. Just eat it!") When we read the news, we are not only absorbing the raw stories. We take in, or consume, the language in which these stories are told to us as well. The language used is critical, but often goes unnoticed.

As an Arab, Muslim American living in a post-9/11 United States, I am sensitive. Like many others demographically like me, I am constantly on high-alert. It is irrational, but I cannot help but feel I must be vigilant, as if I can somehow connect via neurotic-Arab-ESP and keep evil-doers at bay just by worrying enough. Here's something to which nearly all Arab/Muslim Americans can relate: breaking news hits⎯a bomb has gone off at a school or someone's been shot at an airport or there's been a kidnapping of a reporter. First thought, hands down, is a plea. God, please don't let them be someone like me.

Many Americans seem to believe that Islam and terrorism are completely intertwined. We claim we are in a war against "terror" and terrorism, but terror is not a concrete enemy; the idea of terror has been personified into Muslims, and the war we have fought has been against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rep. Peter King held his hearings about terrorism and radicalization, but singled out Muslims only (even though, since 9/11, there have been 109 terrorist plots against the United States by U.S. originated non-Muslims compared to 50 terrorist plots by U.S. and foreign-originated Muslims). The NYPD has been spying on innocent Muslims who have committed no crime. Civil liberties are being trampled on in the name of safety; it is beneficial to them to fan the flames, as public hysteria gives them a good excuse to "take whatever means necessary." Ordinary citizens accept the violation of our American core values because they no longer see Muslims as fellow countrymen; instead, Muslims are non-humans. Muslims are simply a threat.

Go to any major news source and look at the comments section for an article about terrorism. You will see the same recycled ideas: Muslims are terrorists, Arabs are terrorists, they should go back to "where they came from," people like that are hateful and evil and should thus be given harm. An example: recently, a Californian woman was arrested for allegedly sending $2,000 to Pakistan to fund terrorism. Here is a sampling of comments:

In December, a man from Massachusetts was convicted of terrorism for translating al-Qaeda documents. These two individuals were quick to be labeled "terrorists," despite never taking physical action against anyone. Their names, ethnic backgrounds, and religion lent themselves to the label of "terrorist" by the American public (and media). And, you know, maybe they are terrorists. If we are going to so quickly label these individuals as terrorists, however, then why do we avoid this term for others?

Take, for example, the recent attacks in Queens. A man threw homemade firebombs at four different locations in what is believed to be a hate-crime against Muslims. Despite this being a clearly violent action against American people, the word "terrorist" was left plainly out. Why? Was this not a terrorist act? Had the perpetrator been Muslim or Arab, and the targets white and Christian, would this not immediately be labeled terrorism? 

It comes back to language. The term "terrorist" has a negative connotation; it is used subjectively, when the speaker disagrees with the aims or ideology of the group doing the attacking. If the speaker sympathizes with the one perpetrating the violence, they use more neutral (or even positive) labels. I am often asked on online forums, in an accusatory fashion, how I can possibly argue that Muslims and Arabs are peaceful when the news is always filled of stories about their terrorism. Well, it's like this: we're brainwashed into thinking that Muslims and Arabs are the only terrorists because they are the only ones being labeled as such. Because Islam is an ideology we are currently painting as the enemy, American media slants the language against it; the media reserves the term "terrorist" for Muslims and Arabs because they are our current "enemy." When similar acts are committed by people who are not Arabs or Muslims, the media uses neutral terms such as "assailant," "bomber," or even simply "man." A non-Muslim may be described as "a man who bombed," which separates the action from the individual. When a Muslim is the perpetrator, however, they become "terrorist bomber," making the person and the action one entity. Similarly, when a Muslim or Arab murders or rapes someone, it is attributed immediately to their faith and culture. When an American (who is not Arab or Muslim) murders or rapes someone, it is seen as a singular attack devoid of any connection to a particular race or religion. We tell these stories differently. Our perceptions are influenced by the words we use; seemingly subtle differences lead to large misconceptions and false narratives.

It is problematic to connect Islam immediately to terrorism. This past summer, I was checking the news on my phone when there was a breaking news update about a terrorist attack in Norway. Though there were no details yet, multiple news sources were quick to theorize that it was an "Islamic terrorist." As it turns out, the terrorist was not Muslim. To the contrary, actually; Anders Behring Breivik was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, right-wing Christian fundamentalist who was hugely anti-Muslim. Even after this was released, however, the American media continued to try and connect "Islamic terrorism" to the attacks.

It is a dangerous time to be Muslim or Arab in America. Everything we do is scrutinized. While professors may translate al-Qaeda documents to their hearts' content in the name of academia, I am barred from it simply because of my race and religion; if I were to (not that I could, or have any desire to whatsoever), I would immediately be flagged and possibly accused of terrorism. If I write something controversial, send money that ends up in the wrong hands, or simply vocalize extreme disagreement with the American government, I am putting myself at risk. Can you imagine if the man who tried to board a plane with a bag of explosives had been Arab? Or if the Tea Party assemblyman who tried to take on a loaded gun had been named (heaven forbid!) Mohammed? There would have been huge outcry! Even if these hypothetical folks were similarly found innocent, you can bet that there would be talks about the dangers that people like that could board a plane with weapons, and that would bring on the "Islamic terrorist" fear-mongering. The message is clear to people like me: we need to keep our filthy Muslim selves in check, or else. The threat of indefinite detention is a frightening reality for even the most quiet and peaceful American Muslims. The story has already been set up for us; we simply need to misstep, and then we become a character.

Language is dangerous. It is contributing to the narratives our media circulates, which in turn affect the perceptions of truth and reality for consumers. We are convinced that Islam is the root of terrorism because that is all that we hear. If we truly want to stop terrorism, we must not have such narrow labels. By targeting Muslims and Arabs only, we are putting this country at risk from the very real threats coming from a variety of groups and individuals. We are also ostracizing huge groups of people and spawning hate that wasn't there before. I am not asking for the heinous crimes of some Muslims and Arabs to be overlooked. Instead, I am simply pleading that we stop using terrorist rhetoric only in reference to a certain population and begin to tell a more objective, accurate story.

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