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The Rush to Blame Muslims and the Meaningless Term “Terrorism”

23 July 2011 General 4 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

by Glenn Greenwald

Original title: The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of “Terrorism”

(updated below – Update II)

For much of the day yesterday, the featured headline on The New York Times online front pagestrongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo; that led to definitive statements on the BBC and elsewhere that Muslims were the culprits.  The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin wrote a whole column based on the assertion that Muslims were responsible, one that, as James Fallows notes, remains at the Post with no corrections or updates.  The morning statement issued by President Obama — “It’s a reminder that the entire international community holds a stake in preventing this kind of terror from occurring” and “we have to work cooperatively together both on intelligence and in terms of prevention of these kinds of horrible attacks” — appeared to assume, though (to its credit) did not overtly state, that the perpetrator was an international terrorist group.

But now it turns out that the alleged perpetrator wasn’t from an international Muslim extremist group at all, but was rather a right-wing Norwegian nationalist with a history of anti-Muslim commentary and an affection for Muslim-hating blogs such as Pam Geller’s Atlas Shrugged, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch.  Despite that,The New York Times is still working hard to pin some form of blame, even ultimate blame, on Muslim radicals (h/t sysprog):

So if this is somehow not considered “terrorism”, are we admitting that whether something is “terrorism” is solely a function of who did it?

That Terrorism means nothing more than violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikeshas been proven repeatedly.  When an airplane was flown into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, it was immediately proclaimed to be Terrorism, until it was revealed that the attacker was a white, non-Muslim, American anti-tax advocate with a series of domestic political grievances.  The U.S. and its allies can, by definition, never commit Terrorism even when it is beyond question that the purpose of their violence is to terrorize civilian populations into submission.  Conversely, Muslims who attack purely military targets — even if the target is an invading army in their own countries — are, by definition, Terrorists.  That is why, as NYU’s Remi Brulin has extensively documented, Terrorism is the most meaningless, and therefore the most manipulated, word in the English language.  Yesterday provided yet another sterling example.

One last question: if, as preliminary evidence suggests, it turns out that Breivik was “inspired” by the extremist hatemongering rantings of Geller, Pipes and friends, will their groups be deemed Terrorist organizations such that any involvement with them could constitute the criminal offense of material support to Terrorism?  Will those extremist polemicists inspiring Terrorist violence receive the Anwar Awlaki treatment of being put on an assassination hit list without due process?  Will tall, blond, Nordic-looking males now receive extra scrutiny at airports and other locales, and will those having any involvement with those right-wing, Muslim-hating groups be secretly placed on no-fly lists?  Or are those oppressive, extremist, lawless measures — like the word Terrorism — also reserved exclusively for Muslims?

UPDATE:  The original version of the NYT article was even worse in this regard.  As severalpeople noted, here is what the article originally said (papers that carry NYT articles still have the original version):

Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out terrorism as the cause of Friday’s assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking al-Qaida’s signature brutality and multiple attacks.

“If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from al-Qaida,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Thus: if it turns out that the perpetrators weren’t Muslim (but rather “someone with more political motivations” — whatever that means: it presumably rests on the inane notion that Islamic radicals are motivated by religion, not political grievances), then it means that Terrorism, by definition, would be “ruled out” (one might think that the more politically-motivated an act of violence is, the more deserving it is of the Terrorism label, but this just proves that the defining feature of the word Terrorism is Muslim violence).  The final version of the NYTarticle inserted the word “Islamic” before “terrorism” (“even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause”), but — as demonstrated above — still preserved the necessary inference that only Muslims can be Terrorists.  Meanwhile, in the world of reality, of 294 Terrorist attacks attempted or executed on European soil in 2009 as counted by the EU, a grand total of one — 1 out of 294 — was perpetrated by “Islamists.”

UPDATE II:  This article expertly traces and sets forth exactly how the “Muslims-did-it” myth was manufactured and then disseminated yesterday to the worldwide media, which predictably repeated it with little skepticism.  What makes the article so valuable is that it names names: it points to the incestuous, self-regarding network of self-proclaimed U.S. Terrorism and foreign policy “experts” — what the article accurately describes as “almost always white men and very often with military or government backgrounds,” in this instance driven by “a case of an elite fanboy wanting to be the first to pass on leaked gadget specs” — who so often shape these media stories and are uncritically presented as experts, even though they’re drowning in bias, nationalism, ignorance, and shallow credentialism.

Original post: The Rush to Blame Muslims and the Meaningless Term “Terrorism”


  1. Timothy McVay (sp) – Christians and Caucasians can’t seem (don’t want to) grasp that terrorism, like hate, is without color, creed, or conscience. If you are anything other than heterosexual and/or white in American, you will understand that ignorance is also a form of terrorism and hate.

  2. I posted this as a Facebook note on Friday:

    From Oslo (NYT) He was later identified as Anders Behring Breivik and was characterized by officials as a right-wing extremist. The acting chief of police, Sveinung Sponheim, said Mr. Breivik, who is not known to have any ties to Islamic extremists, had also been seen in Oslo before the explosions.

    Gene Stowe Wow, a bad guy with no ties to Islamic extremism. And he’s a right-wing extremist! Next thing you know, he could be sending the nation into default. But wait….

    Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist. Still, there was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible.

    Gene Stowe Well, let’s see, he’s not Islamist so that’s a relief, it means that terrorists were not responsible. See, you’re only a terrorist when you do those things if you claim to be a Muslim (not, for example, if you’re a Baptist in Oklahoma City). But wait….

    Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out terrorism as the cause of Friday’s assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking Al Qaeda’s signature brutality and multiple attacks.

    Gene Stowe Aha! So now there is no bad action that cannot be blamed on people claiming to be Muslim, even if they are right-wing extremists, by whatever Rube Goldberg route necessary. What a country.

    Gene Stowe I guess this means that if the nation goes into default because 97 percent of House Republicans sold their soul to Grover Norquist, we can still blame the Muslims. Clever, these Americans.

    Gene Stowe “signature brutality and multiple attacks” Anybody want to guess who started that in modern times, say the last 147 years?

  3. What Greenwald is saying here is something I’ve also said: That’s it’s only “terrorism” when the attacker is a Muslim. Part of the article also exposes the SHEER LACK of s serious threat from “jihadists” is Europe from the Europol reports, but I can add that the amount of manpower and resources devoted to “jihadists in Europe” simply do not match the threat, while the growing threat of the radical right goes largely ignored. Also – I’ve seen that Europol report for last year =- and Europol has to go well outside of Europe to find “jihadist terrorism.”

    What is certainly true about the biased definition of “terrorism.” The 2009 Queen’s Day attack in Apeldoorn by Karst Tates “had nothing to do with terrorism.” In April, there was a mass shooting at a mall near Amsterdam and the native Dutchman was described as a PVV voter and right-winger. Nope – Tristan van der Vlis is not a Muslim, and therefore not a terrorist.

    Yet — murder of Theo van Gogh is an overly heightened, even exploited, poster-child for “jihad in the Netherlands.” The difference here between “terrorism” and “not terrorism” in these recent attacks is only the religious background of the attackers.

    I see in Dutch counter-terrorism reports the phony definition of “terrorism” and “radicalization.” – The Dutch regard non-violent behavior, like devout Muslims, Muslims that hold certain political and social viewpoints and Muslim youth anger at discrimination as “radicalized.”

    We now have a lot of dead people. It is more important to the ghosts of jihad and phantom “Islamists” (defined by things NOT related to violence) because of faulty and Islamophobic intelligence and security services that practice from a framework that is biased and limited to a certain “religious” group.

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