Terrorism: For Muslim crimes only?

Terrorism has become so closely linked to Islam that labelling white crime with it violates Western cultural realities.

Attendees listen as speakers from different faiths speak at an interfaith rally titled "Love is Stronger than Hate" at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, USA
Participants of an interfaith rally at an Islamic community centre in Arizona, United States [Reuters]

“Media outlets have been reluctant,” writes Brit Bennett for the New York Times, “to classify the Charleston shooting as terrorism, despite how eerily it echoes our country’s history of terrorism. US-bred terrorism originated in order to restrict the movement and freedom of newly liberated black Americans who, for the first time, began to gain an element of political power.” 

Bennett is one among countless critical thinkers and commentators arguing why the slaughter of nine African Americans in a Charleston historic church must be qualified as a “terrorist” act. 

Inside Story – What now for Muslim-Western relations?

In another piece for the New York Times, Charles M Blow insists, referring to the confessed murderer, “[Dylann] Roof was a young man radicalised to race hatred who reportedly wanted to start a race war and who killed nine innocent people as his opening salvo. If that’s not terrorism, we need to redefine the term.”  

“American anti-terrorism law has its legislative roots in the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871,” points out Jelani Cobb, “which broadly empowered President Ulysses S Grant to prosecute Klan members for abrogating federal law regarding black rights”.

Overwhelming evidence

Even more pertinent is the fact that according to a recent report, “since September 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims”.  

Let’s for the moment set aside the fact that since 1980, according to one account, the US has “invaded or occupied or bombed” no less than 14 Muslim countries and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. Let’s also disregard for now the countless Palestinians (Muslims and non-Muslims) slaughtered or made homeless refugees by the US-supported and armed Israel. 

With such overwhelming evidence, why is it that US political leaders, law enforcement officials, and leading journalists refuse to designate this heinous crime as an act of terrorism?

These same groups would not hesitate to identify – with minimal evidence – a similar act perpetrated by a Muslim as a “terrorist” act or, for that matter, paint any act of violence by an African American as being “gang related”. 

…the most troubling problem with this term “terrorism” is that it has become a sponge word. It absorbs a spectrum of social malaise with multiple causes and files them under Islamic and Muslim acts only.


Philip Bump explained in the Washington Post why Roof cannot be called a terrorist: It is simply because he is white.

“Most Americans are white,” he wrote, “and we see white people like ourselves. When I see Dylann Roof, I remember being a white male his age, barely out of my teenage years and experiencing weird anger in a difficult time… We can identify much more easily with who he is. When [Senator Lindsey] Graham looks at Roof, he doesn’t see a terrorist with a weird name and foreign ties. He sees a kid who was in his niece’s English class – literally.”

For Muslims only

Bump has a point. As his essay demonstrates, the term “terrorism” has become so categorically synonymous with being Muslim (not just those who may commit criminal acts, but any Muslim) that applying it to a white person dismantles the whole lexicography of US (and Israeli) political culture.

It is that political lexicography that is shaken to its foundation anytime a Jewish terrorist goes on a rampage in Hebron or anywhere else in Palestine, or an American KKK-wannabe slaughters innocent people point blank in Charleston or anywhere else in the US.

For white Americans, categorising Roof’s act as terrorism would mean accepting the reality of the terror they have historically perpetrated on African Americans, Asians, Latinos, or more recently Muslims of diverse background.

This exposes a streak of xenophobia in some Americans that originates from the early white settlers of Native American lands, in whose minds – from the time of slavery to this day – anyone else in their midst is seen as cheap labour, a slave, a foreigner, or a terrorist.

With this historical  context in mind, only when people look at the faces of Geert Wilders, Pamela Geller, Bill Maher, or Sam Harris and see the glaring signs of their bigotry that ricochets from African Americans to Latinos/Latinas, Asians, and Muslims, will the injustice of this term “terrorism” be exposed for what it is: A racist term designated by white supremacists in the US and Israel to discredit, not just categorically condemn, violence of all sorts, but also the peaceful resistance of the oppressed. 

A sponge word

African Americans were still mourning the Charleston massacre when the term terrorism was back in circulation during the reporting of recent incidents in Tunisia, France, and Kuwait. 

Anti-Islam and immigration rally in the Czech Republic [Getty]
Anti-Islam and immigration rally in the Czech Republic [Getty]

This provides yet more evidence that the term “terrorism” was exclusively utilised for Muslims and Muslims only.

I have already demonstrated how Islam and Muslims have become metaphors for terrorism and barbarity and today, even the most “progressive” Westerners use terms such as “jihad”, “jihadist”, or “fatwa”, when they want to refer to their own (Christian or Jewish) “fanatics”, as if no other term in English or other European languages can be found to label their own instances of terrorism. 

But the most troubling problem with this term “terrorism” is that it has become a sponge word. It absorbs a spectrum of social malaise with multiple causes and files them under Islamic and Muslim acts only. 

The three incidents in Kuwait, France, and Tunisia have a number of different causes and motivations specific to each one’s domestic circumstances. But the sponge word “terrorism” prevents and preempts any understanding of those root causes by allocating them to an innate characteristic that Muslims, and only Muslims, share: simply by being Muslim.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.