Terrorism: The unequal treatment of two religiously motivated crimes

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Two men, one Christian and the other Muslim, commit murder just one day apart in the United States. Both appear to have been motivated by their religious beliefs. The Christian murderer is Scott Roeder and his victim is Dr. George Tiller, a physician from Wichita, KS who performed late term abortions. The Muslim murderer is Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad and his victims are Pvt. William Long and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula who were new U.S. Army recruiters.

These two murder cases expose the media’s and our legal system’s bias against Muslims. Both crimes seem to fit the definition of terrorism motivated by religious extremism. The media and the legal system, however, are treating these alleged murderers and their crimes very differently.

The Muslim murder suspect, Mr. Muhammad, is charged with terrorism along with first degree murder. Mr. Muhammad’s faith has been front and center from the very earliest news reports. The American-Muslim community’s almost immediate repudiation of Mr. Muhammad’s murder was and still is largely ignored.

On the other hand, the Christian murder suspect, Mr. Roeder, is not being charged with terrorism. His faith has not been the focus of news reports even though there seems to be ample evidence to suggest that Mr. Roeder espouses extreme, right-wing Christian beliefs. And lastly, the media is giving anti-abortion groups ample opportunity to distance themselves from the murderous actions of one of their own.

Let’s start with the terrorism charges. Domestic terrorism is defined as an act that is dangerous to human life (guns were fired in the direction of the victims – this requirement is met) and which is a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or any State (both shootings fulfill this requirement) and which appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion or to affect the conduct of a government by, among other things, assassination (an argument for this element can be made in both shootings).

Mr. Muhammad is charged with 15 counts of engaging in a terrorist act. This is in addition to the murder charge. Mr. Roeder is charged with murder but there are no terrorism charges. On the face of both cases there seems to be ample indications that these men committed murder with the objective of intimidating a civilian population or with the intention to influence a government policy.

So, why a terrorism charge in one case but not the other? Both cases are heinous. Both local communities surely want to send the strongest message possible to the public that these crimes will be punished to the greatest extent of the law. And ultimately a judge or jury will decide whether the charges are proven beyond a reasonable doubt so the prosecutor runs little risk by adding the appropriate terrorism charge.

The disparate treatment of these two murder cases began right from the first media reports. Most major newswires and major newspapers focused heavily on Mr. Muhammad’s religion very early on.

The Associated Press reported on Mr. Muhammad’s crime by stating that a “Muslim convert with political and religious motives” shot two uniformed soldiers. The New York Times described Mr. Muhammad as “an American convert to Islam.” CNN reported that Mr. Muhammad is a “Muslim convert”.

Let’s compare the reporting by these same news sources on Mr. Roeder’s murder. The Associated Press is mum on Mr. Roeder’s Christian faith. Ditto for the New York Times and CNN. None of theses same news sources make any mention of Mr. Roeder’s religious affiliation or the obvious role his extremist religious beliefs may have played in the killing of Dr. Tiller.

What exacerbates this obvious bias in reporting is the willingness of the media to offer the anti-abortion groups immediate opportunities to distance themselves from Mr. Roeder’s murder while none of them provided a similar opportunity for the American-Muslim community even as they reported that Mr. Muhammad is a Muslim. Major national and regional American-Muslim organizations issued almost immediate statements condemning Mr. Muhammad’s murderous actions so the excuse cannot be a lack of public condemnation of the murder from the American-Muslim community.

To the American-Muslim community this unequal treatment is at the very least annoying and more likely very troubling. The bad news is that this situation is not going to change in the immediate future.

Not enough Americans know what real Muslims are like. There are up to 7 million Muslims living in America. By contrast there are a few hundred million Christians in America. Suffice to say that Americans feel more familiar with Christian values than they do with Muslim values. They don’t realize just how similar these values are – both faith traditions abhor the killing of innocents and neither faith condones the actions of Mr. Muhammad or Mr. Roeder. Plus, the steady stream of news about Muslim extremists killing others and themselves in suicide missions overseas certainly doesn’t help.

There is only one way for American-Muslims to sway Americans’ opinion of Islam. More Americans need to know what real Muslims are all about. While the media can do its job better by giving a voice to the American-Muslim community, American-Muslims need to take matters into their own hands.

American-Muslims need to become civically engaged. They need to get involved on issues of the common good and not just special interest issues. It has to be at the grassroots level with one on one interactions predicated on substantive work that gives non-Muslim Americans a chance to see firsthand what American-Muslims are all about.

President Obama’s message to the Muslim world, including his numerous nods to American-Muslims was great, but American-Muslims need to do some serious, old school, grassroots relational work of their own.

Junaid M. Afeef, Esq. is the Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. He can be reached at Junaid.afeef[at]gmail.com


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