Hear no evil? (Spoken with a British accent)

democracy3I asked on Monday if it makes sense for journalists to use the word “Islamic” as an adjective to describe nouns such as “militants” or “terrorists.”

My point was not to deny that doctrinal disputes within Islam play some role in this tense and bloody world. I simply was making the observation that American media, at least, seemed to have stopped using the word “Islamist” — still common in European media. As I have understood it, “Islamist” is supposed to be used in reference to one stream of thought and action within Islam, radically combining the faith with violence and militant political demands. In other words, a highly militant and politicized version of a conservative Islam.

It appears that events have marched right on, in terms of the debates about how the press should handle these kinds of issues. Did you see the Associated Press dispatch out of London on Tuesday? The one about the advice offered to the press and the nation by the leadership team of the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in the wake of new terrorism plots?

(The) head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammad Abdul Bari, lauded Brown and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for the “calm and reassuring tone of their responses to the recent attacks.”

Nick Clegg, home affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, welcomed the change from “the somewhat breathless way Tony Blair used to always rush to try to make, frankly, political points on the back of these events.”

… The low-key Smith also stands in contrast to her pugnacious predecessor, John Reid, whose tough talk on terrorism was sometimes criticized for inflaming ethnic and religious tensions. In a speech to lawmakers Monday, Smith called terrorists “criminals whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religious backgrounds.” Brown has spoken of “al-Qaida” attackers but not of “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorists.

Say what?

It seems, to me, that this swings way too far in the other direction — denying that the current threats in Great Britain have anything to do with divisions and disputes inside Islam, especially conflicts rooted in efforts for Islam to adapt to the rule of law in the West. Is the Brown team suggesting that the terrorists are no longer Muslims? Should government leaders make this kind of statement about people who clearly are claiming that their actions reflect their beliefs and their interpretations of their own scriptures?

In other words, is it wise for government officials to suggest that journalists ignore the spoken and written words of the terrorists? Is the goal journalistic self-censorship?

I hope not. Surely the press would rise up against that. You think?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    Apparently, the UK press and politicians are intent on deluding themselves, and their public/constituents, if they continue down this politically correct, walking-on-eggshells road.

    The Muslim extremists are no doubt laughing at those Westerners who fail to name their true enemies. And naming (“labeling” – that mean old word) is the first step towards addressing the threat.

    One can go overboard in labeling, of course, but few (if any) are doing so and most know this is an extremist brand of Islam, not the mainstream brand.

    The headline here is very apt. The British accent is more and more the sound of naivete.

  • Jerry

    There appears to be a demand for “stupid pills” in government.

    By way of contrast to those stories, I found the New Statesman article http://www.newstatesman.com/200707050029 interesting. I know George Bush is not the most popular guy around, but in this case, quiet support for ordinary Muslims sends a much better message than walking-on-eggshells weasel-wording. I also found the rest of the article to be well written.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    The best take I have seen on this is here…

    http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/

    UK Warning: Look Out For People Doing Things

    Personally I think PM Brown is only building support for the Conservative Party by doing this. One wonders what PM Brown would have called the IRA….

  • Peter Leavitt

    Smith called terrorists “criminals whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religious backgrounds.”

    Watch out for those Amish Christian terrorists.

  • http://lowly.blogspot.com Undergroundpewster

    Great observations! It does appear that the new PM is showing his stripes.

  • Harris

    It seems, to me, that this swings way too far in the other direction — denying that the current threats in Great Britain have anything to do with divisions and disputes inside Islam, especially conflicts rooted in efforts for Islam to adapt to the rule of law in the West. Is the Brown team suggesting that the terrorists are no longer Muslims? Should government leaders make this kind of statement about people who clearly are claiming that their actions reflect their beliefs and their interpretations of their own scriptures?

    Two comments: first has the coverage at all established that this bombing crew (that’s “Doctor Al Qaeda, to you!”) in fact is part of this intra-Islam narrative? The far simpler answer is that is associated far more with the war in Iraq, which provides multiple drivers. Indeed the reports show that this crew are not even part of British society per se, unlike second and third generation Muslims. So on the very fact of their identity, something like PM Brown’s stance seems warranted.

    As to coverage, if we were to translate this to the US, would it be warranted to label every criminal first by his ethnic or racial background? We have already come to a just conclusion that such a practice is injurious to communities as a whole, increasing tensions. The slapping on of a Muslim label would seem to be an instance of this now-discarded practice.

    I would suggest that the Brown government understands terrorism as a police problem, and has capably handled it as such. Treating the terrorist as a criminal teaches more about the values of the West and safeguards society better than focussing on the participants’ misplaced religious understanding. Treating the terrorist as a first, a religious fighter only sanctions his self-image, particularly when it is so abundantly clear that this is such a minority viewpoint.

  • Brian

    “if we were to translate this to the US, would it be warranted to label every criminal first by his ethnic or racial background?”

    Some months ago I was watching the local evening news and they did a short bit on a shooting, ending by noting that the suspect was at-large. They gave estimates for height & weight, and showed a police sketch. There was no indication of the suspect’s race, and it was impossible to determine from the drawing. It was quite clear that they were deliberately avoiding any racial/ethnic identification, which made the description utterly useless. They shouldn’t even have bothered.

    Failing to identify terrorists as Muslim shows the same deliberate obtuseness that has careened over the edge of sensitivity into insanity. One certainly hopes that the authorities know that the most (and only, to be honest) serious threats to Britain & the West today are from Muslims. One must recognize that it is only a tiny fraction of Muslims, but to pretend otherwise is preposterous (The notion that these attackers were “not even part of British society” is hilarious, considering that they are government employees). Even worse, we all know that it is lunacy, and so it tends to corrode faith in the ability of the authorities to protect us (No one can take airport security seriously when we see 80-year-old women being searched because some bureaucrat has decreed that random searches are required to keep up the absurd illusion that everyone is equally likely to be a threat). People don’t like being patronized and treated like idiots.

  • Don

    I seem to remember, back when I was a wee bairn, there being a lot in the news about violence between “Catholics” and “Protestants” in the news from Ireland. I don’t remember anyone being too sensitive about that.

    I recognized that the labels were too broad. Certainly it wasn’t their loyalty to Rome or Geneva that caused the violence. But they were fair descriptive labels in general terms, and what more can we ask for in a label? It’s a necessary short cut that enables us to discuss things. Obviously, when we want to get into a serious discussion then generic labels will be too broad and we’ll have to define our terms more carefully, from Islam down to Sunni and Shia and Sufi. But refusing to recognize the labels entirely makes intelligent discussion of the issues just as impossible.

  • ira rifkin

    I assume the photo with the post was used because it seems to go with the “Hear no evil…” headline.

    But it appears to be a photo of an Iraqi woman with an American soldier in the background.

    I’m pretty sure tmatt does not intend to draw any moral equivalency between GIs in Iraq and Islamic terrorists in Great Britain.

    But the juxtapositioning serves as a reminder of the importance of being super-sensitive about photos and headlines accurately reflecting the story they are attached to.

    Don’t want the reader to read too much into journalism’s accessories.

  • Corban

    # 8: The terms more commonly used wrt Northern Ireland were ‘Republican’ or ‘Loyalist’ terrorists (NOT ‘insurgents’ or ‘militants’!)- which seemed perfectly fair, not least because the religious affiliation of the IRA in particular was more tribal than personally active (a lot of IRA people would have been fairly secular-Marxist types, like the PLO of old).
    The commitment of this current crop of terrorists to Islam or at least ‘Islamism’ is the very heart of what they are doing, & it’s stupid obfuscation to deny this.
    While it’s wise not to underestimate the ignorance and lassitude of the public, I think a lot of people in the UK suspect a game is being played with them by the BBC.

  • Stephen A.

    As to Ira’s point (9) about the photo, the woman could simply be shielding her ears from the gunshots as the US Soldiers shoot at Al Queada operatives infesting her village. But the clever cropping and contrast makes it look like the poor woman is being oppressed by the Yankee. I’m afraid this is typical, and I believe we’ve discussed before Reuters and AP and other agencies’ clever cropping and outright forgeries to make things look worse than they are, or something they are not.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    It seems, to me, that this swings way too far in the other direction — denying that the current threats in Great Britain have anything to do with divisions and disputes inside Islam, especially conflicts rooted in efforts for Islam to adapt to the rule of law in the West. Is the Brown team suggesting that the terrorists are no longer Muslims? Should government leaders make this kind of statement about people who clearly are claiming that their actions reflect their beliefs and their interpretations of their own scriptures?

    There is nothing in the new PM stance that denies the role of Islam among insurgent terrorists. Using the label “Al-Qaeda” or “Al-Qaeda inspired” clearly and specifically identifies the the organizational affiliation for the group, which is not likely to be composed of too many Hindus or Buddhists or Christians. That, and only, that, is what is needed in a newslabel. It is more factual and more correct to be as specific as possible when identifying and criticizing others—merely using the label “Islamist” is insufficient. There are many movements and sub-movements, many of which are not violent, within global Islamist Revivalism. And it is not at all established as fact that doctrinal or sectarian differences among Muslims amount to a hill of beans in Britain. The dividing line is much more clearly among ethnic and (non)assimilative communities than the legacy of Ali or the first rightly-guided caliphs. If anything the ongoing unrest over caricatures, publications, and of course, Anglo-European military campaigns in Dar-Al-Islam has served to unify Muslims from disparate backgrounds.

    To buy into the language of these militant insurgents–that they are “Islam” or “Islamist” does a much greater disservice to the much higher proportion of actual orthodox/mainstream Muslims who eschew violence as a means for advancing a political agenda. Language frames thought, and the vast majority of Westerners are so intensely alienated from Islam that using anything other than interpersonally valid labels does nothing but a disservice toward furthering genuine religious literacy.


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