“Why does the press soft pedal links between terrorism and Islam?” was the question under discussion in this week’s edition of Crossroads, a Get Religion podcast produced in conjunction with Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues Etc host Todd Wilken.
“I don’t know why, but it does” — pretty well sums up the show. Last week’s Kunming terror attack, which left 29 dead and almost 150 injured, was our point of entry into the debate. In the media coverage of the Kunming incident I argued it was possible to see two divergent themes. Chinese press outlets were quick to label the incident as a terrorist attack. State officials were quoted describing the attack as terrorism, while eyewitness accounts called the knife-wielding assailants as terrorists. Yet the hand of government censorship could be seen in the Chinese press accounts as no mention was made of religion or politics.
Several Western press outlets were squeamish about using the word terrorism to describe the attack — placing it in quotes or allowing it to appear only in the words of Chinese government officials. However, the Western press did shine a light (though rather dimly) on areas the Chinese government sought to keep dark. They identified the attackers as members of the Uighar minority group from Northwest China and noted the on-going ethnic tension in that part of the country between the Uighars and Han Chinese. The Western press was not as one in reporting on the Muslim faith of the Uighars. Some outlets like the New York Times mentioned Islam at the top of their stories. The Associated Press placed it in the middle of their story. CNN in the last paragraph, while the Telegraph made no mention of it at all.
The Chinese government’s silence about religious strife I observed was predictable as it reflected a long standing policy of state control/accommodation of the major religious faiths in support of the Communist Party’s official goal of promoting a harmonious society.
The silence about Islam and terrorism from the Western press I could not readily explain without resorting to facile nostrums of political correctness or ignorance. The specialist literature has noted the links between radical Islam and Uighar separatism, while the first day reports in the Western press described the unusual killing style adopted by the terrorists — using knives and swords they attempted to strike at the necks of their victims to decapitate them (a hallmark of Islamic terrorism).