My uncle Kamyar is one of the smartest men I know. He’s a city council president and college professor, yet his life as an Iranian American hasn’t been easy, because Islamophobia runs rampant in post-9/11 America (Gosztola 1).1 During that time period, Kamyar’s neighbors have threatened him, calling him a terrorist and telling him to resign from city council because he “looks Muslim,” without remembering Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” regarded as the second most important commandment by Jesus in Mark 12:31 (New International Reader’s Version2). And Kamyar isn’t the only one who’s affected by this terrorism labeling, as xenophobia and racism have melded terrorism to Islam. In fact, many American media outlets “demand all Muslims apologize for the acts of radicals within their faith,” (Kohn 1) without actually acknowledging that they are in fact radical, and not representative of a very peaceful people. Christians aren’t expected to apologize for Andreas Breivik’s murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011, where he justified his killings as necessary for Christianity. Brevik was discernibly anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. He was, by definition, a terrorist, but was never labeled as one. Why? Because doing so doesn’t fit the fear-fueled narrative used by the media, which following January 2015’s Charlie Hebdo shooting, only argued that not all Muslims are terrorists. And that’s great, but what we all have a harder time understanding is that not all terrorists are Muslim, or brown. We wrongly accept the inaccurate labeling of terrorism based on religion or skin color, dismissing a key concept found in John 3:15, which states: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has everlasting life remaining in him,” (NIrV, John 3.15), reminding us that God will not accept as his servants those whose hearts are filled with hatred and racial prejudice.
Kamyar is afraid to fly because he feels racially profiled when other passengers give him dirty looks. Because of our culture, we have been inculcated to profile non-white people, especially in airports. Instead we should be listening to the words of John: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (NIrV, John 7.24).
What causes this unjust judgement? Well for one, no one concretely knows what constitutes a terrorist, and specificity is necessary. The term terrorism has several definitions, even within the federal government. For instance, according to the Department of Defense in 2015, “terrorism” is politically or religiously motivated violence intended to intimidate (Zalman 1). But the FBI’s definition leaves out political or religious motivation (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1). After failing to find one definitive definition, I just went back to the basics and typed in the word “terrorist” on Google, but accidentally left it on Images. Of the first 60 photos that popped up, 57 depicted Middle Eastern men, many with bombs and weapons. Google’s top results are determined by which pictures the public accesses the most, so when we think terrorist, we search for a Middle Eastern face, which is the opposite of promoting peace. And if James says a “harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace,” (NIrV, James 3.18), then right now there is a plague consuming that harvest.
Next, this lack of a uniform definition perpetuates ignorance. Not all Muslims are the same, just like not all Christians are the same. Catholics and Mennonites are way different. Trust me, I’ve been both. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently said, “If ISIS represents Islam, then the KKK represents Christianity” (Parker 1), and Proverbs tells us that God very much dislikes double standards (NIrV, Prov. 20.23). Plus, many Americans link Islam with only Middle Eastern people, when in reality, nearly 25 percent of the world’s population, which is 1.8 billion people, follow Islam (Greene 1). And when we define terrorists as only Muslim, the war on terror becomes the war on Islam.
Who perpetuates this? Well, besides us, the media. And we buy in. The media’s portrayal of terrorism harms us all because white people get a free pass. It also undermines justice. And there’s nothing peaceful about either.
Simply, white people aren’t often labeled as terrorists by the media. For example, picture the scenario discussed in USA Today comparing two men (Krattenmaker 1). Man number one, Nidal Hasan, an American of Middle Eastern descent, opened fire on an army base, killing 13 (2). The media immediately labeled him a terrorist (2). Man number two, Jared Loughner, a white American, opened fire inside a supermarket, killing six (3). Not once did the media label him a terrorist (3), even though only 6 percent of terrorism conducted on American soil is by Muslims, compared to 56 percent conducted by Caucasians (Rendall 2). This is one of those systemic injustices that can lead to violence if we don’t curb it. Appropriately using the terrorism label is definitely a conflict resolution skill and peacebuilding strategy.
Also, when we associate terrorism explicitly with a specific group of people and not the act itself, we’re undermining justice. Sentencesin federal cases go up if criminals act out of “terrorist intentions” (Fish 1). For example, consider pharmacist Tarek Mehanna, an American citizen, who believed Muslims under attack in their own countries had the right to armed self-defense (2). If he were a white American speaking to fellow gun enthusiasts, there wouldn’t be a problem. But Mehanna is Muslim, so he was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 17 years in prison. And Mehanna is just one name out of hundreds.
People who are given the terrorist label suffer far stricter punishments than those who commit the same actions but with a label other than “terrorist.” Peace is not longer jail time; peace is not bigotry; peace is not hate; and it certainly isn’t administering unfair punishment. If we, as children of God, as followers of Jesus, so strongly believe peace ties into a ministry of justice; if we truly “witness against all forms of violence,” then we must witness the informally-applied terrorism label as a breach of justice, and not just a term to casually throw around. Encourage people to courageously choose peace by correctly using the terrorism label. Otherwise, we are failing to address this egregious contemporary concern.
And there are implications for our labeling. We pick and choose who gets what label and non-white people continue to be implicated.
News headlines, and consequently most of us, often exhibit disbelief at white criminals’ actions, labeling them not as “terrorism,” but as “extremism.” Extremism can be positive. Conversely, terrorism is obviously negative.3 For instance, late in March 2015, Germanwings co-piolet Andreas Lubitz crashed a plane into a mountain, murdering 150 people (Cheney-Rice 1). The media has been incredibly hesitant to label him a terrorist (2). Was he “disturbed”? Yes. Mentally ill? Probably. A troubled outcast? Of course. But “terrorist” (2) – apparently that term is reserved (3).
We perpetuate the labeling of Muslims as terrorists by coming up with different labels for non-Muslims. Saying someone is an outcast, a radical, or an extremist frames their actions as something atypical of their race, whereas “terrorist portrays violence as systemic and diminishes the role of white terrorism in” America (Rendall 2). The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states briefly: “We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world. Led by the Holy Spirit, we follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing nonresistance, even in the face of violence and warfare.” Which raises the question: Are we “doing justice,” “bringing reconciliation,” and “practicing nonresistance” when we wrongfully apply the terrorism label?
Furthermore, this labeling pits the “accepted American” (white, Christian) against “the other” (dark-skinned, non-Christian). There is a reason only Muslims are labeled terrorists and why the Washington Post of Feb. 11, 2015, reported anti-Muslim hate crimes are still five times more common today than before 9/11 (Ingraham 1). There is a reason unarmed black men are shot with more frequency than their white counterparts. There is a reason heated debate over LGBTQ rights has sparked such a split in the Mennonite church. We use labels and, in the process, rhetorically pass blame in order to scapegoat. But we can change. We should change.
Use the terrorism label justly and justifiably, for everyone who falls under one succinct definition. As it says in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (NIrV, Rom. 12.2). We need to renew our minds by changing how we think of terrorism. And if we hear other people inaccurately label a person as a terrorist, we should speak up and let our voices be heard. Peaceful discourse on an individual level is the only way to ensure change for our national dialogue. Otherwise, this contemporary issue will morph into a chronic one and, as Christians, as pacifists, as decent humans, we cannot let that happen.
Today, we looked at the rhetoric surrounding terrorism, how it harms everyone, its critical implications, and an individual solution. My Uncle Kamyar shouldn’t be threatened because of his heritage; Kamyar, Muslims, and all Americans deserve better.