Terrorism and Media Bias

After an act of terror, the usual course of action is to mourn the direct victims. But when a Muslim or a person of color is (or is perceived to be) the perpetrator, I am also afraid for the people who had nothing to do with the attack, but who will be judged and attacked by racists and Islamophobes.

Aided by biased media coverage, we often forget about the other, less-publicized victims of terrorism. The United States government has used the attacks of September 11th, 2001 to justify drone strikes and the so-called “War on Terror” in the Middle East. And yet more than the number of people who died that day, the vast majority of them civilians, even children, have been killed by U.S. drones. There is no excuse.

The family of Momina Bibi, a Pakistani woman who was killed during a drone strike – in front of her young grandchildren, no less – traveled all the way to speak in front of Congress in 2013. The testimony actually caused the translator to stop and cry at one point. Yet, only five members of Congress could be bothered to show up to the meeting.

The painful reality is that the media silences Muslim voices when they do not suit its purposes.

Let’s look at the example of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the survivor of a Taliban attack. But did you know that the same girl who is being touted as a symbol of democracy in the capitalist United States is actually a socialist who openly calls for an end to the drone strikes?

Western media prune down the viewpoints of actual Muslim women such as Malala, reducing her presence in the media to her fight for education for girls. Some argue she is being used by Western media as a figurehead to promote the idea of Pakistan and other Islamic nations as being “backward” and in need of a savior, thus suggesting Western military intervention is necessary.

Media also selectively cover acts of terrorism, placing an emphasis of those committed by Muslims/brown people while minimizing those committed by white people. In his article, “Why the Reaction Is Different When the Terrorist Is White,” (which was written in the aftermath of the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre) Conor Friedersdorf writes, “There is, however, another factor that explains the reticence of Americans to focus on the massacre at the Sikh temple. It has less to do with the victims than the gunman. The key factor isn’t that they’re Sikhs; it’s that the homegrown terrorism–a term no one would object to had a murderous Muslim burst into the Sikh temple–was perpetrated by a white man.”

Which brings up the role of appearances in how individuals are perceived. When examining the English language, one must note how often the words “dark” or “black” are connected with “evil” or “scary” meanings, while words such as “white” are associated with purity and innocence. This is not an accident. The Boston Marathon Bombers – two pale individuals – were depicted with darkened skin on a magazine cover. (A racist move which echoed the darkening of OJ Simpson’s mug shot on the cover of Time magazine.) All of this suggests that having darker skin makes one more likely to be evil, a terrorist, and guilty.

And somehow all of this has become associated with being a Muslim or having brown skin. When I was in France, I heard people openly criticize and discriminate against Muslim women for wearing the hijab. My own mother’s attempts to get my (dark-skinned) brother to shave involve arguments about how people will think he’s a terrorist if he keeps his beard. Not to mention the extreme “random” searches I (and many of my brown peers) have been through at airports. (Once I was told I was being checked because my shirt was too loose, while a white woman in a far looser shirt walked by unhindered.)

I’m terrified for the people who are being impacted by blind fear and misplaced hatred. And for the people who think I’m exaggerating, let me give you another example. A Hindu man, Sunando Sen, was killed by a white woman who told police: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.” This man’s life ended as he stood on the subway just because one woman erroneously decided that because he looked like he belonged to a certain religion, he was responsible for 9/11.

So, no. I am not overreacting. A person’s race or religion is no justification for branding them as a threat or treating them as something less than a human.