Media’s Complicity in Spreading Terror

The terrorists’ guns and grenades may have been muted in Mumbai, but their most devastating weapon – the media – … Continued

The terrorists’ guns and grenades may have been muted in Mumbai, but their most devastating weapon – the media – is still causing damage in living rooms around the world.

Deccan Mujahideen, the group claiming responsibility for the Mumbai massacre, were tuned in to the terrifying power of the media when they broadcast their three‐day horror. With one bloody hand they call for an end to the ‘propaganda war’ against Muslims; with the other they handcuff Islam with terror, and press their own PR agenda.

Terrorists use religion to justify murder, and depend on the media to faithfully spread their message.

Much has been spoken about the responsibility of religious communities in a post 9/11 era, but what about the media’s role in all of this? Malcolm X said, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

In using terms like ‘Muslim terrorists’, the media are at risk of tarring a billion people with a terrorist brush. Just because the media has the power to make the innocent guilty, doesn’t mean they have to use it.

Every time the media uses a phrase like ‘Muslim terrorist’ (according to Google News, the phrase is contained in over 10,000 news articles on the killings in India), it pains and pinches at the hearts of millions for whom Islam is a peaceful way of life. It is clear that people who terrorize in the name of religion wish to polarize Islam and the West. In this sense, the media’s phrases do a little bit of the terrorists’ work for them. Aside from being convenient shorthand for a complex issue, why does such language persist?

After all, the audience doesn’t know enough about Islam to place such coverage in its proper context. We lack faith literacy in Britain and around the world. According to a BBC survey in 2003, 40% of British people can’t name the sacred book of Islam (82% can’t even name the Archbishop of Canterbury). How can we then be expected to understand the meaning of ‘Muslim terrorist’ or ‘Islamist group’?

The Gallup Organization’s World Poll of Muslims – the largest social research project ever conducted – tells us that 9 in 10 British Muslims condemn terrorist acts that target civilians, the same proportion as the non‐Muslim public. Moreover, it reveals that foreign policy and not religious belief is the principal driver of anti‐Western sentiment in the Muslim world. Mainstream Muslim belief is diametrically opposed to terrorism, so what value does a term such as ‘Muslim terrorist’ hold?

The terrorists’ distorted slant on Islam is no doubt an element of their murderous motives. It would be ludicrous, and wholly irresponsible, not to reflect this at all in reporting. Rather than ‘Muslim terrorist,’ let’s say ‘terrorist;’ rather than ‘Jihadist’ or ‘Islamist group,’ let’s simply say ‘group.’ Religion’s role in the story should be reported in the words of the terrorists themselves, or in thoughtful commentary on the motivations for murderous acts. Bringing religion to the forefront, tying ‘Islam’ to ‘terror’, is doing a disservice to the minds of the masses, and strains the efforts of individuals, charities, and faith groups trying to strengthen relations between the world’s religions and secular society.

The modern media’s unparalleled power comes with a responsibility to reflect and respect the society it serves. It warrants more than being a pawn in the terrorist’s battle plan. Nearly 200 people died in Mumbai, but millions may be infected by the media’s unhappy marriage of Islam and terror. The media has the capacity to be a weapon of mass instruction. By informing its audiences, the mass media prescribes an antidote to the poisonous propaganda of the minority who would drive us apart.

Simon Cohen is the managing director of Global Tolerance, a leading international communications agency for charities, faith and interfaith groups.

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  • ASTORIA

    The media relies upon the lack of knowledge of most people- and propose very simple solutions (with the easy targets) for very complex problems.

  • onofrio

    I agree with Simon Cohen’s point that the qualifier “Islamic” tends to bring heat rather than light to discussions of the Mumbai (and other) attacks. But how then do we accurately characterise the Mumbai killers? To call them simply “terrorists” without any further qualification is highly misleading – sort of ignoring the elephant in the room. These young men expressed their identity and motivation primarily in Islamic terms. For the media to minimise or censor this affiliation would be simply dishonest. Perhaps the problems of language that Simon Cohen reflects on have more to do with the highly charged term “terrorist” itself, which has become a sort of absolute pejorative, a byword for evil. As such, it should be used more carefully by everyone. To attribute “terrorism” to the Mumbai killers is accurate. There is also no doubt that they were motivated – however misguidedly – by belief in Islam. Perhaps fairness and the simple truth would be better served by shifting from “Islamic” – which covers all Muslims – to “Islamist”, which suggests a particular political/ideological position, related to, yet distinct from Islam proper. To clarify that “Islamism” has degrees of intensity and focus, it could be further qualified by terms such as “extremist”, “separatist”, and “militant”. And to show that even “extremist Islamism” does not necessarily entail violent acts, “terrorism” should be a term of last resort, describing the nature of a violent act rather than it religious/ideological basis. To further differentiate Islamist extremism from generic Islam, terms like “hyper-” or “ultra-Islamist” might be helpful. Hey, who am I kidding? When was precision ever a requirement for a headline?

  • edbyronadams

    “9 in 10 British Muslims condemn terrorist acts that target civilians”. That means that one in ten condones it. How many of that faction are willing to participate? How many does it take to reduce a modern society to chaos?I might share the writers’ opinions if the number was one out of a thousand condone it but one out of ten is troubling and potentially destructive. Islam is a problem.

  • KellyNMiller82

    edbyronadams:You missed the fact that the firgure ’9 out of 10 Muslims condemn the attacks’, is exactly the same for non-Muslims. This means that 9 out of 10 regular Britons also condmen the attacks. So where is your question regarding that 1%, which considering the religious populations and ratios of Muslims to Christians or Seculars, is a far larger amount of people. No, there is no problem with Islam, just with extremists and fundamentalists. Every religious group has them. There is no one religion that is not stained with the blood of another group or religion. The crusades are a very vivid example. And look at Christiane Amanpour’s article in today’s On Faith section. Remeber Bosnia? Well, that was Christians killing Muslims. So, no my friend, there is not a problem with Islam. There is a fundamental problem with religion and each group’s claims that they are the correct ones. There is no tolerance and there is no understanding, but that is not Islam’s fault.

  • ThomasBaum

    SIMON COHEN A few comments about your comments.IYou wrote, “Every time the media uses a phrase like ‘Muslim terrorist’ (according to Google News, the phrase is contained in over 10,000 news articles on the killings in India), it pains and pinches at the hearts of millions for whom Islam is a peaceful way of life.”And just what is wrong with that, I am a Catholic and I cherish my Catholic Faith and when people who describe themself as “Christian” distort and/or water down Who Jesus Is and what He became a human being to accomplish for ALL OF HUMANITY, it bothers me but the thing is I am here to live my life not anyone else’s.You also wrote, “It is clear that people who terrorize in the name of religion wish to polarize Islam and the West.”, I would guess that you mean people that terrorize in the name of Islam rather than religion considering people also terrorize in the name of other religions, do they not?Maybe the so-called “polarization” should be between the terrorists of all stripes and those that should see terrorism for what it is.Then you wrote, “We lack faith literacy in Britain and around the world. According to a BBC survey in 2003, 40% of British people can’t name the sacred book of Islam”, what does “faith literacy” have to do with what people actually do?Then you wrote, “How can we then be expected to understand the meaning of ‘Muslim terrorist’ or ‘Islamist group’?”, I would imagine that it is someone that uses Islam or the Koran as justification for what they do, just as a Christian terrorist would use what they think Christianity is or the bible for justification for what they do, just as [fill in the blank] terrorist would use [fill in the blank] for justification for what they do.

  • ThomasBaum

    IIThen you wrote, “The Gallup Organization’s World Poll of Muslims – the largest social research project ever conducted – tells us that 9 in 10 British Muslims condemn terrorist acts that target civilians, the same proportion as the non]Muslim public”, as someone has already noted 10% is a rather large number but also it says “terrorist acts that target civilians”, does this infer that terrorists acts that don’t target civilians might be condoned by an even larger number?Then you wrote, ” Rather than ‘Muslim terrorist,’ let’s say ‘terrorist;’ rather than ‘Jihadist’ or ‘Islamist group,’ let’s simply say ‘group.’”, isn’t a reporter supposed to report as accurately as possible, sanitizing things in ways such as this is nothing short of false and/or incomplete reporting, is it not?Then you wrote, “Bringing religion to the forefront, tying ‘Islam’ to ‘terror’, is doing a disservice to the minds of the masses, and strains the efforts of individuals, charities, and faith groups trying to strengthen relations between the world’s religions and secular society.”, so in other words are you saying that the “minds of the masses” are incompetent and the “media” should water down what is happening so as not to overburden the “minds of the masses”?These so-called “minds of the masses” happen to be individual people and each and everyone one of them has a right to think for themself, not to be told what to think, the media should report, not distort.Then you wrote, ” Nearly 200 people died in Mumbai, but millions may be infected by the media’s unhappy marriage of Islam and terror.”, did the media perform the “marriage” of Islam and terror or did the terrorists?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • edbyronadams

    KellyNMiller82 “Remeber Bosnia? Well, that was Christians killing Muslims.” Exactly and it was Christian majority nations that acted to stop them. I’m just asking that the reported majority of Muslims opposing the violence of their extremists stand up as well. When demonstrators in Muslim majority nations rise up in violent protest against Dutch cartoonists and sit on their hands in the face of the despicable acts of their co-religionists, perpetrated in their name, such as Mumbai, the problem is Islam.

  • edbyronadams

    As far as the media goes, it is quite circumspect. This publication has a picture of Pakistani demonstrations against India, Israel and the US in response to the Mumbai killings but nary a word in print. There appears to be an editorial policy to give us the mushroom treatment about the Muslim disconnect from reality.

  • edbyronadams

    These are the kind of items hidden deep in the media by editors.

  • asizk

    Frankly am surprised that a Jewish person is fair,decent and objective-u don’t come across them often.Forty of the 171 killed in Mumbai by terrorists were Muslims.There is no such thing as a “Muslim terrorist” because it’s contradictonary in terms.Jihad and Jihads have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.

  • simplesimon33

    While it may be true that media condemns all Muslims when it uses the word ‘Muslim terrorist’, media can not ignore the fact it is the Islam’s message of ‘thou shall wage a jihad against the non-believers and convert or kill the kafirs’ as written in Koran is what inspires the truly faithful Muslims to take up a gun and act on that message even if Simon Cohen wants to ignore that message when he blames media for maligning all Muslims or Islam. Islam can not escape from Koran’s message and neither can media even if Simon Cohen wants to.

  • ASTORIA

    Simple simon- you cannot take a half of a badly translated sentence and present it as an example of Islam. The Qur’an is divided into 2 sections- one is historical and relates specific events-(like the badly translated instance you offer) If we look at the Old testament- we will see exhortations to dash babies heads against stones, kill entire towns and keep only the virgin women-

  • onofrio

    ASTORIA,This sort of dodge is endemic among Abrahamic sectarians like yourself – if Scripture endorses atrocity, relativise it or allegorise it away. In one way, I’m actually relieved that you do that – it makes the world a bit safer for whomever the “unbeliever” happens to be. But it’s a dishonest tactic none the less.If the references to jihadic conquest relate only to a specific time and place in the Prophet’s career, why did Allah see fit to enshrine it in holy writ for all time? Same goes for the Old Testament infant-slaying horrors you cite. This is one of the main problems with the scripture-based Abrahamic sects – if the word of God/Yahweh/Allah is so non-negotiably sacred, there will always be significant numbers of believers who advocate literal interpretation, and act on that interpretation. As that Christian bumper sticker crudely crows: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” The god presented in Qur’an and Bible doesn’t exactly excel in subtlety and nuance. It’s righteous/wicked, sheep/goats, Muslim/infidel all the way with him. He comes across as a manipulative cosmic control freak, so it’s no surprise that unsavory zealots keep finding their inspiration in his “Word”.

  • ASTORIA

    Well, if it were the way that half-sentence is understood by scholars- such a contention would certainly be a dodge. Bit it is not interpreted that way- as I stated- and there is no crossover- no dodge- no convenient re-interpretation- Even the most fundamental of Islamic extremists recognize the difference- the 2 are not interchangeable. For instance- that particular half-sentence should rightly be translated without the biblical 19th century ‘thus’es (a true mark of an orientalist translation. I can see you are not a believer – and that is your prerogative to exercise- however- I would not really feel especially compelled to critique Darwin’s origin of the Species- I am not a scientist- and I would fully recognize that I am not a true believer in that particular doctrine- There is no ‘jihadist conquest’. The rules of war and engagement in Islam are very speicific- and conquest is not only forbidden- it is completely anthema and if encountered- must be fought against! Silence and the complicity of non-action are not allowed. Jihad isn’t war- it is the scrutiny of the self- and examining of the weaknesses in our natures- and if it is a battle at all- it is a battle of the self with the self- and not seen with the eye. Anyway- I don;t have much time right now- but there is no jihadist conquest- and if you study the history of Islam and it’s beginnings- fighting ONLY occurred when the MUlsims were AGGRESSED AGAINST- OR ATTACKED- and ONLY in defense. As in the half sentence referred to- Well- the Rules of War in Islam f are far more just and humane than the Geneva Convention- it covers anything you can think of- If an aggressor who comes to your home to fight you- puts down his weapon and says peace- he must be conducted safely to a neutral territory- A prisoner of war must be fed before the soliders, and the same- trees and even grass may not be scorched in warfare- I think you would be amazed if you knew the true face of Islam- don’t depend upon half sentences on a blog to gain your knowledge of it-

  • observer12

    asizk vomits:”Frankly am surprised that a Jewish person is fair,decent and objective-u don’t come across them often.”Sad to say, I’m not surprised by this moronic post since whenever one runs into your comments they are biased, indecent, and solipsistic. That is, without exception. Perhaps, it is because you’re a racist a-hole as your comment posted above shows.

  • ASTORIA

    Thank you Mr. Cohen,