Terrorism and the many misconceptions that surround it

Today, terrorism is quickly linked with religion - to be more precise, with Islam - but is there really a connection? Dr Michael Jetter from UWA's Business School, an expert in the link between the media and terrorism, explores this contentious topic.

When a terrorist attack occurs in the Western world, the media is quick to talk about ‘Islamist extremists’, ‘religious fundamentalists’, ‘Muslim terrorists’ and other catchy terms that conveniently link a whole religion to violent destruction.

As a result, it’s likely more and more people believe Islam is fundamentally at odds with the ideals of Western societies. This in turn affects any number of societal movements and policies, such as the treatment of refugees from Muslim-majority countries, as well as attitudes toward migrants, religious freedom and international political relations.

‘Islamist terror’... a misleading term?

So is there a systematic link between a particular religious belief and terrorism? To answer this question, it is useful to dissect the implied link between Islam and terrorism; and once we consider the facts rather than the stereotypes, the results are surprising.

For example, the share of Muslims in the global population is approximately 24 per cent; however, only about 10.3 per cent of all terrorist attacks since 1970 have been conducted by (supposedly) Islamist-motivated groups.

This share has increased recently but still remains well below 24 per cent. In addition, where a larger percentage of Muslim citizens exists in a given country, the tendency is for fewer terrorist attacks, if anything.

Put simply, if you encounter a Muslim anywhere in the world today, that person is less likely to be a terrorist than any person you might meet who is a non-Muslim. To claim that Islam is systematically related to increased terrorism is simply incorrect. It is also worth noting the majority of the victims of ‘Islamist terror’ are actually Muslims, casting further doubt on the supposedly religious motivations of terrorists.

How we and the media perceive terrorism

So why is the media so quick to link Islam to terrorism? Consider other, non-Islamist terrorist groups and how they are viewed: nobody would blame Christianity as a whole for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which operates mostly in Uganda and has killed an estimated 100,000 people (the group’s brutal leader, Joseph Kony, aims to establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments).

Similarly, the self-proclaimed Army of God has been known for perpetrating antiabortion violence in the United States for decades, yet the vast majority of Christians reject the group, and its violent methods especially.

It is very clear to us in Western countries that the vast majority of Christians neither support the LRA nor the Army of God, and to say they did would be considered absurd. The same logic that stops us linking the LRA and Army of God to Christianity should stop us linking ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to Islam; however, when it comes to Islamic extremists, the media and others are quick to link the entire religious belief system to terrorism.

In fact, both historically and today, Islamist groups have been less likely to conduct Terrorist attacks than non-Islamist groups in virtually every aspect one can can consider.

There could be many reasons for this asymmetrical treatment of Christian terrorist groups versus Islamist terrorist groups; one likely explanation is simply that Westerners know Christianity much better than Islam. We simply don’t know enough about Muslims, and anything we don’t understand is always scarier than something we do.

This makes it easier to follow a simple, but dangerously misleading, narrative of ‘us versus them’. In fact, throughout history, the use of an overarching identifier has been a prominent political tool to paint this sort of narrative.

Violence and identities

These identifiers can be based on religion (or a usually grotesque version of religion), ethnicity, nationality or even sexual orientation (for example, organised violence against the LGBT community).

Unfortunately, this ‘us versus them’ rhetoric has recently come back into the public discourse with the rise of populist movements. As a result, hate crimes are rising again and old voices have returned to speak against immigration, as well as globalisation.

For example, so-called white nationalist groups have recently committed several acts of violence in the United States, in the process killing numerous innocent people. Of course, mass murderers like self-avowed white supremist Dylann Roof – who killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina – are not representative of white Americans by any means.

Again, we would immediately recognise such a claim as absurd; such criminals are not representative of their race, ethnicity or religion.

In the same way, we should be careful not to let terms like ‘Islamist extremist’ enter our vocabulary and our way of thinking. Rather, we should call terrorists who claim to be motivated by Islam, Christianity or any other religion what they are: killers who attack our society as a whole. Period.

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