A terrorist by any other name

by Jon Pahl
13 April 2010
Print
Email
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - When is a terrorist not considered a terrorist? When the US media identifies him or her as a “Christian". And when is a terrorist group not considered a terrorist group? When the US media calls it an "anti-government militia".

Exceptionalism is alive and well when it comes to reporting on violence in the name of religion, as evidenced in the recent case of the Michigan-based Hutaree, a group that the media has labelled a militia following recent FBI raids that uncovered stockpiles of illegal weapons, and a plot to kill law enforcement officers and "levy war" against the United States.

The leader of the group, 45-year-old David Brian Stone, pulled no punches about who he was, coining the term "Hutaree" which his website translates as "Christian warrior" for his group. His motto is the biblical passage John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

The behaviour of this group seems very similar to that of those termed terrorists by the media.

Yet Joshua Rhett Miller of Fox News described the Hutaree in a 29 March story as a "purportedly Christian-based militia group." In a similar vein, Nick Bunkley and Charlie Savage of The New York Times identified Stone and the Hutaree somewhat apologetically as "apocalyptic Christian militants" in their 29 March report. This, despite the fact that the group not only stockpiled weapons and engaged in training identical to Al Qaeda's modus operandi, but even planned improvised explosive devices based on those used by terrorists in Iraq.

In its "Times Topics" section, The New York Times positively contorts itself to avoid using the word “terrorist”. It describes the Hutaree as a "Michigan-based Christian militia group" and, mirroring the language of US Attorney General Eric Holder, as "anti-government extremists."

Are we reserving the term “terrorist” only for Muslims these days? In coverage of stories like the thwarted plan to bomb synagogues in New York in May 2009 or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit, the mainstream media has no qualms about discussing “foiled terror plots.” Such a reservation stokes indiscriminate fear of Muslim "others". It also constructs an implicit "us versus them" dualism between a broadly "Christian America" and an allegedly monolithic “Muslim world”, as American political scientist Samuel Huntington most notoriously opined in his "Clash of Civilisations" theory.

Religion is all too often seen as the root of terrorist violence, rather than as one of its most effective tools. As Scott Shane argued in the 4 April New York Times article "Dropping the word bomb", we need a robust debate about what terms to use across cases. Journalists can help by practicing consistency, and by pointing out attempts to scapegoat one group and exempt another from the opprobrium associated with terms like "terrorist."

Mainstream Christians like me cringe when a group like the Hutaree is identified as "Christian". Perhaps this incident can help other Americans empathise with what close to 1.5 billion Muslims might have felt every time in the last few years they have heard the words "Muslim terrorists" or, far worse, "Islamic terrorists".

A good rule to follow, for journalists and for all of us, might be to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.

And that means calling a terrorist – of whatever background – exactly that.

###

* Jon Pahl (jpahl@ltsp.edu) is Professor of History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author of Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. This article first appeared in The Colorado Daily and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 13 April 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
 
 
 
 
"I have received six questions from several individuals working for the Common Ground News Service. I hope that students and specialists in our university (Al Azhar), as well as those concerned with general intellectual matters, will take note of the effort behind these questions, how they came to be issued only after extensive information - gathering and study that could fill shelves, and after the kind of organized thought that draws connections between various facts and which does not busy itself with the illusions, trifles, and pettiness that upend the edifice of knowledge."

- Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt
 
 
 

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.

Monthly:

Donate:

Or, support us with a one-time donation.

 
 
 
OTHER ARTICLES IN EDITION
Quebec niqab legislation would cover more than the face
Time for change 20 years after Lebanon's civil war
A Muslim's Passover
Blogs go beyond traditional media to bridge divides
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
200+
 
 
# of hours per week to create one edition
 
 
8
 
 
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
 
 
30,000
 
 
# of subscribers
 
 
30
 
 
Average # of reprints per article
 
 
4,800
 
 
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
 
 
37,307
 
 
# of republished articles since inception
 
 
6
 
 
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
 
 
2000+
 
 
# of writers since inception
 
 
'

 

Other articles in this edition

Quebec niqab legislation would cover more than the face by Daood Hamdani
Time for change 20 years after Lebanon's civil war by Fadia Kiwan
A Muslim's Passover by Mohammad Ali Salih
Blogs go beyond traditional media to bridge divides by Hisham Khribchi