Sunday, December 21 2014

New research on ‘Race, Religion and the Perception of Terrorism’


A column written in USA Today by Tom Kreattenmaker draws attention to new research carried out by a terrorism prosecutions expert in Portland, Oregon on ‘Race, Religion and the Perception of Terrorism’. Tung Yin of the Lewis and Clark Law School has written a paper analysing four case studies of comparable acts of aggressive violence in the US and explores the reasons why two of these cases - which involved American Muslims, were significantly more likely to be labelled as acts of terrorism and the perpetrators as terrorists, than those cases involving white, non-Muslim Americans. Yin goes on to explore the implications that the findings have for counterterrorism policy.

Yin writes:

“Consider the following four fact patterns, and determine which, if any, describes an act of terrorism:

The Bombers
“Case 1. Defendant wants to blow up people and plots with co-conspirators to set off a car bomb in a city’s crowded downtown. His co-conspirators are actually undercover FBI agents carrying out an elaborate “sting” operation, so no one is hurt.

“Case 2. Defendant leaves a live bomb near a bank. The bomb goes off and kills two police officers and maims another officer.


The Shooters
“Case 3. The defendant brings handguns to a place where nearly everyone else is unarmed. He shoots dozens of people, killing 13 and wounding 32, before he is himself disabled by return fire.

“Case 4. The defendant brings handguns to a public place full of unarmed people. He opens fire, killing six (including a federal judge) and wounding 13, before he is disabled by others at the scene.


“Who are the terrorists in these case studies?


“Judging from media accounts and government press releases, however, the correct answer appears to be that the suspects in cases 1 and 3 are “terrorists,” but those in cases 2 and 4 are not. This is a result that is challenging to explain without reference to the fact that the suspects in cases 1 and 3 are Muslim Americans (one of African descent, the other of Middle Eastern descent), while those in cases 2 and 4 are white non-Muslims.


“Terrorism-like crimes committed by Arab- or Muslim-Americans get treated as terrorism, but similar crimes by non-Arabs/Muslims, while punished harshly, are generally not viewed as terrorism.”


Yin writes of Case 3 that “Multiple media outlets described Hasan as a terrorist, often emphasizing the fact that he might have said shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great! in Arabic) as he fired”, whereas “Loughner was generally not described as a terrorist, but rather as a “gunman” who battled substance abuse and was a “seriously disturbed student.”” His analysis of media coverage finds that “2.2% of stories about Loughner also mentioned terrorism, whereas 15.5% of stories about Hasan also mentioned terrorism.”

He later adds that “the conclusion that Hasan was a terrorist seems inextricably linked to his being Muslim more than to any classic understanding of terrorism as a form of violent coercion”, although “In the end, the nature of the criminal charges brought against the two men are essentially the same: murder and attempted murder”.

Yin explores ‘bad assumptions and racial profiling’ and the way that incidents publicly labelled as terrorism are disproportionately linked to Muslim and Arab Americans. “There may be an undue temptation to assume that the perpetrators of any new apparent act of terrorism are probably members of those groups,” he states, arguing that such groups pay a “racial tax” as a result.

Yin states that fixating on the Muslim community as the only terrorists feeds back to those involved in counter-terrorism, reinforcing the idea that the effort should be focused on the Muslim community, which in turn reinforces the initial belief. Yin also argues that a fixation on Arabs and Muslims in relation to terrorism may lead to oversight in preventing acts of terrorism carried out by other groups.

In exploring possible solutions, Yin argues that there is an urgent need to work towards recognising and reducing ‘cognitive biases’ which colour the way in which different groups are associated with terrorism. He suggests a tactic whereby when Arabs/Muslims are suspected of terrorism, one should questions “whether one would be as quick to jump to the “terrorist” label for non- Arab/Muslim suspects. The converse situation should also call for this kind of introspection: thus, in mass violence cases involving spree shooters or bombers who are neither Arab nor Muslim, one should ask whether they would be viewed as terrorists if they were Arab or Muslim.” He places the responsibility of taking these steps on “spokespersons for law enforcement agencies and prosecution offices, high ranking government officials, and the mainstream media.”

Some of the themes explored and conclusions drawn in the paper resonate significantly with the experiences of Muslims in the UK and Europe. Since the high profile attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 there has been an overwhelming tendency for the media, and the public more widely, to associate terrorism with Muslim communities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the Norway attacks in July last year with the Sun newspaper labeling the attack ‘Norway’s 9/11’, and describing it as an ‘Al-Qaeda massacre’. Significant too was the propensity of ‘terrorism experts’ to lead the charge in ‘bad assumptions’ with commentary largely concluding, prematurely, that Breivik’s attack was carried out by Al Qaeda. The media’s bias in reporting on cases of terrorism and political violence has also been a topic covered by journalists Mehdi Hasan and Sophy Ridge.

The 2011 and 2012 Terrorism Situation and Trends reports published by Europol illustrated that religiously-inspired attacks carried out by Muslims constituted a small fraction of overall terrorist attacks committed in Europe over the past two years. Since 2006, religiously-inspired extremists have been responsible for 10 out of 2150 attacks, a total of 0.5%. Nevertheless, 50% of Europe’s counter-terrorism resources have been focused on this 0.5%. Moreover, a recent report by Matthew Goodwin found that there is “clear evidence of an inner core of activists” among far-right activists  “who are both expecting, and endorse, violence.” The conclusion is echoed in the Home Affairs select committee report on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation.

Terrorism is not owned by any one ideology or creed, as the facts and successive analyses makes clear. Perhaps it is time for those responsible for shaping public discourses and policy on terrorism to question the dangerous implications of their simplistic, biased assumptions.

Tung Yin’s full paper is available to download here.









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