Throughout the era defined by 9/11, most journalists in the West have struggled to follow two basic concepts while doing their work.
The first concept is, of course: Islam is a religion of peace.
The second would, in most cases, be stated something like this: There is no one Islam. The point is to stress the perfectly obvious, and accurate, fact that Islam is not a monolith. Islam in Saudi Arabia is quite different from the faith found in Iran. Islam in Indonesia is quite different from the faith found in Pakistan. There are competing visions of Islam in lands such as Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan.
The problem with these two concepts is that they clash. Note that Islam, singular, is a religion of peace. But which Islam is that, since there is no one Islam? In the end, many journalists appear to have decided that wise people in the White House or some other center of Western intellectual life get to decide which Islam is the true Islam. The fact that millions of Muslims, of various kinds, find that condescending (or worse) is beside the point.
At times, it appears that the true Islam is a religion and the false Islam is a political ideology. When one looks at history, of course, Muslims see a truly Islamic culture as one unified whole. There is, simply stated, no separation of mosque and state in a majority Muslim culture. The mosque is at the center of all life.
You can see all of these ideas lurking in the background when American politicos argue about what is, and what is not, “terrorism.” As the old saying goes, one man’s “freedom fighter” is another man’s “terrorist.”
As it turns out, the word “terrorism” has a very specific meaning for Western elites. Is the same definition accepted among the minority of Muslims who have adopted a radicalized version of Islam?
… said the attacker, who was armed with a knife, reportedly made references to Allah during the attack and asked at least one person whether they were Muslim. But Anderson pointedly declined to call the attacks an act of terrorism, saying the motive isn't yet known.
Like the police, Minnesota FBI spokesman Kyle Loven declined to say Sunday if investigators believe the attack was a terrorist act.
In other words, the attacker may have clearly stated that he was attacking infidels in the name of Islam -- but that was Islam the religion. His acts could not be called “terrorism” because, well, religion isn’t a real motive. Things become real when they are linked to organizations that have clearly stated political goals in the eyes of Western leaders.
There is that question, again: Is there a form of Islam practiced anywhere that recognizes this kind of Western division between religious truth and political life?
The Los Angeles Times, to its credit, has written an entire news report about this issue, under this headline: “The politics of calling an act of violence 'terrorism': Why some people hold back.”
As you would expect, this story begins with politicians defining the term, as in the debates the other night between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (the bombing in Manhattan was “obviously an act of terrorism”) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (the was “a very bad incident” and “an intentional act”).
Donald Trump then did that Trump thing that he does. President Barack Obama then did that Obama thing that he does. World without end. Amen.
But here is the crucial part of the story, from the perspective of most journalists. Readers need to understand this information to grasp why our news coverage of these kinds of events is what it is.
Federal law defines terrorism as an intentional act that endangers life and is designed to coerce or intimidate the population, influence government policy or affect the conduct of the government. In other words, for an attack to qualify as terrorism, it has to be more than just terrifying. It requires a broader political motive.
By that definition, De Blasio had a point. The bombing, which occurred in the neighborhood of Chelsea, injured 29 people and spread fear. But in the immediate aftermath, before there was a suspect, it was difficult to say much with any certainty.
“How is someone rational supposed to call it ‘terrorism’ without knowing who did it, let alone their motive???” tweeted Glenn Greenwald, the journalist and lawyer who has reported extensively on U.S. and British surveillance.
Once again, religious faith alone is not a real thing, a motive that leads someone to commit acts of terror -- when viewed from a Western point of view. Actions become real, they become acts of "terror," when they attempt to influence something that is real, such as “government policy” or the “conduct of government.”
The bottom line: Killing infidels, or other Muslims who reject a radicalized view of the faith, is not enough to make these kinds of acts real, live examples of legally defined “terror.” They become real when linked to motives that American officials and most journalists define as real -- which means things that are political.
Is that clear, now? Then read on:
Even Monday, after Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, was identified as a suspect and taken into custody, it was unclear whether he drew inspiration from a foreign terrorist group, had direct links with such a group or had some other motive. Investigators said there was no evidence that he was part of a broader terrorist cell.
This year, when the Los Angeles Times used government and police reports, terrorism databases, news accounts and independent reporting to compile the worldwide toll of terrorism deaths in the month of April, classifying violence sometimes proved difficult.
In some cases, there was simply not enough information to say that a killing wasn't something other than terrorism -- a personal dispute or the work of criminals who aren't motivated by ideology.
Now there is this, care of The Washington Post and other media reports:
In a journal found on him after he was captured, Ahmad Rahami, the 28-year-old suspected bomber, had written that, God willing, “the sounds of the bombs will be heard in the streets,” according to an FBI complaint.
Ah, but did he intend to influence the polls leading up to Election Day?