So, what are reporters supposed to call the driver of the white van that veered into a crowd of worshippers as they left a mosque in north London?
That's a logical and totally appropriate question for journalists and multicultural activists to be asking, as the coverage digs deeper and deeper into the facts surrounding England's latest terrorist incident.
A "terrorist" attack? Obviously. This certainly appears to have been the work of an anti-Muslim terrorist who was reacting to previous attacks on civilians by terrorists preaching, in word and deed, a radicalized brand of Islam.
The New York Times team noted that a rather prominent writer -- J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter fame -- has spoken out on this topic. In a tweet that was later deleted, she opined: “The [Daily] Mail has misspelled ‘terrorist’ as ‘white van driver. ... Now let’s discuss how he was radicalised.”
To which I say, "amen" on the radicalized question. Still, I advise -- as in the past -- caution and some basic research before journalists start throwing labels around.
Does anyone remember that hellish 2011 rampage in Norway by Behring Breivik? People started using the term "Christian fundamentalist" before facts emerged that pointed in a radically different direction. As I wrote at that time:
... What are journalists looking for? ... We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.
Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?
In other words, journalists (and law officials, for that matter) need to ask the same kinds of questions when a terrorist attacks Muslims that they should be asking when radicalized Muslims attack those (Christians, Jews, secularists, other Muslims) who oppose their approach to Islam.
Yes, some of these essential questions are linked to the religion and religious practice, which may or may not be linked to the terrorist's actual motivations.
Alas, activists and bystanders are going to leap to conclusions and journalists have to be ready for that. Note the top of that latest Times update from London:
LONDON -- Like many of London’s Muslims, Mohammed Abdullah grew tired of defending himself, and his religion, after Islamist terrorists carried out two attacks in the city and another in Manchester during the past three months. Hostile glances followed him on the street, and rising fury greeted him on social media.
Then came last week’s devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, a citywide tragedy that killed at least 79 people inside the 24-story tower, including many Muslims. “Good riddance,” one far-right forum commented.
But early Monday, a white British man rammed a rental van into a congregation of Muslims leaving prayers during Ramadan, the holiest month on the Muslim calendar. One person was killed and at least 10 were injured.
“It feels like you’re under siege,” said Mr. Abdullah, 23, a law student standing outside Finsbury Park Mosque in North London on Monday morning hours after the attack. “I wonder,” he said, “is anyone going to write about a ‘white Christian terrorist’ this time round?”
It takes time, of course, for basic facts to emerge after this kind of attack. Here is some typically cautious language from BBC:
The man arrested on suspicion of carrying out a terror attack near a north London mosque is Darren Osborne from Cardiff, the BBC understands.
The father-of-four was held after a van hit Muslims who had been attending evening prayers in Finsbury Park. ...
Mr Osborne, 47, was held on suspicion of attempted murder and later further arrested over alleged terror offences. Police are carrying out searches at an address in the Cardiff area.
Security Minister Ben Wallace said the suspect was not known to the security services, and was believed to have acted alone.
The "acted alone" reference is crucial, since there were early reports -- false, as it turned out -- that several other people leaped out of the van after the attack.
By the way, I would be interested in knowing (if any Brits or ex-Brits read this post) what the consistent use of words "father of four" by journalists might imply in the context of modern England. Here in the United States that might be seen as a hint that a person was a religious conservative. Does this mean a person is working class or "blue collar"? What's the big idea, here?
See this typical context from The Daily Mail:
The Finsbury Park terror suspect was thrown out of a pub on Saturday night after 'cursing Muslims' and vowing to 'do some damage'. ... Father-of-four Darren Osborne, 47, has been named as the man accused of ploughing a van into Muslim worshippers in the early hours of Monday morning.
It is alleged that Osborne -- who was not known to police and MI5 -- hired an £80-a-day van from South Wales before driving to the Muslim Welfare House in north London. There, he is accused of mounting the pavement just yards from the Finsbury Park Mosque and mowing down a group of British Muslims who had been helping an unwell man.
Witnesses say that, after the attack, he shouted 'I'm going to kill all Muslims - I did my bit' as he was restrained by members of the community.
The Washington Post, and many other publications, called attention to another important religion angle in this drama.
The bottom line: It is highly likely that one of the mosque's imams saved Osborne's life after the attack.
Witnesses said the driver was heard shouting that he wanted to kill Muslims after he was wrestled to the ground. In a stunning twist, however, the driver may have been spared serious harm from the outraged crowd after one of the mosque imams appealed for calm. ...
A witness, who gave his name as Adil Rana, said the attacker tried to taunt onlookers as he was arrested.
“He said, ‘I’d do it again,’ ” Rana told The Washington Post. “It was a premeditated attack. He picked this area well, and he knows Finsbury Park is predominantly a Muslim area.”
So, in conclusion, what are the crucial religion-related questions journalists need to ask after this attack, or any other incident that is related to terrorism? Here are a few:
* What has the attacker actually said? Were materials linked to faith found on his or her person at the time of the attack?
* Is there evidence that specific writers or speakers inspired this attacker? This could, of course, be seen in social-media habits.
* Was this person an active, or even inactive, member of a specific religious congregation or organization? Journalists should immediately ask whether the attacker has been expelled from a religious group because of radicalized views, as opposed to simply noting the link.
* Has this person donated money to any particular causes or received funds or in-kind support from any religious groups? This may provide clues to a crucial question: Did the attacker act alone?
Stay tuned. Please leave us relevant URLs in the comments section on this post, if you see interesting mainstream news or comments on these issues.
FIRST IMAGE: A screen shot of the attacker, from the al Jazeera report.