September 6, 2006
Five years after the 9/11 attacks, we as Americans must remember that terrorism is not exclusively Islamic.
Like poverty and domestic abuse, terrorism has the unfortunate distinction of being present in nearly every nation. To hear the pundits tell it, though, terrorism is the exclusive domain of Arab and Muslim perpetrators. It is not, we are told, an action undertaken by Christians or Americans.
The first problem with this notion is that it assumes there are no Muslim Americans or Arab Americans (there are plenty) or Christians in the Islamic World (I happen to be an Arab Christian). To even speak of American versus Islamic violence, then, mistakenly consigns people into artificial categories that don't reflect the actual makeup of human communities.
Second, the sad fact is that Christian Americans are implicated in countless acts of terrorism: anthrax envelopes, abortion clinic attacks, the Unabomber, the Atlanta Olympics, Oklahoma City. This partial list disregards other atrocities such as the lynching of James Byrd and the My Lai and Haditha massacres, which can reasonably be considered acts of terror based on the tacit criteria used to construe Muslim violence as terrorism.
The problem, however, is that American commentators are eager to interpret all acts of Islamic violence as terrorism without articulating any criteria for such an interpretation.
Such a loose definition can be applied to U.S. actions and those of its allies. If, for instance, the Muslim attack on the USS Cole, a military target, can be designated as terrorism, then what are we to make of the 2004 American assault of Fallujah, the brutality at Abu Ghraib or the Israeli destruction of Lebanon? And what are we to make of the fact that more than 40,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the American government's decision to wage war against that country?
The notion that terrorism is exclusive to Islam is troublesome and cannot withstand historical scrutiny. It grows out of a deep misunderstanding of the Islamic world, which is tremendously diverse -- socially, culturally and politically.
Americans are accustomed to images of heroic white Christians battling the forces of Islamic backwardness in a prototypical good versus evil schema that is dangerous not only for its ability to demonize Muslims but also because it precludes the introspection necessary for American violence to be acknowledged and then eliminated. For many Americans, these images translate into a simple equation: Muslims are terrorists.
The preponderance of this schema is no accident. It is the result of geopolitical necessity. The United States has deep political and economic interests in the Islamic world, leading it on many occasions into military engagement there. The old rule of thumb persists: It is easiest to justify a military action if the victim isn't as civilized and enlightened as the perpetrator.
Americans might like to believe that they, unlike foreign Muslims, are too advanced morally to even contemplate terrorism, much less commit it.
A better approach would be to acknowledge that as citizens of a nation that has never avoided violence as an instrument of its foreign policy, we also need to undertake the same type of moral introspection we demand of Muslims.
Until this happens, we can expect terrorism to remain a part of the American landscape whether or not we admit it's there.
Steven Salaita is author of "Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes from and What It Means for Politics Today" (Pluto Press, 2006). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.