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“Islamic terrorism”: 
A loose, imprecise construct bandied about carelessly

The attack on Akshardham temple in Gandhi Nagar and the blasts in Bali provoked the Indian mainstream media to blame “Islamic terrorism” for the unpardonable acts.

The big three of the Indian print media— the Hindustan Times, the Times of India and the Indian Express— in their editorials blamed Islamic terrorism for the bombings in Bali.

Even the terrorist attack on Akshardham on September 24 produced a significant rupture in the national media. The national media, which so effectively exposed the hidden agenda of the ruling party in Gujarat in the post-Godhra riots, caved in to the official version during the Akshardham attack.

The national media meekly acquiesced as soon as the “P” element was brought in by the BJP. Within hours of the attack, the deputy prime minister told the nation that the terrorists had come from across the border.

But be it a Pakistan-sponsored attack or an act of local militants to avenge the killings of over a thousand innocent Muslims in communal riots, the national media meekly repeated the official line which had a P and I in capital letters (Pakistan and Islam).

Stuart Allan in Journalism after September 11, writes, “In the time of trauma, not only are the mainstream media not in fact as objective as they claim to be, but also they tend to internalise the official line.” Michael Schudson noted that there were three conditions under which dissent and the ideal of objectivity were suspended: tragedy, danger, and a threat to national security.

Perhaps the Akshardham attack represented all three, though to a far lesser degree compared to the September 11 events. G Tuchman in Mass Media and Social Change writes, “When faced with the unusual, journalists respond by falling back on the set patterns of information gathering and reporting. The easiest option is to toe the official line.”

In the time of tragic events, the national media often confused the questioning of official policy with disloyalty to the nation. Thus the P factor was hurriedly injected into the discourse within a few hours of the Akshardham attack. It not only succeeded in diverting media attention from the initial inference that the attack was the consequence of its communal politics, the I element was brought in for obvious reasons.

The finger of suspicion being pointed at madrasahs is an object of concern for Indian Muslims. The BJP leadership, to maintain the communal temperature in Gujarat, raised the issue of Islamic terrorism. Within hours of both Akshardham attack and bombings in Bali, media managers of the BJP and their high-profile spokespersons and ministers raised the Islamic terrorism bogey in the Indian print and electronic media.

The madrasah bogey was effectively brought into focus targetting it as a nursery and sanctuary of Islamic terrorism. That raises the question, “Is Islamic terrorism in India a reality or a myth propagated by our political masters in their quest for electoral expediency?” A former civil servant familiar with violent conflict says, “They say that the attack on Akshardham was by terrorists from across the border. I would say that there would be no need for this. It is not hard to recruit locally. It is not just fundamentalist ideology alone that drives people to violence; it could be poverty, a deep sense of injustice, and the reaffirmation of this through something like the violence Gujarat saw.This was what we found in Punjab after Operation Blue Star. In short, claims of fighting a war against terrorism are worth nothing when you allow the massacre of a thousand Muslims in Gujarat.” 

The two major terrorist acts in India linked to Muslims are the Mumbai blasts of March 1993 and Coimbatore blasts of 1997. A slew of reports, including the Srikrishna Commission report, link these to anti-Muslim carnage. On the other hand, terrorist activities in Kashmir cannot be linked in any way to Indian Muslims, nor to Islam. It is of a different nature altogether. 

But no sooner does a terrorist attack in India or anywhere else take place the bogey of Islamic terrorism is raised and the Sangh begins to target Indian Muslims. Karim H Karim in his article “Making Sense of the Islamic Peril” (included in Journalism after September 11) writes, “Media portrayals of ‘Islamic violence’ are influenced by the dominant cultural meanings attached to both ‘Islam’ and ‘violence’. Societal consensus determines which actions are to be considered violent and which ones are not. Various discourses compete in the naming of violence, a phenomenon which is an integral, albeit enigmatic, feature of human history. Whereas force is often utilized to repress people, it is also a means to oppose and develop checks against excessive power. Since there is an integral link between power and violence, those who hold power have a vested interest in ensuring that their preferred meanings remain dominant.” 

Indeed, most of the media, stunned by the Akshardham attack and the Bali bombings, seemed all too willing to accept the government's lead. As the hunt for the terrorists’ identity began, the media failed to provide a nuanced and contextual understanding of Islam, Muslim sensitivities, or, for that matter, the threat from Islamic terrorism.

Terrorist acts like Akshardham attack carried out by an unknown group, Tehrik-e-Qasas, cannot be described as “Islamic terrorism”, since these actions do not constitute part of the essential metaphysical, religious, or spiritual dimensions of the faith. They cannot be considered expressions of “Muslim terrorism” if this were to be posited as an essential feature of Islam. If individuals who profess Islam and carry out terrorist acts could be viewed as “Muslim terrorists”, one would then similarly refer to “Hindu terrorists”, “Sikh terrorists” “Christian terrorists”, “Jewish terrorists” and “Buddhist terrorists”. The ground reality is that the media has been a little too generous with Muslims in labelling terrorism.

London Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, whose reporting often provides alternative views on power and violence, writes in Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, “terrorism no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. ‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorist Palestinians acknowledge—for they too use the word—are those opposed to the Palestinians.”

Even in our country, terrorist and terrorism are selectively used. The activities of the Sangh are never termed as acts of terrorism though many a times these activities threaten national security. Veerappan is quite often described as a bandit rather than a terrorist. In India, the media has the tendency to declare manifestations of the Muslim belief such as wearing the hijab and practising the teachings of Islam as certain signs of “Islamic fundamentalism,” where as wearing of Hindu, Sikh or Jain religious apparel or visiting temple are not usually considered signs of fanaticism.

Karim writes, “The generalisation and polarisation of all Muslims as ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘moderates,’ ‘fanatics’ and ‘secularists’ serve to distort communication. They tend to make the Muslims who are interested in constructive dialogue with non-Muslims apologetic about their beliefs or, contrarily, disdainful about any interaction.”

In India, by and large, Muslims are tolerant and believe in peaceful co-existence. They have maintained peace in spite of provocation from Hindutva votaries and from the state itself. In the 55 years after independence, Muslims not only refused to be part of militant and extremist groups, but also took part in defeating terrorism of all shades. That shows “Islamic terrorism” is a broad, imprecise construct, used carelessly by the overworked media. 

Sometimes it is used as a rubric to describe a range of realities which may not have anything to do with either Islam or terrorism at all. Media, driven by a relentless impulse to chase fleeting events (and try to make some sense out of the maddening welter as well), often does not have the time or patience for making finer distinctions.

¯ M H Lakdawala

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