The Crucial Difference in the U.K.'s Response to The Latest Attack on Muslims

June 19th 2017

Mike Rothschild

The Sunday evening truck attack on worshipers exiting a mosque in London's Finsbury Park neighborhood was immediately tagged with a term not often used for anti-Islamic violence in the United States: terrorism.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced Monday morning that the country had "woke to news of another terrorist attack on the streets of our capital city," referencing the van and knife attack on London Bridge several weeks earlier. Her immediate use of the term immediately served to equate an incident of violence by Muslims to an incident of violence against Muslims, in a way rarely done by other western officials.

As the Intercept's Robert Mackey wrote in discussing the aftermath of the attack, "May’s confirmation that the deadly assault on innocent civilians was terrorist in nature stood in stark contrast to the reticence officials in the United States have frequently shown about using that term to describe anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by far-right extremists."

May's political opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, called the attack "terror on the streets," and announced he would attend a service at the mosque the next day. At the same time, London's Metropolitan Police immediately announced they were officially treating the incident as a terrorist attack. This language has the effect of declaring that an attack on any Londoner is an attack on the entire population.

The term "terrorism" is a loaded one, that has both advantages and disadvantages in its use. It can be useful for defining politically motivated violence that has no goal other than to spread fear. But as the BBC's Editorial Guidelines say, it demands "careful thought" before its use, and "can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding" when used inconsistently and against only certain demographics.

In the United States, that demographic is almost always Muslims. The U.S. media, along with conservative politicians, almost always fail to apply the term to incidents of political violence perpetrated by whites or non-Muslims, and often under-report these incidents.

In March, libertarian-leaning site Reason reported on a study by researchers at Georgia State University trying to determine why some terrorist attacks were covered more than others. In their work, they found that over a five year period, "Muslims carried out only 11 out of 89 [terror] attacks, yet those attacks received 44 percent of the media coverage" in the United States."

"The average attack with a Muslim perpetrator is covered in 90.8 articles," the study continued. "Attacks with a Muslim, foreign-born perpetrator are covered in 192.8 articles on average. Compare this with other attacks, which received an average of 18.1 articles."

When major incidents of politically-motivated violence by whites do receive extensive coverage, such as the murder of nine African-American parishioners in Charleston by Dylann Roof, or Wade Michael Page killing six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; the media debates whether these murders, clearly motivated by racial and religious animus, are actually terrorism.

In the case of Roof, no less than former FBI Director James Comey said the attack wasn't terrorist in nature because it wasn't a "political act." And despite Roof telling his victims during the shooting "you rape our women, and you're taking over our country, and you have to go," the Washington Post opined that we shouldn't call Roof a terrorist to show him "we aren't scared of his dumb Internet rhetoric."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations called out the double standard after another attack that was obviously motivated by politics—the murder of three people by a white supremacist couple in Las Vegas—dodged the label of "terrorism."

“Without a doubt, if these individuals had been Muslim, it not only would be called ‘terrorism’ but it would have made national and international headlines for weeks,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the group.

That double standard has even reached the president, as Donald Trump has been found to quickly respond to terrorist attacks attributed to Muslims, but says little or nothing about attacks by white perpetrators, particularly when they're on Muslim victims.

As if to prove the point, as of this writing, Trump has said nothing about the Finsbury Park attack on Twitter.