Reporting terrorism: a reflection

It has been reported that a thirty-one-year old British Muslim stashed four home-made explosive devices, as well as bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat. The police had found potentially lethal bladed weapons, 34 bullets for a .22 calibre firearm, and printouts from the internet about committing acts of terrorism. He had planned to bomb churches and plotted killing Christians in the name of jihad. Of course, national and international newspapers, Internet news, and TV have reported and spent litres of ink to provide details about the successful operations to arrest the terrorist; the Prime Minister has thanked our police forces for their work, reminded us of the terrorist threat, the need for forty-two days of detention, and how the terrorists are trying to subvert our British values. A script that we have seen acted out many times.

The above paragraph is almost correct. There are only three correlated misleading statements: firstly, the terrorist was not a Muslim, but a white British nationalist who actually planned to kill Muslims; secondly, the piece of news was reported, when it was reported at all, briefly and locally; finally, no politician has commented on the event or felt the need to defend our British values.  His name: Martyn Gilleard. Although his actions are presented as an isolated instance, an anomaly, I have reported an even less reported case of nationalist-Christian anti-Muslim terrorism, and I start to think that these are not isolated cases. 

However, I do not want to discuss here—though there will be a lot to discuss—the development of an anti-Muslim terrorism, but rather to analyse and compare how the mass media have reported this case. In the case of Roberto Sandalo, the self-proclaimed Christian terrorist, who planned and began to carry out terrorist attacks against Muslims and Muslim organisations, only few Italian newspapers reported this and his eventual arrest. In the case of Martyn Gilleard, very few British based newspapers and news broadcasters followed the case; virtually no part of the major international mass media felt the news worthy of being reported—check for instance, in FrenchItalianGermanDutch. This will be just a noteworthy aspect by itself. 

Nonetheless, the most, at least for an anthropologist, interesting element is how the story, when reported, has been presented to the, mainly non-Muslim, audience. I am in other words suggesting that news consisting of these instances of anti-Muslim ‘terrorism’, provide scholars with a great opportunity for comparative analysis of how the mass media are exploiting ‘religious’ elements and how colonial representations of the Muslim is still part of their rhetoric. Since I cannot provide an extended anthropological analysis in a blog post, I shall just offer material for thought, and invite as many as possible of my anthropologist colleagues to consider and plan some research on this understudied theme. 

Let me start with the BBC. More than any other mass media in the UK, they have reported Gilleard’s case since its beginning on the 1 November 2007. It is significant that, despite reporting the arrest and then the extension of Mr Gilleard’s detention under the 2001 Terrorist Act, the BBC still do not provide information of whom Mr Gilleard was. Many, of course, may have thought that the arrested man was a Muslim. On Saturday, 3 November 2007, the BBC had yet to reveal the name of the arrested man or his affiliation.

Many knew, at this stage, that it was Mr Gilleard, a very well known exponent of the Nazi movement,British People’s Party, since some Nationalist Internet forums were reporting his arrest. As you have perhaps expected, if this were a young Muslim, at least his religious affiliation would have been disclosed sooner. Interestingly, it was not until the 16 June 2008 that the BBC reported his identity and real intention. Yet, how have they reported it? 

First of all, we have to remember that Mr Gilleard’s main objective was to attack Muslims and, similarly to Roberto Sandalo, his arsenal of deadly weapons was ready for mosques and Islamic centres. Yet, despite the fact that the BBC knew that this was the case, the article focuses on the ‘racist’ nature of Mr Gilleard’s criminal designs. The BBC revealed that Mr Gilleard was also addicted to Internet child pornography.

One of the features of the last BBC article, as the other presented above, is the constant avoidance of the word ‘terrorist’ to label Mr Gilleard. So for instance we can read sentences such as ‘Neo-Nazi Martyn Gilleard has been found guilty of making bombs for a far-right terrorist campaign’, where, of course, terrorist is the campaign but not Mr Gilleard. Much of the short article focuses on his love for Nazism and depicts Mr Gilleard as just a case instead of a person who is part of organised movements which glorify terrorism against Muslims, ethnic minorities, lefties, and of course non-heterosexuals. Compare the above BBC articles with others referring to Muslims involved in even less ‘terrorist’ activities, as for instance the case of Younes Tsouli, and compare the BBC TV report on Mr Gilleard with the one offered on Mr Tsouli

Leaving aside the BBC, we can now move to the newspapers. I will start with the Daily Mail, often, alongside the Mirror, very harsh when representing the Muslim communities. The Daily Mail has a quite extended and documented article on Mr Gilleard’s criminal actions by Chris Brooke. The journalist starts his article with ‘A neo-Nazi paedophile…’ and again few sentences below ‘White-supremacist Martyn Gilleard…’. The journalist never addresses Mr Gilleard as ‘terrorist’, and in the best of the cases, the journalist speaks of ‘terror offences’. It is only when the police or the Judge speak that the word terrorist is actually used. Yet the fact that the primary targets of Mr Gilleard were Muslims and mosques is played very much down. How different from the Daily Mail journalists’ reporting on Muslims involved, sentenced, or accused of ‘terrorist offences’.

 Let us observe a Daily Mail headline (but you can search for more) of a similar court case: ‘Holy war’ Muslim had amassed personal details of royal family’ , the article starts ‘A Muslim “dedicated to violent holy war” held information about members of the royal family alongside instructions on how to kill “non-believers”, a court heard today.’ I am sure that you can notice immediately the difference with the article devoted to Mr Gilleard’s actions. Indeed, if the Daily Mail would have used the same framework to report Mr Gilleard’s terrorist aspirations, the headline should have read ‘Christian Crusader had amassed a personal arsenal to kill innocent Muslims and bomb mosques’, and the journalist should have started the article along these lines: ‘An Aryan Christian dedicated to crusades held deadly weapons and instructions on how to kill Muslims and other ethnic minorities’.

You can navigate all the Daily Mail (and the majority of newspapers) and you will discover the same: in the case of terrorist actions or plans committed by somebody declaring Islam as his faith, the word Muslim (even Muslim plot, Muslim terrorist, Muslim Holy War) will be the salient part of the headline or the article.  

Still using the example of the Daily Mail, I wish to highlight another interesting aspect. The Daily Mail allows its readers to post comments on the articles. If you check the article devoted to Mr Gilleard, at the time of writing, you can find only three, and they’re rather bland. Check articles of similar nature dealing with Muslims and you will observe the level of debate and reaction. 

Notwithstanding the very well known dubious quality of the Daily Mail and its articles, we have to recognise that at least they reported the case in full. What should we say of The Times, a journal which also has spent tonnes of ink on terrorism and Muslim related issues. The first time they reported the case was on 17 June 2008. Yet it was not an article, but part of their ‘In Court Today’, a very slim paragraph saying 

Prosecution witnesses to give evidence in the trial of Martyn Gilleard, 31, of Goole, East Yorkshire, who is accused of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts, possessing articles for terrorist purposes and collecting information for terrorist purposes. Prosecutors say he researched manuals on bomb-making and made nail bombs.

Then, on the 26 of June they reported that he has been sentenced, and here is all what The Times has to say:

Nail bomb jailing [sic!!]

A Nazi sympathiser who made nail bombs to attack black, Asian and Jewish people and who was found to have 39,000 indecent images of children at his flat was jailed for a total of 16 years by Leeds Cown [sic!!] Court. Martyn Gilleard, 31, of Goole, East Yorkshire, had said that his extreme views were in the past.

Leaving aside the fantastic written English of the journalist, could you imaging The Times reporting a ‘Muslim’ terrorist plot in such a brief and dry way? And notice again, how the journalist has selected the adjectives and nouns: Mr Gilleard is a ‘nail bomber’, he is just a ‘Nazi Sympathiser’ who wished to attack (my god, do not use the word kill!) ‘ black, Asian and Jewish people’. Surprise, The Times has not even mentioned (a rarity for them) the word Muslim…they became Asian (and possibly some of course black) people, but at the same time, the ‘Jewish’ did not turn magically into ‘Semitic’ people. I really wonder, at this point, if even this ridiculous short summary was not actually written by Mr Gilleard’s defence team. Why such a level of political correctness? Why does The Times not report cases which see Muslims involved with the same dry pen and soft approach they have granted to a Nazi White-British pedophile terrorist? 

Another newspaper with a certain orientalistic fascination with Muslims, The Mirror, has not offered much more.  The Independent seems to have copied The Times and added the extra lines of The Mirror, but nothing more. The Guardian, shamelessly, has more or less plagiarised the Independent, and again Mr Martyn Gilleard is just addressed as ‘the Nazi Sympathiser’. 

It is time, as scholars, to understand the reasons behind this: should we just accept that all the mass media are Islamophobic? Is not this just a simplistic, reductionist answer? Is there something more than the fear of Muslims, Islam and ‘the other’? Has academia (i.e. scholars) directly or indirectly something to do with this discrepancy in representation? 

I wish to suggest a possible start-point to investigate and research the reasons behind the mass media’s attitude and difference in style while reporting similar news concerning Muslims and non-Muslims, westerners and non-westerners, migrants (or refugees, as often they are mass mediatically presented as the same) and white autochthons.

One of the reasons, in my opinion, behind these differences in representation is how we do represent ourself as ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ of the Enlightenment, marked by a superior way of life now distant from both culture and nature, yet still affected and threatened by ‘barbarous’  traditional ways of life and religious beliefs rooted in scripturalism. Yet the antithesis between the products of Enlightenment—such as secularism, modernism, democracy and liberal freedoms—and the products of religious tradition—such as support for theocratic models of society and human life—does not represent a neutral analysis of the respective positions, as many scholars and journalists tend to argue. Rather much of this Manichean diatribe reveals an etic struggle between representation and condemnation; between science, as a quest, and politics, as a plan for action; between endorsement and rejection; between essentialism and relativism; between accusation and absolution; between ideology and utopia.

The reason for this may be found in the abuse of what I have called, in my forthcoming book, cultural comparative reductionism. In other words, the main elements of relevance for analysis are essentially based on culture, historical events, and social political actions; European history, or better, some of its events that have been elevated to the state of civilizational milestone and are perceived to stand between progressive and regressive cultural civilizational forces. This produces a blind Eurocentric historical evolutionism: the Enlightenment becomes a focal point of universal historical development.

History here is manifestly or latently presented as unilinear and progressive, rooted in European historical events and their consequences. Enlightenment becomes essentialised into a sort of civilizational ‘Big Bang’ of which you are either a part or not. Hence Mr Gilleard is a criminal, for sure, but he is still part of the ‘Enlightened’ world; he can be seen as a deviance but not a threat. He is not ‘out of the system’, he is just a bad product of it. His actions are repugnant but he, western and so ‘enlightened’ by definition, is not seen a threat to the ‘values’. 

What is wrong, some may ask now, with Eurocentric historical evolutionism?Nothing (or everything) if it is accepted as an ideology, a faith. Yet if people, and in particular academics, adopt it as an analytical stand, it can only mislead. Indeed history is not a label, history is a process and a dynamic one. What we call Enlightenment, secularism or even modernism are labels used to summarise philosophical and political ideas and ideologies which were built through many passages and have never been unitary. Enlightenment in Spain and Italy or Greece had a very different development and is still understood in different ways than in the French, English or American contexts. Unfortunately, as I have discussed in my new forthcoming book, Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism, it is not difficult to notice that both what I have defined as Eurocentric historical evolutionism, and in particular cultural comparative reductionism, have a strong impact on the scholarly understanding of Muslims today and this affects both the mass media, the public opinion and finally the politicians. 

Indeed, this leads to what Mamdani (2004) has called ‘Culture Talk’ . In extreme forms of ‘Culture Talk’ analysis, not only do the holy texts, through its symbols, provide the blueprint behind the actions of Islamic movements and individuals, but it also dictates them. In other words Muslims are denied their human status so that they become cultural embodied tradition. We can say that, from a ‘Culture Talk’ viewpoint, culture shapes a person’s identity as a bottle shapes the water it contains. In our case, the bottle was often described as the sacred text or a religious tradition from which the ideology and worldviews of fundamentalists (all of them!) derive.

Mamdani has observed, ‘Culture Talk assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and it then explains politics as a consequence of the essence. Culture Talk after 9/11, for example, qualified and explained the practice of “terrorism” as “Islamic”’. He has pointed out how the practice of ‘Culture Talk’ has divided the world between moderns and premoderns; with the former being only able toconduit rather than make culture. Mamdani has particularly criticised the essentialist approach that much of ‘Culture Talk’ has shown towards Muslims and Islam in the aftermath of 9/11. According to him, the ‘Culture Talk’ reasoning argues that Islam and Muslims ‘made’ culture at beginning of their history, but in the contemporary world they merely conform to culture.  Therefore, he has concluded, 

According to some, our [Muslim] culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artefacts?  (2004: 18, italics in the original)

Mamdani has rightly expressed his concerns about the political and social consequences of understanding Muslims, and their religion, as merely a product of culture since it reduces religion not just to politics, but to a political category. This process, in the best of the cases, facilitates a Manichean sociological and political division between good and bad Muslims. 

Mamdani has no problem to tell us why such a division, which is a soft version of the more radical stance of ‘Islam is the problem’, has been emphasised in the aftermath of September 11. I agree with him that ‘Culture Talk’  has helped to justify the belief in a clash between modern and premodern people, or, in other words, civilised versus civilisable which was very much a part of the history of colonialism: ‘This history stigmatizes those shut out of modernity as antimodern because they resist being shut out’ (2004:19). 


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