It seems almost impossible nowadays to go online without being inundated with alarmist news and polarising headlines. In the age of fake news, this information overload can make it hard to distinguish useful discourse form intentional misinformation.
With constant news coverage often comes harmful shortcuts and ready-made conclusions, especially as it pertains to crime and religious minorities. Many read ‘terrorism’ and understand ‘Muslim’; on the contrary, mentions of White crime are often followed by reminders of due process and words such as ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
The word ‘extremism’, a front-runner of sensational headlines in the past few years, is one of the most jarring examples of this new reality. It has become synonymous with Islam, terrorism in Western capitals, and tragedy. Yet, the Anti-Defamation League simply defines extremism as “religious, social or political belief systems that exist substantially outside of belief systems more broadly accepted in society.”
The unifying feature between extremist ideologies is not their religious or foreign roots, but their call for radical changes in government, religion or society that depart from mainstream beliefs.
So, why does the word ‘extremism’ find itself so often associated with Islam and terrorism?
One answer is harmful news coverage. After the rise of terrorist attacks in the West in the early 2000s, not only did news outlets begin to discuss Muslims more often, but they are doing so in overwhelmingly negative terms. One can often hear the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamist terrorist’ being used interchangeably, as well as notice marginalised communities being repeatedly brought up in relation to terror attacks with which they have no involvement.
The consequences of thinking that extremism is linked to Islam in any way can be devastating for marginalised communities, starting with heightened Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes, and increased wariness of one another—in a society already rife with micro-aggressions, discrimination and rising hate crime.
Even more worryingly, anti-Muslim prejudice is slowly replacing immigration as the key characteristic of far-right groups and fuelling the very real threat posed by far-right terrorism.
But, rarely will you see far-right terrorism or anti-mosque protesters be called ‘extremists’, as the British media is characterised by a consistent lack of serious inquiry into non-Muslim, non-religious acts of terror and White extremism. Instead, when they do make the news, instances of White violence are made to seem isolated and without cause or reason.
This allows rampant and increasing hate crimes against Muslims to go consistently unpunished, and even unreported. It also creates a breeding ground for a society that accepts the treatment of its minorities as sub-citizens, forgetting the very foundation of our democracy.
The harmful silence around non-Muslim forms of extremism is mirrored across the Western world—the U.S. Republican Party even declared that the Capitol riots of Jan 6th 2021 were an expression of “legitimate political discourse” and not an terror attack against the political institutions of their country. With many of its instigators going unpunished, the dangers of such violence being replicated and tolerated in other Western democracies only multiplies.
How can we counter this?
In the ever-shorter news cycle, factually accurate reporting is few and far between. We have come to a point where we must be wary of which events get mentioned, the ways in which they are reported, and how much they play into existing anti-Muslim prejudice, as well as which voices are offered a platform in mainstream media.
Understanding why “terrorists are always Muslim but never white” also means paying attention to everyday instances of discrimination and harmful stereotyping—a practice that starts at home and continues in schools, in the workplace, and in everyday life.
Education and information, such as those we provide through professional training and workshops here at JAN Trust, can help people understand what radicalisation and extremism really is about, and who really is concerned by the risks it poses to our society. We must be on constant alert to stereotypes and the effects of popular discourse to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of adopting unconscious biases.