Terrorism and Islam in Western Europe

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Islamist terrorism has remained in the focus of daily politics in Germany. Government, police and secrete services regularly warn about the possibility of a terrorist attack. According to a study of the Bertelsmann Foundation, 57 per cent of the German population regard Islam as a threat. For instance, the reactionary right-wing movement Pegida obtained significant support during the last year with a campaign against Islam. The Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015 and the atrocities carried out by ISIS have newly invigorated the debate about Islamist terrorism in Germany. In public discussions and in the mainstream news media, Islam tends to be treated as related to terrorism. This framing of Islam is inaccurate and problematic.

Terrorism in Europe

In the online newspaper The Daily Beast, Dean Obeidallah refers to data published by the European police organization Europol. In its report for 2013, Europol recorded 152 terrorist attacks in Europe. Only two of these incidents were conducted by perpetrators who appeared to be “religiously motivated”. If you look at data from Europol surveying the last five years, a similar picture emerges: during this period, less than 2 per cent of all terrorist incidents in Europe were “religiously motivated”. Beenish Ahmed similarly evaluated the Europol data. In an article for the US think Tank Think Progress she argued that “Islamist militants lag far behind other groups when it comes to carrying out terrorist attacks” in Europe.

According to the data by Europol, the large majority of terrorist incidents can be related to ethnic-nationalist and separatist groups, such as the separatist FLNC in Corsica, the GPRF in Greece or the FAI in Italy. Obeidallah of the Daily Beast thus asks the following questions: “Have you heard of these incidents? Probably not. But if Muslims had committed them do you think you our media would’ve covered it? No need to answer, that’s a rhetorical question.”

The German communication scholars Kai Hafez and Carola Richter have researched the German media’s reporting of Islam for the think tank Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung. Hafez and Richter’s study of magazines, documentations, talk shows and reports of the main German public TV stations ARD and ZDF came to the conclusion that Islam is “largely covered in relation to violence and conflict”. Accordingly, in 81 per cent of occurrences in the ARD and ZDF programs, Islam was depicted in a negative way. Only in 19 per cent of reports there was a neutral or positive connotation. “For the German magazines and talk shows as well as documentations and reports, the area of terrorism/extremism is the most attractive and significant in relation to Islam,” the researchers write.

Therefore, the German news media’s unbalanced and inaccurate reporting of Islam might have fueled Islamophobia in Germany. As Hafez and Richter further observe in their study: “Most Germans have no direct contact with Muslims or the Arab world,” the German people’s view of Islam is thus “significantly framed by the mass media”.

Terrorism and Religion

In the US-American magazine Christian Science Monitor Robert Marquand wrote an article about the so called 2011 Norway attacks. In July 2011, Anders Breivik had killed 77 people during a killing spree. Marquand discusses as to whether Breivik might have been a Christian terrorist. “While European media seem disinterested in Breivik’s Christian self-definition or the terminology used to describe him, in the US and Muslim media worlds it is a sprawling debate,” Marquand writes. In public statements, Breivik had described himself as “100 percent Christian”. Breivik had also argued in favor of a “monocultural Christian Europe” in his manifesto. “Many ordinary people of faith were horrified to find Anders Behring Breivik described as a ‘Christian terrorist,’” writes Marquand.

Indeed, it seems inappropriate to label Breivik as a Christian terrorist on the basis of his statements and Christian background. But should we not apply the same standard when looking at other incidents of political violence? How must people of Muslim faith feel about our labelling of political violence conducted by people who have a Muslim background?

Religion is rarely the cause of terrorism. This conclusion is supported by a major study on suicide terrorism conducted by Robert A. Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Pape looked at 315 suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2003. Pape writes that „what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.“ Pape’s work suggests that the bombing campaigns of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda have been carried out in accord with similar motifs. “Although Saudi Arabia is not under American military occupation per se, a principal objective of Osama bin Laden [was] the expulsion of American troops from the Persian Gulf and the reduction of Washington’s power and influence in the region.“ Pape further writes that “religion is rarely the root cause” of terrorism, “although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.”

Pape’s study suggests that terrorism is much closer related to Western power projections in the Middle East than to Islam. This connection has largely been neglected in the German news media discourse. As Pape warns in his study, not religion but “the sustained presence of heavy American combat forces in Muslim countries is likely to increase the odds of the next 9/11.”

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