By playing on our fears, the media has inflated the threat of Islamist terrorism
From 1995 to 2014, 3,264 people died in the U.S. from acts of terrorism. From 1999 to 2015, 533,879 people died in the U.S. from gun violence. More Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 than in all U.S. wars combined, and yet Americans are far more afraid of Islamist terrorism than they are the Second Amendment.
A survey conducted in January 2017 revealed that on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 (most negative feelings) to 100 (most positive feelings), on average, Americans gave Muslims a rating of 48. “Terrorist attack on nation” and “victim of terrorism” both rank among Americans’ top five greatest fears according to the 2016 edition of Chapman University’s survey of American fears. These views are very much attributable to American fears over Muslim capacity for violence, or more commonly spoken of as “terrorism.” This is directly traceable to the media and its penchant for overcoverage of Islamist terrorism.
Media scholars have found that people construct their models of the world through the media they consume. In an analysis of network and cable news shows from 2008 to 2012, communication scholars found that just 6 percent of terrorist acts were committed by Muslims, while 81 percent of terrorists on the news were portrayed as Muslims. Given that attacks by a Muslim perpetrator get an average of 4.5 times more coverage than attacks perpetrated by non-Muslims, it’s not unreasonable that the availability heuristic for many Americans enables them to recall acts of Islamic terror far more readily than those by non-Muslims. In effect, the media has composed an unrealistic worldview of the threat of Muslims as terrorists, when in reality, radical Islamic terrorism is nowhere near as imminent a threat as some might think.
Much media, in an attempt to grow viewership and ratings, has successfully implemented fear-based news programming into much of the dialogue surrounding Islamic terrorism, creating a society with a deeply tainted perspective on danger. This instigation of mass fear would not pose as an issue if it did not yield consequences, but it does. Recent years have witnessed a spike in hate crimes against Muslims, reaching 9/11-era levels. Muslims have been shot execution-style and killed in their homes and outside of their mosques. They have been stabbed, beaten in stores, schools and streets, shot in cabs, punched while with their children, kicked off airplanes and far more.
The issue arises when society views the term “Muslim” as analogous to “terrorist,” which then affords hate crime perpetrators justification in their anti-Muslim attacks. Through the continued insistence of a faulty stereotype, hundreds of Muslims have suffered from what people assume they are, rather than what they are — which is average citizens, like any other non-Muslims.
Based simply on facts, the notion that Muslims inherently possess the capacity for terrorism based on their religious affiliation is completely and utterly unfounded. Muslims pose far less of a threat than gun violence and the existential threat of climate change. And yet the U.S. is seating a president who neither believes in climate change nor restrictive gun laws. Rather than make an effort to combat a weapon that has killed over half a million Americans in the past 16 years, Congress has allocated $44.1 billion in funds to Homeland Security to combat an issue that accounts for a death toll that is approximately 0.6 percent that of gun violence victims. It’s easy to point the finger at Muslims, but it’s harder, and vastly more consequential, to point a finger at the Second Amendment.
9/11 was one of the most horrific moments in U.S. history, but acts such as this did not persist in the U.S. in the same way that gun violence has — and will continue to do so if the media continues to undermine its threat in favor of overcovering Muslim terrorists. The threat of domestic terrorism has been inflated to the point in which far more pressing issues, like gun violence — which far more Americans have been subject to than terrorism — are ignored, both socially and politically. The word “terrorism” has been afforded so much power and gravity that, when used, it shifts our focus from more present dangers.
The term “terrorism,” for far too many, has come to encompass a race despite the fact that the term is beholden to neither race nor religion. Islamic terrorism does not even account for the majority of domestic terror in the U.S. From 2008 to 2016, right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents as terror acts associated with Islamist domestic terrorism. 76 percent of the Islamist terrorism was foiled by police, while only 35 percent of the right-wing extremist acts were derailed. As a result of the overcoverage of Muslim terrorists, not only do alternative issues go unnoticed by the public, but they also go unnoticed by law enforcement. So while the real issue continues to fester, Muslims continue to be arbitrarily stereotyped as terrorists — and suffer as such.
Responsible reporting is a vital tool in constructing an appropriate worldview for broader society; the news dictates what issues we’re exposed to and, therefore, what issues we care about. Continuing to overrepresent Muslims as terrorists in the media establishes a worldview that centers on misplaced fear. Rather than combating more threatening issues, we continue to distract ourselves while simultaneously and most unjustly typifying an entire religious group.
Written by: Hanadi Jordan — firstname.lastname@example.org
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