Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: terrorism (page 1 of 2)

Personal Reflections on a Decade

I hadn’t planned to write about 9/11. In fact, I’d planned to avoid commenting on the day entirely, instead choosing to reflect quietly as I have each day since 2001. It’s not that I oppose public reflection, no, this year it’s quite the converse: I’m by chance at a conference in NYC this weekend and all around me are tragedy pilgrims, posturing on the television, even fascists here from Germany (I sat behind one on a plane Friday) here to espouse hatred toward Muslims.

Truthfully, I find the day difficult to write about. I was 19, had just entered a new university in (upstate) New York as a transfer student, and knew no one. I was suffering from what remains the worst heartbreak I’ve ever experienced and that, compounded by my loneliness and general late-teen angst, made the day even more difficult and frankly, hard to take in. I went through the motions, donated blood, made tea for classmates who awaited news of loved ones, but my depression at the time was so deep and my lack of personal connection to the tragedy–in contrast with those around me–made tears seem like an impossibility. And so I did what I could to take care of others instead.

My first semester at Binghamton was incredibly difficult, for all of the above reasons and more. But, like undoubtedly so many others, the horrific acts perpetrated on September 11, 2001 sparked a desire for understanding and a thirst for knowledge that–for lack of a better term and without any melodramatic connotations–saved me from myself. Two days later, I returned to my courses (among them one on women’s rights in the Arab world, taught by an Egyptian professor) with a renewed desire to learn. Between that course and my own realization that my lack of knowledge on Islam and the Arab world was…well, vast…I was struck by the notion of pursuing that line of study, eventually majoring in sociology, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. It was through that pursuit that I met one of my favorite professors, who advised me to go to his native country, Morocco, which I then did–first for a short-term study of Arabic and later for two years.

I wish that I could tell you that I understand why a group of terrorists felt as though targeting more than 3,000 innocent civilians was justified. Many simply blame Islam, but both my studies and my experience belie that theory and in fact, such rhetoric has only served to separate us further apart (both globally and within the context of the United States). Others blame the actions of the United States in the region, but nor is it that simple (as Reza Aslan so succintly writes: “Only a fool would think that the hijackers believed their actions would bring peace to Palestine or result in the removal of American troops from Muslim lands.”) No, in truth I don’t feel as though I will ever understand, just as I will never understand the resulting Muslim-bashing cottage industry.

Instead, I learned, as Roger Ebert wrote just days later, that the events of September 11 were “not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world.” I learned that most of the time, we are far more alike than we are different. And sadly, I also learned, as Sultan Al Qassemi so aptly wrote today that “the result over several years was the real winners of 9/11 were none other than the extremists who had inspired, encouraged and supported the action.”

Though in contrast with what one might hear in speeches today at Ground Zero, and in the rhetoric of conservative politicians, I believe Al Qassemi is correct. The subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 800+ revenge attacks on Muslim-Americans, and what seems like an ever-deepening cultural divide in the United States are all evidence of that. At the same time, the unconscionable treatment of first responders, as well as the near-obsession with Shari’a law and the national reaction to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” all demonstrate to me a populace more preoccupied with rhetoric and politics than with bridging these very real divides.

The fact is, whether one’s views on Islam are favorable or not, we must not continue to allow terrorism—both past and threatening–to impede our ability to live together on this earth as humans. There is no anti-Islam rhetoric that will further that cause.

Why the UK Home Office’s “Pro-Islamic” Blog Study is Wrong

Update: Al Jazeera published a modified version of this post, complete with interviews with As’ad Abukhalil, Rime Allaf, and Edip Yuksel.

CONTEST is the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism strategy, with a stated aim to “reduce the risk to the UK and its interests from international terrorism.” The UK’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) is set up to commission communications research to support the CONTEST strategy.

According to a recent Guardian piece, the RICU commissioned a study to estimate and track the scale and influence of Islamic bloggers in Britain. Like the Berkman Center’s mapping of the Arabic-language blogosphere, the study used link analysis as a method to determine popularity of certain blogs.

Unlike the Berkman Center’s study, however, which focused on the wider Arabic-language blogosphere and encompassed over 35,000 blogs (6,000 of which were then mapped, and 4,000 of which were hand-coded by Arabic-speaking researchers), the RICU study looked at around 140 blogs identified (by researchers, using keywords) as “pro-Islamic,” gathered from the blog directories BlogCatalog, Blogorama, (the now defunct) BritBlog, eTalkingHead, and Technorati, and found via keyword searches on Google Blog Search.

The researchers then identified the top 20 blogs for deeper analysis, resulting in the following table:

Number 3 immediately caught my eye of course; the Angry Arab News Service is a blog written by As’ad Abukhalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC, Berkeley, who on Facebook currently describes his own religion as “Banana Cream Pies” (note to those who don’t follow the Angry Arab: a) you should and b) a quick read will show you that he’s an atheist secularist with a wicked sense of humor.)

I read the whole paper, looking for an explanation–There wasn’t one. The study’s stated purpose made things no clearer:

The purpose of this study has been to measure the size of the community of Islamic (pro-leaning) bloggers who post, in English, on topics pertaining to politics in and about the UK. Second, to gain an indicative understanding of the level of social networking amongst that community and to provide some form of hierarchical structure to it.

The study relied on link analysis, so it makes sense that Angry Arab would turn up in the initial results; he is a prolific blogger, who links often to news stories–both those with which he agrees and those which he does not. But no amount of “deeper analysis” would find him to be a “pro-Islamic leaning blogger,” as the study indicates.

The first blog on the list is that of Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani lawyer and novelist, whose book made it to Oprah’s gilded list. His writing contributions online range as far as Jewcy and the Huffington Post. I don’t actually know if Eteraz is a practicing Muslim; that would require digging beyond his web site, for sure. His “Islamic leanings” seem to be derived from his background and a deep interest in politics of so-called Islamic countries, which he writes about frequently. Based solely on his web site, is he “pro-Islamic?” As much as I am.

It’s clear to me that researcher David Stevens, of Nottingham University, who carried out the research, didn’t bother to read Angry Arab’s blog at all. His reliance on link analysis and keywords (often used by bloggers to self-define) isn’t enough; blogosphere research requires a human touch. Stevens’ research, judging by his staff profile on Nottingham’s web site, has nothing to do with Internet and society. His main area of research is contemporary Anglo-American (normative) political philosophy. I’m not sure what the UK’s Home Office was thinking commissioning blogosphere research from a philosopher with limited knowledge of blogging.

In fact, I’m not sure what the Home Office was thinking at all; if CONTEST is a counter-terrorism strategy and RICU an agency to support counter-terrorism research, then why a blog study analyzing “Islamic” or “pro-Islamic” blogs? The study appears to be making the case that being “Islamic” (or Muslim) is a short hop away from being a terrorist (or for that matter, an Islamist).

If this study is taken at face value for its link analysis, it’s perfectly sound: yes, these bloggers link to “Islamic” web sites. Any deeper look, however, shows a shallow and quite frankly, racist study that attempts to draw lines between bloggers who are Muslim or Arab, with a strong interest in politics and who are prolific writers, with terrorism.

If this is what’s shaping the UK’s anti-terrorism policy, we have two reasons to be afraid: For our Muslim friends, whose very mention of their religion can apparently deem them worth tracking, and for the fear of actual terrorist activity online, which lies far beyond any place this study could reach.

*The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker also tore the study apart, but I personally don’t feel that he went far enough in his criticisms.

“Terrorist” is the new “Commie”

At a lunch talk at the Shorenstein Center today, in the midst of a discussion on media influence, someone raised a question they had been asked at an event weeks prior: “Are you more afraid of terrorists or the U.S. government?”  The ensuing discussion centered on the fear mongering of the far-right media (e.g., Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh).  Then, another interesting point was raised: that my generation (in this discussion undefined, but for argument’s sake, let’s say Gen Y) is generally distrusting of the media.

I got to thinking about the intersection of these two points; if it’s true that my generation distrusts media (and I tend to believe it is), then it seeks to reason that we’re equally wary of the overuse of certain terminology, memes and phrases.  Just as “commie” was tossed around in the days of yore, “terrorist” has become grossly overused, applied unquestioningly to criminals of Arab, Muslim, or seemingly Arab or Muslim persuasion.

This morning I was watching a Good Morning America report on the recent assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and noticed, with surprise, that Hamas was repeatedly referred to only as “a Palestinian group.” A quick Google of today’s headlines reflects a similar pattern.

I’m not arguing whether or not Hamas deserves the categorization, but let’s assume for a moment that they, and anyone on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations is, in fact, a terrorist group. Is the FARC subjected to the same media treatment as Hamas? A quick Google News search says no – in fact, the only times “FARC” and “terrorist” turn up in the same sentence are in reference to Washington’s designation. FARC is typically referred to in the U.S. media as a paramilitary or guerrilla group, whereas Hamas and Hezbollah are almost always designated terrorists. I’d be interested to discover whether or not “terrorist” is applied to other non-Arab/non-Muslim entities designated by the U.S. as terrorists.

There’s another, perhaps more important set of questions surrounding the use of the word terrorist: How is the term applied to a) Arabs and Muslims who commit crimes not typically considered “terrorist” activities? and b) Are non-Arab, non-Muslim people who partake in actual terrorist activities (such as bomb-making or murdering abortion providers) deemed “terrorists” in the media? (Racialicious has a good post on this)

The former question is one for which I have little to no evidence (which is not to say it doesn’t exist); the latter seems clear: Rarely are white terrorists referred to as such. Consider the 2009 shooting deaths of abortion provider George Tiller and Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns. Tiller was the victim of a shooting by an extreme-right wing, Christian terrorist, who was part of a larger movement. Johns’ murderer was a well-known white supremacist writer. Neither murderer was deemed a terrorist in initial reports (unlike say, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab); and though a few subsequent reports may have used the term, by the time the news is out, it’s out…parroted reports hardly seem to matter in terms of influencing public opinion.

Another open question is whether or not the word “terrorist” (and for that matter, “al Qaeda,” often broadly used to refer to terrorist movements) has lost meaning in the nine years since 9/11. We are inundated with its use on an hourly basis (don’t believe me? Google News it). Once a word is heavily used by one network, it tends to be parroted by others–look at Media Matters’ research into the word “rape” as used by conservative pundits to refer to the actions of the Democratic party. Media Matters also looked into the use, or lack of, the word “terrorist” in Obama’s Cairo address. Obama, addressing a crowd made up almost entirely of Muslims, avoided use of the word “terrorism,” a fact which conservative pundits immediately jumped on. The New York Times noted the fact as well, but commented that it was “a departure from the language used by the Bush administration, but one that some Middle East experts suggested reflected a belief by the new administration that overuse had made the words inflammatory.” I think it’s important to view this in context: Was Obama right to avoid the use of the word entirely? Likely not, but given the overuse of the word and its disproportionate usage when referring to Arabs and Muslims, I can see why he did it. And it’s worth recalling that he didn’t avoid discussion of extremism and the ideologies it feeds on, rather, he simply avoided a word whose use has become so commonplace it’s been rendered virtually meaningless.

So this is what I’m thinking about. I’m sure the impending release of Media Cloud will be great in terms of facilitating such research. In the meantime, do let me know if you come across anyone else who’s thinking about this stuff.

As for the original question, well, I get the point, and I’m certainly more alarmed by terrorism than I am by the actions of my own government, but I also think that the media’s role in how such fears are formed is huge, and that the risks are frequently over-stated, or worse, misstated entirely.

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