As details emerge from this week’s horrific terrorist attack in Manchester, we are learning more about the terrorist, Salman Abedi.
He was born in the UK to parents of Libyan origin, had reportedly recently travelled abroad, and had apparently become radicalized. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming the terrorist as one of their own. As of the the time of my writing this piece, authorities have made eight arrests spanning two continents, suggesting that Abedi was indeed likely part of a larger terrorist network.
No reasonable person would dispute that a suicide bomber targeting young girls who were enjoying a concert is anything other than a terrorist. But what “type” of terrorist?
For the majority of Barack Obama’s presidency loud voices on the right implored him to use the term “radical Islamic terror.” As both a candidate and then later as president, U.S. President Donald Trump has proudly exclaimed he does not shy away from saying “radical Islamic terror.”
Which is why it’s rather odd that President Trump referred to the attacker, as well as ISIS writ large, as losers.
“I won’t call them monsters,” Trump asserted in a statement reacting to the attack. “Because they would like that term, they would think that’s a great name; I will call them from now on losers because that’s what they are, they’re losers. And we’ll have more of them but they’re losers — just remember that.”
WATCH: President Trump calls those responsible for Manchester attack ‘evil losers’
The president is right to refer to ISIS as losers, because they are, both in the literal sense of losing territory and momentum as well as in the pejorative sense of being outcasts rejected by the mainstream. And while I am no fan of the president, his rhetoric, and his policies, I welcome any instance that he does not openly fan the flames of hate against Muslims. (Though it does strike me as well beyond bizarre that the president is referring to a hateful, murderous death cult by the same term he reserves for Rosie O’Donnell.)
Aside from being pilloried as improper, the president’s comments have reignited the debate as to what to call those who carry out acts of terror under the guise of religious ideology.
Many commentators have made the point, myself included, that politicians and the media seem to selectively apply the terrorist label to Muslim perpetrators of terror. I have no problem referring to an act of terror carried out under the pathological interpretation of religious scripture exactly what it is. However, this extends to acts of terror committed in the name of any religion — whether it’s Hindu terrorists lynching, gang raping, or fatally beating those who eat beef, or whether it’s a Christian terrorist killing people at a Planned Parenthood for providing women with access to abortion.
Legally the definition of terrorism is clear. In the Canadian context, the Criminal Code defines it as an act committed in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose. Yet the application of the term terrorist is almost exclusively applied to Islamist terrorism.
Ever heard of the terrorist Andrew Joseph Stack? Well, he literally flew a plane into a government building in Texas because of his warped anti-government, right wing ideology, and yet he wasn’t widely referred to as a terrorist.
And we’re not any more consistent here in Canada. Marc Lépine, Justin Bourque, Richard Bain, and most recently, Alexandre Bissonette are all examples of men who have killed people in the name of their own warped ideology without being officially deemed terrorists or charged with that crime. It’s literally unfathomable to conjure up an alternate scenario wherein the crimes committed by Lépine, Bourque, Bain and Bissonnette would be called anything other than terrorism by society at large, and treated as such by the police and courts, had they been carried out by Muslim men.
WATCH: Father of Manchester bombing suspect says ‘everything was normal’ with son prior to attack
The selective application of the term terrorist to those who carry out violence in the name of Islam is problematic on several fronts. The most obvious one is that it ultimately renders the term meaningless if it’s only used in a narrow context in order to further a certain agenda. It also results in literally a billion peaceful Muslims being denigrated for the acts of the slim few. But perhaps the most troublesome aspect of selectively ascribing the terrorist label to Islamists is that it plays directly into their explicitly stated recruitment strategy.
Abedi was a terrorist, and we should refer to him as such. But if we’re going to actually honour our self-image as civilization that values equality before the law — one of our main counter-arguments against those who wish us ill — we’re going to have to live up to that.
It’s not the only way we’ll win the war on terror, but it’s an important part that we need to take seriously.