Last week, two Muslim men and a Christian teenager were found dead near the Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne. In an ongoing investigation, police are claiming the three Sudanese-American victims, Mohamedtaha Omar, Muhannad Tairab, and Adam Mekki were murdered “execution style.” At this time, police say there is no reason to believe the killings were a hate crime.
The shootings occurred only a few weeks after the one-year anniversary of the Chapel Hill murders, when self-declared “anti-theist” Craig Hicks killed three young American Muslims, also execution style, in their home. As a result of the similarities and timing, many Muslims in the United States are worried the Indiana shootings are part of a growing trend of Islamophobia in the West.
But, while American Muslims have every reason to fear the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, certain reactions to the Indiana shootings have been myopic at best. In particular, a minority of Muslims have suggested these murders qualify as domestic terrorism, and blamed the media for failing to highlight this “fact.”
Since September 11, throwing around the word “terrorism” has become a common public reaction to violence in America, particularly when the perpetrators are Muslim. As a result, American Muslims often rightly question why non-Muslims responsible for similarly violent tragedies have not also been called terrorists.
For example, during the Charleston shootings last June, when Dylan Roof massacred nine members of an African-American church, American Muslims were livid that he was not labeled a terrorist. They argued that, if he had been Muslim, the incident would have quickly been described as a terrorist attack.
While this double standard is indeed problematic, it is equally troubling to insist that all acts of violence be labeled terrorism. Calling a crime “terrorism” does not make it any worse than it already is, nor does it give any insight into the deeper social and political issues that led to the tragedy in the first place.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, “terrorism” is a “meaningless propaganda term” used to fear-monger, end rational debate, and sustain a clash-of-civilizations worldview that further sanctifies the global War on Terror. Because it “justifies everything yet means nothing,” it is—to borrow from the nineteenth-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—an example of using freedom of speech as a substitute for freedom of thought.
By insisting that the term “terrorism” be applied to cases like the Indiana shootings, we implicitly endorse narratives on so-called Muslim terrorism that we would otherwise reject. In saying that “non-Muslim violence” deserves the same label as “Muslim violence,” we legitimize efforts to designate the latter as “terrorism.” For this reason, we, as American Muslims, must take care not to indulge this term, as many others often have.
Islamophobia is a real and growing problem, as are mass shootings, which have become a daily occurrence in America. Rather than wasting our time applying banal labels like “terrorism” to these critical issues, we must engage in a broader discussion about these problems that address their actual roots.