Why Are We So Quick To Label Muslims as Terrorists?

First and foremost, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. Nobody should ever have to bury their loved ones because of a tragedy like this. I am deeply saddened to hear that yet again, innocent people have been taken from this earth too soon.

Before I get right into my point, let’s recap some details. In the early morning of June 12, 29-year-old Omar Mateen opened fire in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. This was the deadliest mass shooting ever in the United States, killing 49 and wounding many others. This was the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11. Details of the attack were released throughout the week following, and new information is still continuing to surface. One of the more prominent facts that was released was that Mateen pledged his allegiance to ISIS when he called 911 to report his crime.  The terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack later that week.


But even before ISIS claimed responsibility via their communication service Amaq News Agency, the media was quick to put the label of “terrorist” on Mateen. There were numerous initial reports from well-known news sources such as CNN, Fox News, and BBC that called this a terrorist attack, even before those details were released. Knowing what we know now about ISIS being involved and claiming responsibility, we now know that this was, in fact, a terrorist act. But this raised some questions for me. First, why were they so quick to label Mateen as a terrorist despite the lack of crucial pieces of information? More importantly, what exactly is this nation’s idea of terrorism?

In 2016, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are universally known terms. Everyone from elementary school children to senior citizens have heard them and probably used them at some point in their lifetime. We, the generation that were children when 9/11 occurred, are so used to hearing this word that we forget our parents and grandparents knew a time where the use of this word was almost nonexistent.

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Dictionary.com graph showing the use of the word “terrorism” over time.

Because the events of 9/11 were really our first introduction to the word, we made the subconscious assumption that terrorism was only committed by Islamic extremists. In the years following 9/11, we were bombarded with news stories about Al-Qaeda and later ISIS, two powerful Islamic extremist groups from the Middle East.

As we work to create a nation in which all people feel the freedom to express their ideas and religions, many groups and individuals have worked to eradicate the use of the word terrorist to describe someone who is Muslim. Although there are people who do assume that all Muslims are terrorists, that is simply not the case. Simply put, not all Muslims are terrorists, just like not all terrorists are Muslim.


Do we really know and understand the true definition of terrorism, though? According to dictionary.com, terrorism is defined as the use of violence or threatened use of violence (terror), often targeting civilians, in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological aim. Yet following 9/11 and still 15 years later, we use the term “terrorism” mostly to refer to the acts of these Islamic extremist groups.

So what about the individuals who carry out horrific crimes that aren’t affiliated with a Islamic extremist group? Take, for example, Dylann Roof. On June 17, 2015, Roof entered a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After claiming that “black people have to go”, Roof  shot and killed 9 individuals; three other victims survived.  Roof later confessed that his motive was to “ignite a race war” and details surfaced of his white supremacist ideals and his affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. Yet not once did the media refer to him as a terrorist. His crime met the definition to a T. He used violence and targeted civilians in order to achieve a political and ideological aim.


Remember the heartbreaking story of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut? After killing his mother, Adam Lanza entered an elementary school, opened fire, and killed 20 children and 6 staff members before killing himself. Following the shooting, police learned that Lanza had extensively researched other mass shootings and had been planning his attack for months prior. Although he seemed to have no political connection, it is clear that Lanza’s actions were due to some sort of personal ideologies. He went and killed innocent children and adults, yet not once was he called a terrorist. He committed a violent crime, victimized innocent civilians, yet is labeled as “mentally ill” instead.


Finally, let’s take a look at the two police officers that were shot while on duty  in New York City in 2014. Following the public uproar after a grand jury decided not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was involved in the death of Eric Garner, a man by the name of Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot and killed two police officers. The two officers were sitting in their car when Brinsley approached them and fired multiple shots. According to his social media accounts, Brinsley admitted that his motive was to “seek revenge” for the deaths of Eric Garner and other individuals killed by police officers in the past few years. Did he use violence? Certainly. Was his motive to achieve a political and ideological aim? Definitely. Did the media call him a terrorist? Absolutely not.

Obviously, there is not just one reason behind this problem. We are so deeply rooted in beliefs, generalizations, and stereotypes. Hell, the first time we ever heard the word terrorism was when it was associated with Islamic extremists, so why wouldn’t we just assume that that was the definition of the word? But facts are facts. Did you know that according to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims? So why do we make this group of people out to be something they’re not? Why are our deep-seeded generalizations reflected even in the media– the source of most, if not all, of our knowledge on current events? I challenge us as individuals to re-think our idea of terrorism, and I challenge the media to portray terrorists as they really are: white, black, Muslim, Christian, whatever they may be. Terrorists are terrorists. They are not a certain religion, race, or political ideology.

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