Media missed the memo: Norway attacker is not a ‘Muslim convert’

not a muslim
A view of Kongsberg, Norway, where a man confessed to killing five people, October 16, 2021. While Norwegian police have discounted the man’s claim of having converted to Islam, many media organizations ran with it, writes Jordan News columnist Ruba Saqr. (Photo: NYTimes)
The world witnessed a “first” this past weekend, when Norwegian police decided to disregard the bow-and-arrow attacker’s claims about being a “convert to Islam,” to pursue another line of investigation. Contrary to the norm and in a surprising plot twist, the police changed their minds — after making earlier statements about his alleged “extremism” being the motive behind his heinous attacks.اضافة اعلان

The manner with which the international media have dealt with the first announcement (of possible “Islamic extremism”), as opposed to the second explanation (declaring the Danish attacker more likely to be “mentally ill” than a “Muslim convert”) — is quite troubling.

Nothing spells “anti-Muslim” and “Islamophobia” — on a frighteningly international scale — like the collective choice of almost every international media outlet to stand by and not bother to vindicate Muslims, when a perpetrator of a terror attack turns out to be a pseudo “Muslim convert.”

It is heart breaking that this moment in history is left to the wind, unnoticed and undocumented the way it should be. Hundreds of reports are currently populating the internet with a strong finger pointed towards Muslims, even though the investigators found the perpetrator’s claim to be implausible.

When, as media organizations you tell us, over and over again, you are the bearers of the torch of justice and your sole job is to communicate the truth, protect human rights, and shine a light on practices that erode democracy, you should do better than simply turn a blind eye to a defining moment such as this one.

You owe Muslims the effort to highlight this one time we were habitually misunderstood. You owe us a moment of dignity when our religion — that calls for peace, mercy, and tolerance — is once again smeared and stereotyped. You owe us a headline that says: “The Norway terror attacker is not a Muslim convert.”

But to everyone’s dismay, here is how the media has reacted so far to both revelations.

Immediately upon capturing the attacker, the Norwegian police initially pointed to the possibility of a “radicalized” convert to Islam. As a result, what do news agencies and international and local media outlets do? They put “Muslim convert” in their headlines, as if it were a celebration of sorts — something to be expected — the norm. After all, this is the kind of sensationalism and stereotyping that pushes the average Western reader to click the link.

But when the police came out a second time to discount the “convert to Islam” theory in favour of another explanation that seemed more plausible to investigators (mental illness), not a single media outlet bothered to highlight this fact in its headlines. Not a single one.

This kind of angle obviously does not sell. It also may not be quite aligned with the chronic institutional bias that is deeply entrenched in a large number of media organizations and platforms, across a large number of countries. Those media organizations do not want to tell the public, through the power of a headline, that this is “not” a “Muslim convert.”

The only newspaper that thought it worth expanding on this angle — with a feature story — was The New York Times. Their headline from two days ago reads as follows: “Town Rattled by Bow-and-Arrow Killings Ponders Terrorism and Mental Illness.” Their sub-headline is where the gem is buried: “The police in Norway, initially pointing to Islamic extremism, now say an attacker was ‘not well, mentally.’”

According to the Associated Press, the responsible police inspector in Norway told a news conference this past Saturday that the attacker “himself has said that he has converted to Islam. It’s a hypothesis, but (it) is also a hypothesis that he hasn’t done so. The investigation so far shows that he hasn’t done this (converting) seriously.”

The New York Times substantiates this by digging deeper into the Danish attacker’s history, only to discover that a few years ago, he “walked into a mosque in this placid Scandinavian town, seeking help in delivering a message to the world that he claimed to have received ‘from above.’” In response to his imbalanced demeanour, “the mosque’s spokesman sent him away.”

Later on in the piece, The New York Times quotes the head of Norway’s counterterrorism unit as saying, “all along the way we have seen his psychological problems, and that has been our main worry, not his ideology.”
However, none of the Western media outlets (and even the Arab ones) bothered to make this the headline. 

What the media did instead, was shift from calling the crime a “terror attack,” and an “act of terrorism,” into calling the incident a “Norway” or “bow-and-arrow” attack. Some have even removed words relating to “terror” or “terrorism” from their headlines, as well as from the body of their reports.
This reveals a troubling, systematic, and deep-seated stereotyping about what international media regard as an “act of terrorism.”

Let me paraphrase, when a Muslim, or someone who says he is a Muslim, kills innocent and unarmed people; the incident is deemed a terror attack. But when the same incident is perpetrated by a white European from another faith, it becomes just an attack.

From this incident alone, we can see how anti-Muslim attitudes and Islamophobia are still quite rife at institutions that feign unbiased reporting. This also shows critical thinking and objectivity are a dying art form, as media institutions continue to hold on to post-9/11 notions about Muslims and Islam.

The only vindication I have found was on Twitter by a Jewish man with a Hebrew handle: “Norway’s bow-and-arrow terrorist who converted to Islam may *not* have been ‘motivated by Islamic extremism.’ But what is clear (and sad for Islam) is (that) people who wish to justify their acts of violence with religious excuses, associate it with extremism.”

We are living through an awe-inspiring era of social justice and truth coming to life, from both expected and unexpected places. From movements like Black Lives Matter to Palestinian Lives Matter, recent world events are making us all rethink our attitudes.

This week marks the birthday of our beloved Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. On this holy occasion, Norwegian police investigators have seen beyond blinding stereotypes and biases. This may be Islam’s moment to shine its truth upon nations without the ugly veil of discrimination and stereotypes.

In its truth, Islam is where the heart surrenders to the light. The faith is rooted in the values of justice for all people from all creeds and nations. Let us give each other the benefit of the doubt. And let us grant each other the right to live life with true dignity and self-worth.

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