Terrorism or hate crime? The contentious politics of a label

The labelling of terror has grown charged and made minorities feel that they matter less

When a 47-year-old man rammed a van into a crowd near a London mosque on Monday morning, controversy quickly erupted over whether the attack would be treated as less significant than others because it was committed against Muslims but not by them.

Such debates have typically played out over whether anti-Muslim violence is labelled terrorism. Though Monday’s attack appears to fit scholarly and legal definitions for terrorism, past incidents have been called hate crimes or attributed to disturbed loners with far-right leanings but no real agenda.

British prime minister Theresa May called the attack terrorism. But debate has continued, suggesting it is about more than labels, but a suspicion that society grants greater importance to non-Muslim than Muslim victims and to Islamist than far-right or other threats.

Description with deeper meaning

These debates have raged since 2015, when the rise in attacks by Islamic State coincided with an uptick in violence against Muslims in the United States and Europe. The question of how to talk about and treat those two forms of violence overlaps with sensitive issues related to the integration of Muslim communities into western societies.


As attacks against Muslims have risen, many have been labelled something other than terrorism. For Muslim victims, this seemed to confirm suspicions that society sees them as potential threats more readily than as fellow citizens to be protected.

Civil rights groups say the hesitation in labelling anti-Muslim violence as terrorism is part of the same anti-Muslim bias that manifests in, for example, policing and hiring discrimination. But other factors play a role as well. Formal definitions of terrorism typically rest on motive, which can be tricky to determine, particularly in the immediate moments after an attack.

According to British law, an attack is deemed terrorism when it seeks "to influence the government" or "intimidate the public" with the aim of "advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause". Louise Richardson, an Irish political scientist, has posed a similar definition: "Terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes."

Islamist attacks often seem to meet this standard more easily. Transnational groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda are eager to claim faraway attacks and have the public relations machinery to do so. Their reach online often means the attacker will have visited their sites or forums, allowing the groups to claim even loners as their own.

Far-right extremists tend to be less organised. Groups are smaller and online communities more fractured. Though attacks are rising, often there is no group to claim them. The police may fall back on calling the incident a hate crime, which is easier to prove.

An attack can be both. When Omar Mateen killed 49 people last year at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, he appeared motivated by animus against gay people as well as the political agenda of Islamic State, to which he had sworn allegiance. The FBI called the attack terrorism as well as a hate crime.

Post 9/11, the language of war

Over time, as this disparity has fed into Muslims’ sense of being second class, the issue of labelling terrorism has grown more charged. Calling an attack terrorism has become a way of asserting that the targeted community feels terrorised and of asking society to take that threat as seriously as it does other forms of terrorism.

The debate is less about legalistic definitions than a way to examine which groups society is willing to protect, and what kind of violence it is willing to tolerate. And it is a reaction against the politics around Islamist terrorism.

Since September 11th, 2001, western policymakers have described terrorism in the language of war, with President George W Bush saying al-Qaeda sought to destroy "our way of life". Though leaders like Bush were careful to distinguish extremist groups from mainstream Islam, some rights groups warned that the political climate contributed to anti-Muslim violence.

Ever since, some see the speed with which Muslim attackers are called terrorists as proof that Muslims are considered outsiders. When episodes of right-wing violence are not labelled terrorism, that is taken as proof of a deadly double standard.

For others, any hesitation at labelling an Islamist attack as terrorism demonstrates that political correctness prevents policymakers from fully addressing the threat. Years of seeing terrorism as a foreign threat, and of arguments that Muslim communities must address the roots of extremism, has freighted the term with accusations that extend beyond the attacker to his or her community.

As far-right violence has risen, accusations of responsibility once levelled at Muslims are now directed at white communities and right-wing politics broadly. Experts dispute that entire social groups can be blamed for terrorism. Still, some worry that far-right extremism is under-addressed as leaders strain to avoid the appearance of bias against mainstream conservatives – a consideration not so easily afforded to Muslims.

A sense of hierarchy

When far-right violence is described as a hate crime or the act of a disturbed loner, even if that is true, it can exacerbate a sense among targeted communities that they matter less.

In 2015, Dylann Roof, a South Carolina man who had once worn white supremacist patches, killed nine people at a mostly black church. The Black Lives Matter movement had spent two years campaigning against violence against African-Americans, particularly those killed in encounters with the police. Roof's attack, they argued, demonstrated the threat facing black people.

If Islamist terrorism had inspired national mobilisations and sweeping policy changes, they argued, so should violence against blacks. And the crime appeared to neatly fit terrorism’s legal definition. When Roof was charged with hate crimes, rather than terrorism, social media and rights groups angrily denounced the decision. It seemed to confirm that the government took violence against black people less seriously and would refuse to fully tackle far-right extremism.

Legal scholars said prosecutors likely chose hate crime charges because they are significantly easier to prove than terrorism charges, reducing the risk of an acquittal. Federal terrorism charges are tailored to certain acts, like airline hijackings, rather than shootings like Roof’s.

Shortly after, attorney general Loretta Lynch called hate crimes “the original domestic terrorism”. It was an acknowledgment that “terrorism” has different meanings in the courtroom and in society more broadly and that its use carries meaning beyond describing a particular act.

But it hardly quieted the outrage that, as long as deeper issues remain, seems bound to recur.

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