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The role of the mainstream media in the disinformation that has emanated from the ‘war on terror’ is explored in this excellent resource for the anti-war movement, argues Chris Nineham

Media and Terrorism, Global Perspectives, eds. Des Freedman and Daya Kishan Thussu (SAGE Publications 2012), xiv, 322pp.

While this collection of essays should be required reading for journalists, it pulls together so many facts and arguments that it will help anyone grappling with the last eleven years of mayhem, laughingly referred to as the ‘war on terror’. Above all it is a long-overdue unscrambling of the deliberate confusions behind the modern use of the word ‘terrorism’. As the introduction explains, a whole industry of academics, government officials, legal bureaucrats, defense experts and security consultants has been working to define the word for years. Hundreds of thousands of pages later, ‘there is still no consensus’ (p.7).

And there never will be. As Walter Laqueur wrote in 1977, ‘a comprehensive definition of terrorism ... does not exist, nor will it be found in the foreseeable future’ (p.7). This is because the word, at least in the mainstream, is a weapon designed to demean or outlaw the actions of enemies, without limiting the name-caller’s range of options. It pretends to be describing a set of (unacceptable) tactics but it is actually setting up particular groups for repression or liquidation. It is of course vital that the bombings, assassinations, sabotage, drone attacks, and so on, committed by western military forces do not qualify. To deal with this little difficulty, the US state department’s definition has to get sociological: terrorism, they say, has to be ‘politically motivated’ and ‘premeditated’, and committed by ‘sub-national groups or clandestine agents’. In Chomsky’s words, ‘the term applies only to terrorism against us, not the terrorism we carry out against them’.

In their article, ‘Propaganda and Terrorism’, David Miller and Rizwann Sabir suggest one way to respond is to fight for an objective definition of the term so that it really is understood ‘not by the identity of the perpetrators, but by the nature of the deeds’ (p.9 and pp.78-90). Apart from anything else, what they call the ‘propagandistic’ use of terrorism, conflates all sorts of different forms of struggle, for example the London attacks of 7/7 and the popular resistance to the occupation of Iraq, leading, no doubt, to repeated foreign policy mistakes.

The problem of course goes even deeper. As Lena Jayyusi argues there is perception in the Arab and Muslim worlds ‘that the war on terror has not been primarily designed for locating and neutralizing real security threats; rather its actual design has been to target specific populations in strategically significant locales ... as a fundamental constituent of a project of colonial/imperial appropriation’ (p.31).

This perception in fact goes way beyond the Arab and Muslim worlds. And it is of course largely true. Iraq had no connection with 9/11 or any other terrorist attack, but regime change there was ‘war-on-terror’-branded. So the aim must be to unpick the whole narrative of the war on terror. Many of these essays help in this task. Justin Lewis shows that the US State Department’s own figures suggest that the volume of global terrorist incidents has declined steadily since the 1980s. Apparently, there were fewer terrorist incidents in 2002 and 2003 than in any other annual periods over the previous two decades. ‘Remarkably, the idea that the 11 September attacks represented a dramatic new threat was undermined by data from the very government who did so much to promote it’ (p.259).

The figures were so bad for the administration that Bush and Cheney successfully pressured the State Department to change its methodology in 2004. Other official statistics are equally damning of the war on terror’s rationale. According to Europol, Europe’s police agency, in 2009 there were fewer than 300 terror attacks in mainland Europe, of which only one came from an Islamist group (p.30). And in terms of its own stated aims the war on terror has been utterly counterproductive; ‘more terrorist activities and networks have developed after “the war on terror” and in response to it than there were prior to it’ (p.31). Worse, as Leya Janhussi points out, the horrible irony is that it is the Arab and Muslim world, much of it already suffering from the devastation of the west’s war, which has felt the brunt of terrorist attacks (p.31).

Thussu’s analysis of the impact of the war on terror in South Asia makes all this more concrete. He points up the hypocrisy involved in media coverage of the ‘Af-Pak’ war, where CIA-operated drones have killed nearly 3,000 in extra-judicial assassinations and yet, ‘what we see on news screens around the world with relentless regularity is gun toting bearded young Afghans, mired in medieval Islamist tradition and unwilling or unable to manage their own affairs’ (p.175). He shows that that the complex sources of radicalism in the region are far different from the media clichés. They include the US and Saudi-backed Islamisation programme of the 1980s and 1990s and the support for the Taliban and others by the Pakistani security state, the ISI, ‘as an extension of Pakistan’s geo-political rivalry with India’ (p.173). He also quotes Tariq Ali concluding that the deep hatred of the US ‘has little to do with religion’, and is mainly based on the knowledge of Washington’s support for military dictators in Pakistan (p.174).

The book is very good too on the domestic impact of the war on terror. Khiabany and Williamson’s article traces the link between the foreign wars and the rise and rise of Islamophobia: ‘September 2001 was a watershed in the long history of demonizing minorities and curtailing civil liberties’ (p.145). As well as being hugely boosted by the war on terror, Islamophobia has depended on a number of intellectual shifts. One has been to fuse religion with culture or ethnicity. Populations (particularly Muslims) who were once identified by language or region or ethnicity are now defined as ‘minority faith groups’. The importance of this is to define difference in a way that highlights beliefs, morals and values. This enables another important characteristic of Islamophobia, its ability to bring together the centre and right with ‘the liberal left’ in their condemnation of multiculturalism.

Freed from the taboos of biological racism, so called liberals like Rod Liddle and Martin Amis can rant like members of the BNP. Rod Liddle is quoted from the Evening Standard opining: ‘Islam is masochistic, homophobic and a totalitarian regime. It is a fascistic bigoted and medieval religion’ (p.137). And from Martin Amis: ‘the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons. And they’re going to get better and better at that. They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy is down to 1.1 child per woman’ (p.143).

This outburst neatly illustrates another feature of Islamophobia; its deliberate confusion of Islamism with Islam in general. Liberals particularly like to present their views as a critique of Islamism, to avoid accusations of prejudice, but in practice slip back into wild generalizations about Muslims as a whole. As Khiabany and Willaimson stress, Islamophobia is a problem for all of us. Governments are using the perceived threat of Islam on our liberties to attack those liberties. ‘The atmosphere is one of a permanent state of emergency; for this is a war with no clear enemy in a conventional sense or a clear boundary’ (p.147).

This is a great source book for the struggle against the prejudices and sheer propaganda on display almost whenever the media touch on terrorism. Like any academic collection it is uneven. In different places the book reads as both over-pessimistic and over-optimistic. Lena Jayyusi’s chapter, ‘Terror, War and Disjunctures in the Global Order’, views the military/media propaganda machine as overwhelming: ‘an entire industry working to produce the regime of official “truth” and the popular conceptions, desires, fears and subjectivities which can enact and sustain it’ (p.40). If things were this bad it would barely be worth the struggle. Elsewhere there is a tendency to suggest that liberalisation and the democracy movements in the Middle East will themselves resolve the problems created by western intervention. That this will not happen without many struggles, twist and turns is crystal clear from Tony Blair’s quoted comment that the west needs to respond to the Arab spring with ‘a strategic framework for helping to shape revolutionary change sweeping the region’. He goes on, characteristically at once glib and sinister: ‘History, attitude and interests all dictate that we are players’ (p.33).

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.


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