Double Standards in Covering Religious — or Anti-Religious — Violence

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Oleh Asrudin Azwar & Yohanes Sulaiman (Tulisan ini pernah dimuat koran The Jakarta Globe, 18 Februari 2015).

Last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man murdered three of his neighbors. The case didn’t get much attention until there was a public outcry about the media coverage of the shooting  — or the lack of it — due to the fact that the victims were all Muslims and the perpetrator a middle-aged atheist white guy.

Then, a few days later, a gunman opened fire on Cafe Krudttonden in Copenhagen, Denmark. The attack took place during a discussion on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression, commemorating the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the author of “The Satanic Verses.” Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist who is known for his controversial drawings of the Prophet Muhammed, was in attendance and an eyewitness suggested that he was the actual target of the attack.

Unlike the Chapel Hill attack, media worldwide were giving the shooting in Copenhagen a lot of coverage from the start. Similarly, the media also extensively covered the earlier attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, and the backgrounds of the assailants.

Such uneven coverage has led people to question whether the media is biased, following double standards based on the identity of victims and perpetrators.

To be fair, there were some differences between the Chapel Hill and Copenhagen or Charlie Hebdo attacks that could explain the differences in media coverage.

The events surrounding the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, for instance, were very clear: the attack was carried out to avenge perceived insults to Islam. In Copenhagen, police announced that the suspect looked like an Arab, although they did not immediately draw the conclusion that the attack was an act of Islamic terrorism. On the other hand, the identity of the attacker and victims in Chapel Hill remained shrouded in mystery until authorities finally released their names.

The biggest difference seems to lie in the attempts to dissect the motivation of the attackers.

Killings by Muslims are often quickly labeled as acts of terrorism by Islamists, sparking calls on the wider Muslim community to beg for forgiveness over the conduct of the killers — or worse, with the religion itself being blamed as the sole motivation for the attack. It should be noted here, however, that the Koran — in the Surah Al Maidah verse 32 — states that “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or corruption [done] in the land, it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.”

In the Chapel Hill case, the media seemed to play down the background of the murderer. The media took time to carefully check their facts before declaring that the murders in Chapel Hill were not an act of terrorism. In fact, the media chose to frame the Chapel Hill tragedy purely as a criminal act, focusing on hostile exchanges between one of the victims and the murderer over a parking spot shortly before the killings, even though the murderer had a history of ridiculing religious people, both Christians and Muslims.

There was no discussion at all about whether the shooter’s background as an atheist made him prone to commit violent acts. Nor were there calls on other atheists to apologize, denounce the act, or explain how the killing was not representative of atheism in general.

Many, including US President Barack Obama, have pointed out that there have been wars, acts of violence, and other atrocities committed in the name of various religions, and that people of all stripes have used religion to justify brutality. Yet, there have also been mass killings directly or indirectly conducted by regimes that explicitly identified themselves as atheist. The Soviet famines during the eras of Lenin and Stalin, China’s Great Leap Forward, and the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields come to mind. (Nazi Germany never proclaimed itself to be an atheistic regime even though many historians believe that the Nazis intended to eradicate Christianity later, had they won World War II).

Yet in spite of such a bloody track record, “the atheists” are never brought to task by the media. Nobody asks whether their beliefs — or disbelief — makes atheists less peaceful than those who profess to believe in religions.

The belief that Western media are biased in reporting is further reinforced by the impression that the US government seemed to be sluggish in reacting to the Chapel Hill killings. In contrast to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, where it took Obama just two hours to issue a condemnation, it took four days, after needling from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before Obama finally addressed the Chapel Hill killings, condemning them as “brutal and outrageous murders.” He further remarked that nobody should be targeted for “what they look like” or “how they worship.”

Not surprisingly, Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, spoke of a “blatant double standard” and questioned whether there would be a different reaction if “the faith and ethnicity of the victims and perpetrator were switched.”

The kind of violence we saw in Paris, Copenhagen and Chapel Hill should of course never be tolerated and every person, regardless of their faith — or lack of it — has the obligation to denounce acts of terrorism. Yet while we agree that terror attacks can be inspired by religion, to solely focus on religion, or rather the so-called inherent violence in the religion, makes people forget the more important point: where does the extremism and radicalism really come from?

But instead of reacting emotionally about (perceived) media bias in coverage of various types of atrocities, it is important that people focus their attention on building dialogues between the world’s various faiths. And don’t forget to invite the atheists.

Asrudin Azwar is an international relations analyst from the Asrudian Center. Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer in international politics at the National Defense University.

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