By Carson Yates
*This article represents the views and opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Patterson School or ExPatt Magazine as an organization.
#JeSuisCharlie. #IstandwithParis. #SanBernardino. #Brussels. These headlines and hashtags that social media generates during the attacks on Western soil show victims that the entire world is behind them and will support them in their struggle against terrorism. However, for many victims of terrorism, this global support never reaches them, especially if they live outside of Western Europe or The United States. Ankara, Beirut, Lahore, Baghdad, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, and Afghanistan have all gone through the trauma of recent terrorist attacks in civilian areas without the global support or constant media coverage that France, the U.S., or Belgium has received.
The media coverage for each of these non-Western attacks was minimal if it was reported in the West at all. It has put forth a narrative that these places, exotic and dangerous, are just natural places for terrorism, and that it is not reported because it must happen all the time. The people affected are not white, and are often Muslim (though not always as the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia are very diverse). I would posit this phenomenon as a new, media-driven Orientalism that creates an “otherized” view of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia: one that imposes a pertinent security blind spot in our counter-terrorism efforts, one that shapes a discourse that has significant consequences for our cultural perceptions of Muslims, as a recent START Terrorism Research center study found:
“Even limited exposure to news media can influence societal-level policies targeting Muslims domestically and internationally. One of the most alarming findings observed … is that non-Muslim Americans are supporting civil restrictions for American citizens of Muslim faith because of their exposure to media depictions of Muslims as terrorists. (START, 2016)”
The news that media outlets choose to not report is just as socially and politically indicative as the news that they do report, and the absence of terrorism coverage worldwide cheapens Muslim lives and erases the suffering of those whom these attacks affect. Take this graph from the START center regarding terrorism from 2000-2014:
This graph from the Global Terrorism Database shows us the discrepancies between the volume of terror attacks in the past 16 years that have been in the West versus the non-West and it shows that the media has focused heavily on Western countries, and neglects those that occur in other Non-Western countries. While the argument can be made that these attacks make better news because it’s not expected in the West, this neglects the fact that media shapes discourse that has serious implications for policy. If policy dictates the willful neglect of terror in the non-West, then are Western counter-terrorism efforts complete? Does this have any effect on the efficacy of our shared counter-terror efforts globally? And what does this mean for Western Muslim citizens?
The media representation of the Non-West as nothing but a factionalized, underdeveloped stronghold for terrorism is getting old, and it’s shifting from something unproductive to having adverse side effects. And while I could decry the lack of hashtags and social media attention these attacks received, my concern with the lack of media coverage is not purely based on the surface level indicator of “support”. Changing my Facebook profile picture filter to the Lebanese flag does just as little as it would if I changed it to the French flag. My concern with the lack of media coverage is its effect on Western policy concerning Muslim citizens residing in the West and the holes in global counter-terrorism that media coverage exposes.
Carson is specializing in International Development and Education at the Patterson School. She has a B.A in Linguistics from the University of Kentucky and has studied Arabic and Russian languages. She has interned with two language education centers in Morocco and has interests in education, linguistics, the MENA region, Eurasia, and modern Muslim perspectives on Islam. Her career goals are to affect education policy reform in developing countries still using colonial systems.