News agencies have yet to grow tired of reporting on the various antics of new US President Donald Trump. In Germany, articles about Donald Trump and the Trump administration comprised 4 of the top 6 stories on the Deutsche Welle website as of 15 February 2017. In the English-speaking media, the daily quota is typically even higher. So it is certainly not through a lack of exposure that one story seems to have missed the public attention it deserves. On 2 February 2017, shortly after announcing his well-publicised ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, it emerged that Trump was going to continue rebranding existing White House programmes. A programme established under President Obama entitled ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) will henceforward be known as ‘Countering Islamic Extremism.’ From this position, it is crucial to examine the implications of what this means for Western perceptions of extremism, especially considering the limited media coverage of this radical rebrand.
The term ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ originated during an international summit hosted by the Obama administration in 2015. While lauded for including international governments and organisations at the summit, Obama faced criticism from the right-wing press for using language deemed too ‘politically correct.’ Renowned Princeton philosopher Peter Singer pointed out that the factsheet at the summit barely included any references to what was perceived to be, and what indeed turned out to be, the main point of the summit– specific discussion on how to combat Islamic terrorism. He describes the term ‘Countering Extremist Terrorism’ as little more than a euphemism to refer to the so-called Islamic State (IS) without offending Muslim groups. Defenders of the Obama administration refuted these claims, arguing that while combatting the Islamic State is one of the leading priorities of counterterrorism, this programme would also aim to fight any acts of extremism that posed threats to US citizens, for example, from white supremacist groups. By renaming the programme, the Trump administration has both appeased Obama’s critics and severely limited the scope of this programme in terms of which extremist groups it can take on.
The realities of extremism in the United States over the last decades have been widely publicised in the weeks since the Muslim travel ban and do not need to be repeated in detail here. Suffice to say, according to The Atlantic, since 9/11 there have been five successful terrorists on US soil, and every single one was either a citizen or a legal permanent resident. All came from a Muslim background but some, like the Orlando nightclub attacker, had more complex motives than ‘Islamic extremism.’ Various psychologists have speculated that Omar Mateen’s closeted homosexuality and relationship with his family were bigger motives than jihadism. In any case, Mateen, and all of the other perpetrators, would have been in the country regardless of any kind of travel ban. Others, like the San Bernardino shooters, Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were likely radicalised online by foreign extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
While these five attacks are the only ones classified by the US government as ‘terrorism,’ many more attacks have been provoked by extremism. The statistics vary, but a 2016 report points out that murders caused by Muslim extremists made up just one third of one per cent of murders in that year. According to government statistics, 123 lives have been claimed since 9/11 as a result of Muslim terrorist acts – the vast majority coming from very few attacks, including the shooting at the Orlando nightclub. In the same period, more than 240,000 Americans were murdered for other reasons. This is not to diminish the lives of those 123 people who died in the last 16 years – their deaths are indeed tragedies and the government must continue to do everything possible to ensure public safety in the face of terrorism. It is merely to say that the type of extremism that motivated their murders is in no way the biggest cause of loss of life relating to extremism. David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Centre on Terrorism and Homeland Security said in January, ‘It’s flatly untrue that America is deeply threatened by violent extremism by Muslim-Americans.’
Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump and his supporters have spoken about extremist groups and Islamic terrorism largely interchangeably. It is this type of language that has allowed his renaming of the CVE programme to pass so well under the radar. The general public has become well accustomed to hearing politicians and the media speak about Islamic extremism and all other forms of extremism without any clear distinctions. Across the Western world, the word ‘extremist’ is likely to conjure images of bearded jihadis. If you Google the same word the first page of search results relates entirely to Islam. This generalising needs to stop before it becomes too ingrained in public perceptions and institutionalised across governments, and it may already be too late.
No successful acts of terror have ever been committed on US soil by any citizen of any of the seven countries of Trump’s travel ban. More terrorists from the UK have been arrested in the US than from Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq combined. In fact, no terrorists have ever been officially recorded in the US from Syria or Libya. By scaremongering and redefining terms Donald Trump is using language to create lies; he is using ‘alternative facts’ to give us a false idea of what extremism means. It is our responsibility to look at the real facts and remember that combatting all extremist groups should not ever be equated to combatting a single religion.