Islamic terror presents clash of ideals for European media
Beginning with the bloody July 14 Bastille Day terror attack in Nice, France that left 84 people dead, Western Europe has seen an unrelenting wave of violence mainly perpetrated by individuals with connections to or sympathies with the Islamic State terror group. These attacks on European soil are now occurring with a near daily frequency, with five different lone-wolf shooting and stabbing terror attacks in Germany in late July, at least three of which were claimed by the Islamic State, as well as the slaying of a Catholic priest in northern France on July 26.
Amid the shock and confusion that many Europeans are grappling with over the unprecedented wave of terrorism, European media organizations are similarly confounded over how to report on the violence that conflicts with the values of liberalism and humanism that have long defined Europe.
After the attack in Nice, the BBC tweeted an article with the headline “France’s President Holland returns to Paris for crisis meeting for Nice lorry ‘attack.’” This headline, which used quotation marks to cast doubt on whether the incident was a deliberate attack, and did not use the word “terror,” was followed by other headlines in the BBC, and in other European news organizations, such as “Syrian migrant dies in German blast,” or “Bomb-carrying Syrian dies outside German music festival; 12 wounded,” and others.
In a June article, JNS.org reported on how many international media outlets have come under fire for initially reporting misleading information about the attack at the Sarona market in Tel Aviv, and in some cases not describing the shooting as terrorism.
Representatives from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in France and Germany reached out to by JNS.org confirmed this, and indicated that after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, the French media devised a comprehensive map of the Islamist terrorist attacks that had taken place across the world. Twenty countries were affected between the November 13 attacks in Paris and the Brussels attack, but Israel was not included.
In addition, they said, both when it comes to news coverage of terror in Israel, and at times when it comes to European terror attacks, there is often short-lived public outrage and sparse political consequences. Media headlines on occasion reflect a reluctance to call terror by name, instead trivializing the severity of the attacks and obscuring the hateful motives of the perpetrators by referring to problems with depression and mental illness.
Daniel Schwammenthal, the director of AJC’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, also told JNS.org that when these terror attacks first take place, there is a tendency on the part of European news organizations to “be careful and not jump to conclusions,” and “play down the obvious connection” to radical Islamic terrorism.
“Generally I think there is a tendency in Europe to avoid the hard truth,” particularly the fact that there are as many as 5,000 European Islamic State fighters, some of whom may have returned to Europe from the Middle East and pose a serious risk to security, he said.
Germany’s open-door policy has also allowed a large influx of Mideast refugees to enter its borders, many of whom are fleeing the Syrian civil war. At the same time, at least three of the recent terror attacks in Germany were committed by such refugees.
Although Europe tries to differentiate between individual “bad apple” perpetrators and the whole Muslim community, “opinion polls and studies suggest that a considerable segment of the Muslim community share at least some radical ideas and values,” Schwammenthal said.
Schwammenthal pointed to an article in the German newspaper Die Welt, whose headline “Bremer Einkaufzentrum wegen Verdächtigem Evakuiert” translates to “Bremer mall evacuated because of suspicious (person).”
The article refers to an incident on July 27 where German police pursued and eventually arrested a 19-year-old Algerian asylum seeker who escaped a psychiatric hospital after threatening to blow people up. The man had previously praised the Islamic State terror group. A bolded first paragraph underneath the article headline stated: “Due to danger posed by an Algerian who escaped from a psychiatric hospital, a Bremen mall has been evacuated. He previously expressed sympathy for the Islamic State. The police arrested him.”
While this paragraph does acknowledge the man’s history of praising the Islamic State, the terror group is not mentioned in the headline. When it is mentioned in the first paragraph, it is stated only after it is explained that the man escaped an asylum, thus downplaying the man’s connection to radical Islamic terrorism.
While Schwammenthal called the motive to “protect innocent Muslims from hostility” as “noble,” he also believes this kind of thinking has led to an opposite result.
“People are obviously making a connection between radical Islam and terrorism,” but they see this attempt in the media and by some political leaders “to obfuscate or play down” this connection, and “I’m afraid it may make people much more likely to turn to (extreme right or populist) radical parties,” he said.
However, he also acknowledged that this “tendency to blame the society at large rather than individual,” is “of course much worse when it comes to European media coverage of the terror situation in Israel.”
Analysis by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and from BBCWatch have also shown that overall the number of articles and headlines misrepresenting terror attacks in this manner does still apply more greatly to European news coverage of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel, than to Islamic State-inspired attacks on European soil.
CAMERA analyst Marcelo Wio, who analyzed Spanish media as an example, told JNS.org that “in Spanish, to refer to terror attacks, we have a special word ‘atentado terrorista.’ So, atentado is a word that immediately makes a reader think terrorism. This word is almost never used in for Palestinian attacks. Only when unavoidable.”
This “is just a consequence (or even a necessary element) of a deliberate policy to frame Israel not only as the responsible for the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict, but as responsible for the situation in the Middle East. Thus, Israel is portrayed, in news after news texts, as an archetypical of evil or oppressor.”
When it comes to news coverage of the Middle East, this tends to happen only with the Jewish state. “Not even the war in Syria has produce such headlines,” he said.
“The average European reader has incorporated the difference of coverage as a natural (and even necessary) thing, as Israel is ‘different’ from the rest, and the attacks against its citizens is something evidently justified (oppression, etc.). In this way, the Palestinians have become the archetypical victim,” whereas “back in Europe, they see the attacks against them as attacks against culture, liberty, progressivism, enlightenment. Israel is the opposite of this representation, according to the media’s portrait,” Wio said.
Nevertheless, Israeli-Arab journalist Lucy Aharish recently expressed awe at the wording of several recent headlines of articles about the European attacks on Israel’s Channel 2 on July 26.
“It’s amazing. We’re speaking about four occurrences that happened in a row in Germany,” she said in a conversation with a reporter, as translated from Hebrew. “They (Germans) don’t even know how to digest it,” she said.
“Whenever there’s a terror attack in Israel, we’re usually really shocked over the headlines (about the attack) that exist abroad, but then you realize that even when this happens over there, they don’t know how to explain it, translate it, or actually use the words ‘man killed so and so (number of) people. No, (they write) that the poor guy (the terrorist) died,” she said.
AJC’s Transatlantic Institute’s Schwammenthal said that the fact that Islamist attacks in Europe are now occurring more frequently and causing mass casualties, makes it more likely that more European authorities will increase security and toughen legislation, as they already have in France and Belgium.
But “given the true dimensions of the problem,” he is not as optimistic.
“It’s very difficult to keep track of so many people,” who often become radicalized much earlier than people believe during their early upbringing at home and in institutions where things like anti-Semitism, or other radical ideas are seen as completely normal.
As Israel’s Aharish said about the news headlines, “You don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. They live in La La Land.”