The Propaganda Game: ‘Religicizing’ Terrorism


On October 20th a Canadian off-duty soldier was mowed down in a parking lot by a 25-year-old driver named Martin Couture-Rouleau, who was a recent radical Islamic convert: shock, surprise, and outrage ensued. Glen Greenwald wrote an article not to address the incident directly, but to address the Canadian response to the incident, which he seemed to suggest was inappropriate. Greenwald makes several valid points. Firstly he notes that it is tragic when soldiers (or any citizens) are killed, but we need to realize and accept that we are a nation at war, as we have been for the past 13 years through our involvement in Afghanistan; just because we have been lucky enough to keep that war off of our doorsteps and contained within other peoples’ hometowns doesn’t make that war any less real. Secondly, Greenwald notes the inconsistent and propagandistic application of the word ‘terrorism’. This term seems to only apply to violent actions committed by Muslims against Western democracies. The government’s (and media’s) treatment of the term politicizes and ‘religicizes’ the word terrorism, loading it as a weapon against Muslim nations and as a tool to coerce Canadian citizens into further violence against Muslim populations.

Greenwald’s reminders of our war status, political meddling, and selective labelling of terrorism intentionally come at a time when much is at stake for Canada; we are set to engage on a new battlefront in Iraq against ISIS, we are dealing with political and militant insurgencies within and without our borders, and Canadian politicians hotly debate the ethics of new national security measures that allow authorities to anticipate and target potential threats to eliminate them before violent acts are committed against the state. In such a turbulent time we need a common identity, and nothing cements that better than knowing a common enemy. Thus, propaganda is swiftly deployed to encompass that dark power to the East (militant Islam) and its seeds of destruction here in the West (“homegrown terrorists”). The term terrorism, which conjures images of 9/11 and the mass murder of innocent civilians, is strategically applied to provoke an emotional reaction, instill fear and hatred of our enemy, and create a resolve to end the madness. In one word, “terrorism” absolves us of responsibility, guilt, and ownership for the violence, and simultaneously vilifies an entire religious population. No political leader would say that all Muslims are violent or a threat; nothing could be father from the truth. But the systematic connection of the term “terrorism” almost solely with Muslim jihadist violence creates that connection in the minds of Westerners as the cycle of violence continues. Just as we have been reviewing in RELS 349, propaganda is one of the best ways of building a national identity, support for a movement (in this case, a military one), and galvanizing a population against a common enemy that is seen to encompass everything in opposition to their worldview. As we considered in class, using propaganda, such as discriminately classifying a type of act as being “terrorist”, automatically applies an answer to the “why” of the violence: to destroy the freedom and democracy of the West. By assuming innocence and passing the entire blame of an action upon another group, we are unable to objectively identify the root causes of a violent action.

Greenwald reminds us that our government and intelligence agencies have been busy killing other nations’ soldiers, murdering other people’s children and parents and loved ones, and blowing up plenty of infrastructure on the other side of the world; none of these actions, which have very often involved the collateral of violence against civilians, have ever been labelled as “terrorism”. As Westerners we are immune to committing acts of terror; our violence is benevolent, useful, justified. When violence is played out between Western soldier and Eastern civilian, it is termed “collateral”. But when violence occurs between jihadist “soldier” and Western civilian or soldier (whether off-duty or not) it is termed “terrorism”. Just because that jihadist does not wear a uniform does not make him or her less of a soldier, for that is truly how he or she views him/herself. And just because every civilian is not in uniform does not make him or her completely absolved of responsibility for the actions of his or her government; surely no single Canadian can take that responsibility alone, but we all hold some degree of liability for the government we help create. The war has come to our doorstep, is growing from within the heart of our nation, and we planted that seed ourselves. What we experience in this era is simply the blowback caused by our past actions. While “we didn’t start the fire”, as Billy Joel would say, the world keeps turning and the way that we respond will determine the types of wars that our children will fight. In addition, the way that we utilize terms such as “terrorism” will determine the ability of both ourselves and future generations to objectively consider the violence that is committed by various parties; when that violence is justified, by whom and against whom, and for what purpose. Objectively understanding our placement within political and military actions will help us trace root causes of violence and create a more peaceable, accepting, and harmonious world.


RELS #349


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