Canadian journalism fails at nuance when it comes to jihad

A critical analysis of The Globe and Mail and the National Post and the perpetuation of Islamophobia.

Angel in Islamic painting

On my view the news media in Canada have, by and large and in the long run, misrepresented the concept of jihad. They have positioned jihad as a form of villainy. In so doing they have portrayed Islam as a peril.

And non-Muslim Canadians, who aren’t vigilant, have been misinformed by the news. 1 2

The challenge is that anti-Muslim views, and anti-jihad views, are so common and so established, it’s hard to explain to folks how news has done this.3

By way of trying to explain how news is misrepresenting jihad, let’s consider the following concepts.4

Love is good. It’s good by definition. There might be some things that are mistakenly called love. There might be some acts that are mistakenly not seen as love. There might be grey cases and maybe we’re not sure whether love applies or not. Discerning acts of love is hard. Communities might disagree on what counts as love, and the meanings of love. Some people might even think that love is bad. Because life is complicated.

Justice is good. It’s good by definition. There might be acts of justice that don’t seem like justice. There might be acts that are mistakenly called justice. What was considered justice in 1940 or 2005 might not quite meet the threshold today or tomorrow. And there might be acts that are mistakenly not recognized. And there might be difficult situations where we don’t really know if there was justice or not. And we might not know what justice means in some contexts. Communities might disagree on the meanings of justice. Some people might even think that justice is bad. Because life is complicated.

Murder is bad. It’s bad by definition. There might be acts that are called murder, that aren’t. And there might be acts that weren’t called murder, but are. We might not know whether a given act is murder or not. Communities might disagree about whether a certain act is murder or not. Discerning an act of murder is hard. And different communities might disagree on the meanings of murder. Some people might even think murder is good. Because life is complicated.

Terrorism is bad. It’s bad by definition. There might be some acts that are mistakenly called terrorism. There might be acts of terrorism that are not called terrorism. We might not know in a given context, whether an act was terrorism. Communities might disagree about whether a given act is terrorism or not. Communities might disagree on the meanings of terrorism. Because life is complicated.

This is all pretty straightforward so far. So here we go.

Jihad is good. It’s good by definition. There might be acts that are called jihad, that aren’t. There might be acts, that are not called jihad, that are. We might be uncertain in a given context, whether an act was an act of jihad or not. Communities might disagree about whether a given act is an act of jihad or not. There might be grey cases and we might be uncertain whether a given case qualifies as jihad or not. And communities might even disagree on the meaning and definitions of jihad. Because life is complicated.

Here’s the thing. Canadian Journalists, by and large and in the long run, understand this nuance when it comes to love, justice, terrorism and murder. But they muck it up when it comes to jihad.

If John Poindexter commits murder and calls it an act of love, no Canadian news agency would run with “John Poindexter commits act of love” as a headline or a statement of fact.

If John Poindexter commits an act of terrorism and he’s from a community in Florida which claims he has committed an act of justice, no Canadian news agency would print “John Poindexter enacts justice” in an article.

Conversely, Canadian news organizations, by and large and in the long run, have failed to treat jihad with a comparable nuance.

For example, Richard Warnica published a story at the National Post in 2015, with the headline, “VIA Rail terror trial hears accused tell of planning jihad with friend of bin Laden.” The problem with this is that only terrorists think it was jihad. So the National Post is siding with terrorists while simultaneously alienating mainstream Muslims. The National Post is positioning jihad as an act of villainy, while affirming in the minds of terrorists that their acts are morally well-founded.5

Of course terrorists see their own acts as being purposeful, heroic and just. That’s why they claim (when they’re Muslim) that they are enacting jihad. But most Muslims will disagree. So why is the National Post siding with the terrorists?

Even the RCMP published a report in 2010 cautioning against this basic use of “jihad.”

And it’s not just the National Post.6

In 2017, Colin Freeze and Joanna Slater published “Letters from a Jihadi: inside the mind of a Canadian accused of joining al-Qaeda” at The Globe and Mail. In the article they use some form of “jihad” three times plus the use of “jihad” in the title. Additionally, an analysis of the letter by Amarnath Amarasingam is appended, and he uses some form of “jihad” another fourteen times.

Letters from a Jihadi: inside the mind of a Canadian accused of joining al-Qaeda, The Globe and Mail

The analysis demonstrates that the terrorists see themselves as doing the right thing. This is part of the process of radicalization. They find meaning and purpose in taking, what they think, is the moral high road.

But it’s not the moral high road. Freeze, Slater and Amarasingam all, correctly, hold that the actions alleged of the accused in the article are those of terrorists. And there’s the bind.7

By their own account, terrorists don’t see themselves as terrorists. They see themselves as heroes; they see themselves as jihadists.

Imagine for a moment that this article was about young Christian men who were being radicalized to commit acts that they thought were acts of justice, but which we knew were senseless and violent. They see themselves as heroes and they refer to their club as the Alpha Team. The Globe and Mail would not then print a headline that affirmed this. They would not print, “Letters from a Hero: inside the mind of a Canadian accused of joining Alpha Team.”

When journalists, or researchers, equate jihad with terrorism they are harming, not helping, public discourse.

One, it misinforms non-Muslims about the nature of jihad.

Two, it affirms the perspective of the terrorist (they see themselves as heroes).

And three, it alienates mainstream Muslims for whom jihad is actually a good thing.

I have been tracking instances of “jihad” (or “jihadist”, “jihadi”, etc) in the Globe and Mail and the National Post for 2014, 2015, and 2016. I will publish my results and try to contextualize them in a future post.

But here’s a few numbers. In three years, The Globe and Mail published over 200 articles with the term “jihad” (or “jihadist”, “jihadi”, etc) in it. Of these articles, several have been deleted or edited over the last few years, some as recently as 2018. Roughly 13 articles don’t use the concept of jihad in the context of war or terrorism. And roughly 17 articles use “jihad” not in a negative way. This is an awkward, but important, phrasing. The rest of the articles, 191 of them, position jihad as an act of villainy.

In the same three years, the National Post published over 300 articles with instances of “jihad” (or “jihadi”, “jihadist”, etc) in them. Of these articles only six didn’t use “jihad” in the context of war or terrorism. And only four didn’t position jihad as an act of villainy.

  1. Here’s  more on how concepts from Islam are are portrayed as a peril by media.
  2. Those who are right-leaning, Christian, and don’t know a Muslim, personally, will have probably been most affected. This Pew research report is a fascinating and disturbing look at how identity, including Christianity and rightwing politics, shapes Nationalist, anti-Immigrant and anti-religious Minority views (NIM). Here’s more on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Western Europe.
  3. And in fairness, it’s not just news media. There is a long tradition of Orientalism in academia as well.
  4. Another impact of the misrepresentation of jihad by Canadian news media, is probably that many Muslims have experienced alienation by the mainstream news. Another impact is probably that many Muslims have experienced increased hate.
  5. To read more about the VIA Rail terror plot, check out this article.
  6. In April of 2015, The Globe and Mail published Dana Ferguson’s article, from the Associated Press, about an American man, Van Haften, who was charged with trying to support Daesh. It’s an interesting case because at some point The Globe and Mail deleted “jihad” from their version, although it still remains in their metadata. The original text affirmed that Van Haften was plotting terrorism and then equated that with jihad. In the original, there was this paragraph (my emphasis): “The complaint says Van Haften’s former roommate told FBI officers that he made comments referring to jihad. When asked to explain what he meant, the complaint says, Van Haften folded a $100 bill to make it look like the twin towers of the World Trade Center that were destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks. The complaint says Van Haften folded another $100 bill to look like a missile.” Yes, Van Haften probably thought of himself as doing something noble and just. But he wasn’t actually. He was plotting terrorism. Why did The Globe and Mail originally side with Van Haften in affirming his belief that he was enacting jihad? And why does their metadata continue to list “jihad” alongside “terrorist”: <meta name=”keywords” content=”World Trade Center, O&#039;Hare International Airport, Facebook, Inc., complaint, criminal complaint charges, foreign terrorist organization, attempt, terrorist, federal, crimina, foreign, plan, jihad, destroyed, towers, risk, accomplices, complained, money, cash”> and also<meta property=”article:tagcontent=”World Trade Center, O&#039;Hare International Airport, Facebook, Inc., complaint, criminal complaint charges, foreign terrorist organization, attempt, terrorist, federal, crimina, foreign, plan, jihad, destroyed, towers, risk, accomplices, complained, money, cash“>
  7. There is an open question in the article about whether those three individuals have done what authorities allege. But there is not an open question about whether the alleged actions are criminal or not: “Authorities allege the trio became highly dangerous terrorists by joining remnants of al-Qaeda’s core leaders overseas.”

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