Two cities, two attacks, why is only one terrorism?

Muslims in the West have a legitimate beef when it comes to how their societies see terrorism.  Whenever a violent attack takes place and the perpetrator is, or merely appears, Muslim everyone yells “terrorism!” whereas if the attacker is not Muslim everyone yells “mentally ill” or “lone wolf nutjob!”  Consistency this is not.

Combined with that is the slice of society who seem to equate Islam with terrorism.  While there is no doubt that some terrorists are indeed Muslim and these act in ways they claim are consistent with their faith, it is also of no doubt that most Muslims are not terrorists and that Islam has not been used to condone violence any more or less than any other faith has.

We now have what is being labelled a terrorist act in Paris.  A 29-year old Egyptian wielding a machete rushed at soldiers outside the Louvre Museum, injuring one before being wounded by gunfire.  The French President Francois Hollande rushed to call it an act of terrorism.  It is also being called such in international media.

I can hear the criticisms already coming from Muslim communities. “When an Egyptian – and supposedly a Muslim – does something he is a terrorist, but Alexandre Bissonnette (the alleged Quebec City shooter) is not – because he is white (actually, a lot of people are calling the massacre at the Islamic Cultural Centre an act of terrorism, but I am reserving judgment).”

So, is there a double standard?  Probably, but the issue is more complicated than just that.  As I have been writing and saying ad nauseum since Monday, terrorism is crucially tied to ideology.  In the case of Quebec, we simply do not have enough information at this point to call it terrorism.  There are some hints – Mr. Bissonnette’s FaceBook postings and comments made by friends – but there is no smoking gun yet.

In this light, is the attack in Paris terrorism?  I have no idea, as I am not in possession of anything more than I have read online.  There are some aspects, however, of this incident that are not present in the Quebec one.  Among the differences are:

a) the Paris assailant yelled “Allahu Akbar” when he rushed at police.  This is of course normally a phrase of praise to God but is also used by Islamist extremists.  Regardless, it does suggest that the attacker was religiously motivated.  If so, this is a valid ideological driver and the attack would thus be terrorist in nature.  With Quebec we don’t know the motivation.

b) Paris, and France, have been beset by a number of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist extremists of late: Paris in November 2015, the truck attack in Nice on Bastille Day last year, the beheading of a priest in Rouen, etc., etc., etc.  This is a trend, not a one-off.  You cannot say that about Quebec.

c) Islamist extremist groups have been calling on Muslims to attack France for years and some have clearly answered that call.  Is something analogous happening with the far right?  Not to my knowledge.

In the end, the Paris criminal may not have been motivated by ideology  He may be mentally ill.  He may have attacked for other reasons.  So, while it is tempting and understandable (and even somewhat defensible) to call it an act of terrorism, officials may have jumped the gun.  The terrorism term is used too loosely and far too much.  We must reserve it for only those cases where it applies.

Paris may turn out to be yet another terrorist attack, as may Quebec.  Or perhaps one will and the other won’t.  Or maybe both won’t.  I really do wish that politicians and public commentators would wait for more information before proclaiming these things.  After all, what is the hurry?  Isn’t it enough to say that a gun-wielding man, or a guy with a machete, just launched at attack?  Do we HAVE to call it terrorism as soon as we can?  What do we gain by this?  The perpetrator will either die in his assault or be captured and face trial.  If found guilty, he will likely not see the light of day for a very long time.  That, dear reader, should be sufficient.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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