By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Global media and Muslims: Selective coverage, selective outrage

October 10, 2018 - 22:18

TEHRAN -“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? William Shakespeare’s lines in The Merchant of Venice hold true today.

On the gloomy morning of March 22 2016, Brussels, the capital city of Belgium and a major European tourist attraction, experienced a series of bombings, killing at least 31 people. Like the devastating November 2015 Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, Brussels attack provoked unprecedented levels of public outrage and media coverage that went well beyond the tragic event.

Lengthy newspaper editorials were dedicated to Paris and Brussels and ‘security analysts’ appeared on prime news TV shows to discuss state security and perceived threat of Syrian and Afghan refugees.

This is not to suggest that the mindless bloodletting in Paris or Brussels or Manchester or Madrid should not provoke outrage or it should not be discussed in the mainstream corporate media. But, why does the media – in the west or east – focus so heavily on these attacks when equally deadly, equally ghastly attacks occur in places like Kabul, Baghdad, Beirut, Ankara, Quetta, Tehran, Kenya, Yemen? What does this selective coverage and selective outrage say about the corporate news media?

While attacks by ‘Muslims’ against non-Muslims in Europe have grabbed headlines recently, a study conducted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a  research center at the University of Maryland, states that Muslims are most victimized by the global terrorism.

But, the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Manchester or Madrid – and the global response to them – amply highlight the selective outrage towards global terrorism and biased coverage of the corporate news media.

When Paris attacks took place, social media was bombarded with evocative hashtags, candle light vigils were held, popular news sites carried live blogs, world leaders rushed to send out messages of solidarity with the French people.

At the same time, Lebanese people were in a state of mourning, after 43 people were killed and 200 others wounded in multiple suicide bombings in Beirut. But the bombings in Beirut – for which ISIS claimed responsibility – drew no outrage from world leaders, no candle-light demonstrations from human rights defenders, no hashtags or live blogs from Western media.

Blatant double standards

On May 31 2017, a devastating truck bomb in the diplomatic enclave of Kabul claimed at least 100 lives and injured more than 450, mostly civilians. According to security officials, the intended target of 1500 kg explosives packed in a sewage tanker was the ‘green zone’ – housing foreign embassies – but Afghan policemen manning the main entrance stopped the vehicle from going inside, sacrificing their own lives to save foreign diplomats. It was the deadliest attack with unprecedented civilian casualties on the soil of Afghanistan since 2001 but the news media coverage made it look like just another terror attack, because the victims were poor Afghans.

If the truck packed with ammunition had managed to go past the main entrance and hit the intended target – foreign embassies and NATO headquarters – it would have been a different scenario altogether. But, since the Afghan policemen foiled the plan of attackers, the casualties were all Afghan civilians, which is not something Western readers and viewers are interested in. It was followed by two more deadly attacks in the same week.

The attacks continue as the protracted war stretches into its 18th year now. But these attacks are not ‘news’ anymore for the mainstream Western media, because the violence in Afghanistan has been normalized to the extent that lives of Afghans don’t matter to them.

A day before the Kabul ‘green zone’ attack, more than 40 people were killed in a spate of explosions in central Baghdad’s Karrada area, bringing back chilling memories of the truck bomb attack in which 320 people were killed in the same neighborhood. Less than two weeks after the Karrada attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad, killing at least 30 people.

These attacks elicited no angry reactions and no vigils were held. There were no banner headlines and no editorials. World leaders did not deem it important to send out messages of solidarity, unlike Paris attack or Brussels attack or London attack.

It is important to note that Iraq has been turned into a bedlam because of U.S. military intervention and the resurgence of militancy in the form of ISIS can be blamed on America’s flawed Middle East policy. As Noam Chomsky once told me, Americans owe huge reparations to Iraqis and Afghans for destroying their lives and their homes.

Iranian capital city Tehran also had a brush with terror on June 7 2017, when two of the most important symbols of Iranian pride – parliament house and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum – came under attack. At least 17 people were killed in two simultaneous attacks. But, reportage in the Western media was in sync with President Trump’s statement that Iran was “falling victim to the evil they promote”. Tehran later denounced his reaction as “repugnant”.

More recently, the deadly attack on a military parade in southwestern Iranian province of Ahvaz claimed almost 30 lives, including children. The attack was claimed by a group that traces links to Arab states, so obviously the Western media and Western leaders had reservations in condemning the attack.

The simple truth is: Muslims are far more likely to die at the hands of other ‘Muslims’, and they are also more likely to be killed by Westerners who seek to exterminate ‘Islamic extremists’.

In Yemen, the carnage continues and the world unforgivably looks the other way. Thousands of people have been killed and injured, mostly in airstrikes. Saudi-led coalition has been committing horrendous war crimes in Yemen but the U.S., Britain, France and other ‘allies’ keep shipping bombs to Riyadh. Unfortunately, the coverage of Yemen war is pathetically erratic while we had wall-to-wall media coverage of the war in Syria. The answer is simple: most of the Western powers are complicit in the genocide of Yemenis, hence it is a forgotten war.

Muslim attackers, non-Muslim attackers

According to a study by a team of researchers from Georgia State University, attacks by people claiming to be Muslim received 449 percent more coverage on average in recent years than those perpetrated by virtually anyone else. “When attacks are perpetrated by a Muslim, they receive drastically more coverage,” Erin Kearns, the lead author of the study, was quote saying. “Across every model that we looked at, we are still finding that Muslim perpetrators have at least 200 percent increase in coverage.”

Why do Muslim perpetrators dominate headlines? Who is a terrorist? Apparently, a Muslim is a terrorist even if he is mentally ill, and a non-Muslim is mentally-ill even if he is a terrorist. It’s terrorism only when Muslims do it. As George Orwell so succinctly put it, “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them.”

In November 2009, when a Muslim US army major fatally shot 13 people in Texas, the attack was quickly characterized as ‘terrorism’. It was indeed an act of terrorism and American Muslim groups also strongly and unequivocally condemned the shooting.

But when a US military officer went on a rampage in southern Afghanistan in March 2012, mowing down 16 civilians – including nine children and three women – no Western media outlet called him a ‘terrorist’. The media protected his identity and refrained from mentioning his faith, because the label is strictly reserved for Muslim perpetrators. All major news outlets in the West reported that the soldier “was suffering from the stress of a fourth combat tour”, had a “brain injury” and “marital problems”.

Every time there is a terrorist attack, Muslims watch the news with uneasiness and alarm, not because every terrorist is a Muslim but because there is amplified media coverage and a deluge of Islamophobic rhetoric on social media whenever the perpetrator is identified as Muslim.

To put things into perspective, according to FBI, 94 percent of terrorist attacks carried out in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 have been by non-Muslims, and less than two percent terrorist attacks in Europe in the past five years were carried out by Muslims.

Refugee crisis and vilification campaign

When three men went on a rampage at London Bridge in June 2017, killing seven people, global media went berserk. The religion of perpetrators was repeatedly mentioned to emphasize that it was ‘Islamic terrorism’ by ‘radical Islamists’, even though clerics at London city’s largest mosque clearly condemned the ‘deranged and despicable’ act. It was terrorism, but not ‘Islamic terrorism’. They were terrorists but not ‘Islamists’.

London Bridge attack, followed by Finsbury Park attack, and before that Westminster attack, dominated headlines for weeks. Seasoned ‘commentators’ spoke of how Islam was a ‘part of problem’ and why Muslim refugees cannot be trusted, without examining the cause and genesis of refugee crisis.

Why is the European Union facing unprecedented numbers of refugees? Why are Syrians and Afghans and Iraqis and Somalis risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe? No, they are not “seeking a better life” as some believe, they are setting off into the Mediterranean to seek refugee from war and persecution, for which U.S. and European governments are responsible. Those following their perilous journey will understand why the hashtag #SyrianRefugeeCrisis is just as devastating as #PrayForParis.

Three countries make up more than half of the world refugees: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), Somalia (1.1 million) – all Muslim countries, devastated by unending war and grinding poverty, for which Western governments must share the blame.

In Afghanistan, as President Ghani has repeatedly said, it is an ‘imposed war’. Most of the European countries are part of the U.S.-led coalition – or have been – that is fighting the war. In Syria, America and its allies have been financially and militarily supporting ‘rebel forces’ in their fight against Bashar al-Assad government. In Somalia, the intervention of U.S. has only intensified the civil war, forcing thousands to flee their homes.

Plight of Hazaras and Rohingyas

On August 7 2017, Taliban joined forces with ISIS to overrun Hazara-dominated Mirza Olang village in northern Afghan province Sar e Pul, killing at least 50 civilians. On August 2 2017, a suicide attack at a packed Shia mosque in western Afghanistan killed at least 37 people and injured 60 others.

In the month of Ramadan last year, ISIS suicide bomber and gunmen forced their way into a popular mosque in Hazara-dominated Dasht e Barchi area of Kabul, killing four people and injuring at least a dozen. In the month of Muharram last year, there was an attack on Ziyarat e Sakhi, a popular Shia shrine in Kabul, in which 18 worshippers were killed and 54 others injured. On the day of Arbaeen last year, terrorists struck again, killing at least 27 people and wounding hundreds at the Baqir ul Uloom mosque in central Kabul.

This year, the attacks targeting Hazara Shias, particularly in Kabul, have intensified. There was a deadly attack on a school in Shia-neighourhood of Kabul in August, killing at least 34 school children. In the same neighourhood, a month later, more than 30 people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a wrestling club.

One thing common about all these attacks is that the victims were Hazara Shias. Afghanistan has a grim history of ethnic violence, especially when it comes to targeted killing of Hazara Shias. These attacks have brought back chilling memories of 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias.

The attacks on Hazara Shias in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan have become so routine that many major news outlets do not consider it newsworthy anymore. Imagine the anger and outrage if ISIS terrorists had attacked a church or a synagogue in Paris or Manchester or Manhattan or even Mumbai? That explains the hypocrisy of mainstream news media.
Similarly heart wrenching is the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The communal violence fanned by the Burmese government led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has led to the killing of hundreds of Rohingyas and displaced thousands. Satellite images have shown how military burnt Rohingya villages. But there has been little international action so far. Aung San continues to be the darling of the Western leaders.  

As per conservative estimates, there are around 905,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar presently, although some human rights bodies have put the figure higher. The exodus of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state started in October 2016, following the crackdown by Burmese security forces. However, things took nasty turn in August last year when more than 720,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh en masse to escape persecution, murder, arson and rape. The savagery in Rakhine was described by the United Nations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”

Lynch mobs in India and injustice in Kashmir

In India, it has become difficult for Muslims to look Muslim, with paranoia and suspicion all around. The lynching of Muslims (and also Dalits) in last few years has created a sense of fear and desperation among Muslims.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was widely criticized for not speaking up on ‘cow politics’. He finally broke his criminal silence after the #NotInMyName protests rocked multiple cities across India. But, the big question is: with Sangh Parivar leading this hate campaign against Muslims in the name of ‘gaw raksha’, can the government stop these lynch mobs?
Unfortunately, the liberals have been unfairly attacked by run-of-the-mill TV channels and prime time ‘talking heads’ for giving voice to the voiceless. India’s TV media, quite bizarrely, has been siding with the lynch mobs and their patronisers.

That brings us to the issue of Kashmir and how the Indian media vilifies Kashmiris. Any debate over Kashmir in TV news studios lacks nuance. The Kashmir narrative peddled by loud-mouthed TV anchors these days seeks to push the agenda of right-wing forces that thrive on hate-mongering and war-mongering. That is precisely why media becomes a devil’s advocate when army men convicted in Machil fake encounter are given reprieve by a kangaroo military court and when a poor civilian is tied to a jeep and used as a human shield.


To quote Aloe Blacc, “we all bleed the same blood”. Terrorism and extremism in all their forms and manifestations, irrespective of who the victim and perpetrator are, should be unequivocally condemned. Selective outrage is dangerous and cringe-worthy.
It is hypocrisy at its worst. It undermines the credibility of media, especially when they jump on the government’s bandwagon. So it is important to talk about the selective outrage of world media when it comes to the atrocities perpetuated by the Western governments in Muslim countries.