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Obama Administration Official Ignores Non-Muslim Terrorists

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By Eric Love

White House Photo

John Brennan in the Oval Office - White House Photo

The new May 2010 US National Security Strategy has been appropriately praised for doing away with some of the "global war on terrorism" rhetoric used by the George W. Bush administration. President Obama's National Security Strategy, a landmark document that Congress has required from each White House since 1986, removed Bush's references to "Islamic extremism." This is a welcome change in an important White House document, however, another recent statement from a key White House official suggests a more complex and potentially racialized picture of the Obama Administration's attitude toward combating terrorism.

Obama's counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, gave a speech shortly after the release of the National Security Strategy. Brennan's speech -- which went largely unnoticed -- makes it quite clear that the Obama Administration has redoubled its efforts to "secure our homeland" by recognizing "the threat to the United States posed by individuals radicalized here at home." Remarkably, Brennan's speech lists only seven terror attacks or attempted attacks carried out by "radicalized" Americans. Each of the seven homegrown attacks on Brennan's list was carried out by a Muslim.

Conspicuously absent from Brennan's list of seven terrorist incidents is any discussion of the "individuals radicalized here at home" by the Christian Hutaree "militia," a group secretly planning coordinated, deadly attacks in Michigan. Brennan also forgets about the 2009 shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, carried out by a dedicated white supremacist. Brennan's lengthy speech makes no mention of the danger posed by right wing radicals like Joseph Stack, who flew an airplane into an IRS building. Most tellingly, Brennan didn't express any concern about terror inflicted against Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities in the form of violent hate crimes, including a pipe bomb that exploded at a mosque in Florida not long before Brennan's speech.

In short, Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor seems to reserve the use of the word "terrorism" exclusively for violent acts that are carried out by Muslims.

The disturbing linkage of "terrorism" with Muslims should get specifically denounced by the Obama administration. It appears that the White House is doing the opposite, however -- it seems that the White House is embracing the racialized linkage between "terrorism" and Muslims. The racialized linkage between "Muslim-looking" people and terrorism has a deep and disturbing history in the United States. After the bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, Arab and Muslim Americans experienced a violent wave of hate crimes from Americans, because investigators began with a working assumption that the terrorists must be Arab or Muslim. Similar racialized backlash happened after the accidental explosion of TWA Flight 800.

The racialized connection between the American concept of terrorism and the American concept of "Middle East" has a profound effect on politics. Barack Obama himself has suffered from the widespread belief that he is not an American citizen, and that he is a "secret Muslim" agent. One Research 2000 poll found that only 77% of Americans believed that President Obama is an American citizen.

Perhaps looking to politically neutralize criticism along these lines, the Obama administration has been quite sensitive to accusations that it is soft on terrorism. In particular, the administration has been very careful to avoid suggesting that terrorism can emerge from the American right wing fringe. Brennan's speech, which conspicuously ignored right-wing terrorism, comes about a year after Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, apologized for a domestic intelligence report produced by her department that mentioned the possibility of right-wing terrorism in the United States. Napolitano faced calls to resign from Republicans in Congress after the intelligence report noted an increase in the number of threats received from right-wing militant organizations inside the US who might try to recruit among America's war veterans. Rather than defend her department's analysis, Napolitano apologized and said the report should be re-written.

Since Napolitano's apology, the Obama Administration has carefully re-calibrated its messaging on terrorism. To avoid political fallout, the White House has apparently decided that only acts carried out by Muslims should been described as "terrorist." When Joseph Stack flew his airplane into a federal building in Austin, the Department of Homeland Security immediately concluded -- within hours of the crash -- that although they "do not yet know the cause of the plane crash," still it was safe to say, "at this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity." The White House reaffirmed this conclusion, when Obama's press secretary stated that the " plane crash" was not an act of terrorism.

Further linking Muslims and terrorism, the White House has encouraged the presumption that Fort Hood shooting, in which thirteen people tragically lost their lives, was a terrorist attack. Even as the criminal investigation has found that the presumed shooter, Muslim American Nidal Hasan, acted alone and not as part of a terrorist plot, still many officials have described the Fort Hood shooting as a terrorist attack. Indeed, this is how White House Counterterrorism Advisor Brennan described the Fort Hood shooting in his speech about Obama's National Security Strategy:

"We have also seen individuals, including American citizens, apparently inspired by al-Qaida’s ideology, take matters into their own hands. Again, we have disrupted a number of these plots, including individuals in Texas and Illinois charged with planning to blow up buildings. Tragically, we were unable to prevent others. The murder of the military recruiter in Arkansas last year and the senseless slaughter of 13 innocent Americans at Fort Hood. I would note that it is telling that many of these individuals felt the need to hide their activities from their families and communities, likely because they knew they would be condemned by those very same communities."

Here, Brennan describes the Fort Hood attack as an example of attacks carried out by Americans "apparently inspired by al-Qaida's ideology." The investigation into the shootings has found that not to be the case, but Brennan still emphasizes the link between the Muslim American accused of the shooting and al-Qaida.

The Obama Administration's conspicuous linking of Muslims to terrorism is not a benign rhetorical issue -- it has serious repercussions for Muslim Americans. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee issued a statement of concern in May, because they expected to see more hate crimes directed against Arab Americans. Similarly, Muslim Americans told journalists in Connecticut that they fear backlash.

Unfortunately, those fears were well-founded. Just a short time after a Muslim American man presumably tried (and failed) to bomb Times Square in April, a powerful pipe bomb successfully exploded at a mosque in Florida. The exploding pipe bomb was captured on video. Remarkably, there was no statement from the Obama White House on this apparent hate crime. The local office of the FBI issued a reward for help in finding out who carried out the hate attack on the mosque -- an attack that could very easily have been fatal (just as the Times Square bomb could have been fatal).

The double standard, emanating from the White House, on what counts as terrorism adds to a climate of fear for Muslim Americans, and a racialized group of Americans who "look like" Muslims: Arabs, Sikhs, South Asians, and others. The Obama Administration must take a more proactive line on de-linking terrorism and Islam -- no matter what the political cost.

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Erik Love is a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Santa Barbara.