Only Muslims Can Be “Terrorists”

by Guest Contributor Jesse Singal, originally published at

Over the weekend a disturbing story ran in the Dayton Daily News:

Baboucarr Njie was preparing for his prayer session Friday night, Sept. 26, when he heard children in the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton coughing. Soon, Njie himself was overcome with fits of coughing and, like the rest of those in the building, headed for the doors.

“I would stay outside for a minute, then go back in, there were a lot of kids,” Njie said. “My throat is still itchy, I need to get some milk.”

Njie was one of several affected when a suspected chemical irritant was sprayed into the mosque at 26 Josie St., bringing Dayton police, fire and hazardous material personnel to the building at 9:48 p.m.

Someone “sprayed an irritant into the mosque,” Dayton fire District Chief Vince Wiley said, noting that fire investigators believe it was a hand-held spray can.

According to fire dispatch communications, a child reported seeing two men with a white can spraying something into a window. That child was brought to the supervising firefighter at the scene.

There’s one word that’s conspicuously absent from this account: “terrorist.” If spraying a chemical irritant into a room full of civilians isn’t a terrorist act, then what is?

Now, “terrorist” is a word that’s often been abused and misused since 9/11, and which has always had a long list of thorny questions tacked to it. There’s an argument to be made that it should be retired altogether in favor of more precise terminology. But if we’re going to use it–and it seems unlikely that it will disappear from the scene anytime soon–shouldn’t we at least be consistent? Can any fairminded observer deny that if there had been even the whiff of a rumor that Muslims intended to spray a chemical irritant into a Dayton church, it would have been considered a “terrorist threat” and every single account of the threat would have had the T-word plastered all over it?

It seems we’re only comfortable referring to certain people as terrorists, and that whether we use this designation depends largely on the ethnicity or religion of the suspected perpetrator.

Feministe ran a classic post on this subject in 2007 pointing out that the T-word is almost never attached to “pro-life” abortion clinic bombers or would-be bombers. The same thing seems to be happening here–because the suspects in this case are likely non-Muslim, the terrorist card is off the table.

Numerous times since 9/11, Muslims or non-whites have been arrested on trumped-up charges in highly publicized cases that rarely resulted in substantive convictions. In these and other instances, the word “terrorist” was thrown around again and again, even in cases in which it later became clear the individuals or groups in question were unlikely to ever harm anybody. Yet the media tend to be exceedingly parsimonious in their usage of the T-word when a case arises in which the alleged perpetrator isn’t Muslim. This certainly raises some questions about how the threat of terrorism is portrayed.

I emailed Kyle Nagel, the author of the Daily News story, to ask about his paper’s policies on the term “terrorist” and why it wasn’t used in this case. As I write this he hasn’t yet responded, but if he does I will certainly add an update.

Jesse Singal is an associate editor of and