Do All Lives Really Matter?

“We almost turned it on when terrorists attacked Ankara since Turks are technically Caucasian,” wrote IslamicaNews referring to the popular Facebook feature that allows members to activate a flag overlay to show solidarity with and honor certain victims, not others. The satirical website, putting words in the mouth of a fake Facebook spokesperson, added: “But then we thought, come on … They’re not like regular white people. Disqualified.”

This was in the wake of the terror attack in Turkey on March 13, 2016.

IslamicaNews is not alone in noticing Western media (and social media) bias in the coverage of terror attacks. The victims are given extensive, sympathetic and prolonged attention when they are primarily white non-Muslims, while the plight of similar victims in Muslim or developing countries are underplayed or even ignored.

In fact, even prominent world landmarks (including the CN Tower) changed colors for Paris and Belgium, but have never done so for Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria or Somalia. Moreover, even major Western leaders, including Prime Minister Trudeau, made public statements of solidarity with Brussels (34 deaths), of the March 22, 2016 attacks, though the silence was deafening from many quarters for the terror unleashed the week before in Ivory Coast (22 deaths), Turkey (38 deaths), Pakistan (15 deaths), Nigeria (22 deaths), Syria (11 deaths) and Egypt (18 deaths). It was not any different for the two attacks on the 25th in Iraq (31 deaths) and Yemen (26 deaths).

So far this year (as of August 30th) globally there have been approximately 1,170 recorded terrorist attacks, of which less than 50 took place in the Western world (Europe and North America). Not to minimize any deaths, but the vast majority of the attacks in the Western world took less than 2 lives, if any. The picture is starkly different in the Muslim world and the East, where dozens of attacks claimed more than 15 lives and a significant number took the lives of more than 50.

In case you thought the unbalanced media coverage was because the difference in numbers is not stark enough, consider that in January 2015, the coverage of the 17 left dead after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris dwarfed and obscured the roughly 2,000 killed by Boko Haram in the Nigerian town of Baga the same week.

DA’ISH, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Taliban all have different goals and targets, but they have one thing in common: They have all killed more Muslims than non-Muslims. Though exact figures are hard to muster, based on available data from a number of sources including a 2011 report of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, we can safely conclude that between 80% to 90% of the victims of terror are Muslims.

One of the reasons for the selective mourning may be due to the fact that some of these countries outside Europe may be perceived as one undifferentiated mass where violence is the norm. This may be a partial explanation but one that should not carry much weight. Indeed, are the dead any less dead or their pain any less because they see more violence? The implication here is that some lives matter more than others. We certainly can’t claim the moral high ground if notions of human dignity are attached to identity and how similar they are to us whether in reality or perception.

Another more plausible explanation is the ingrained and subconscious racism that exists in too many of our institutions and our unwillingness to confront the conditioning which has allowed us to only view certain people as victims. In the words of Edward Said, it is due to the systemic “otherization” of non-western people which has its roots in the Orientalist discourse that evolved from the Crusades and Colonization.

The reality is that even many Muslims have fallen prey to this Eurocentric worldview sometimes to avert suspicion about allegiances, other times due to the subconscious adoption of orientalist tropes.

The compassion gap is made possible when we can portray ourselves at the centre of focus and “The Other” as outside our group. When they are different from us it is easier to see the outsiders as less human or in need of being civilized by us.

Western victims are martyrs while other victims are not given this honor and are met with silence or even blame for nurturing terror. It places a hierarchy on who is to be grieved and is contradictory to any assertions that all lives matter. The most blatant expression of this view was offered by US Secretary of State at the time Madeline Albright in 1996, who told 60 Minutes that American policy objectives were worth the sacrifice of half a million Arab children.

Such views make it easy for a prominent Canadian columnist to write that Arab society is one “where wickedness is bred in the bone,” and have to be taken to the Ontario Press Council to be admonished. Indeed, as psychiatrist Marc Sageman argues, most of us are guilty of “fundamental attribution error” (excessive emphasis on perceived internal motivation when it comes to judging the actions of others). He says: “You attribute other people’s behaviour to internal motivations but your own to circumstances.”

The division of the world plays into the terrorist narrative. Indeed, what is the difference between “us” versus “them” and the dar-ul-harb (abode of war) and dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam) world peddled by DA’ISH and those of its ilk?

True humanity necessitates that we stand not only with France, America and Belgium, but with all terrorized people.

Faisal Kutty, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D. (Cand.)
Associate Professor of Law

Director, International LL.M. Program
Valparaiso University School of Law
656 S. Greenwich Street
Valparaiso, IN 46383