After an explosion in New York's Chelsea neighborhood on Saturday, law enforcement officials began swiftly investigating the attack. In the initial response to the blast, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio did not immediately link the incident to terrorism, though a bombing in a busy New York neighborhood with at least 29 injuries could likely be described as such. De Blasio's failure to make the connection was possibly due to early investigations lacking immediate links to an Islamic group or foreign country. However, de Blasio's response is an example of how frequently "terrorism" and "Islam" are treated as synonymous.
Upon addressing the bombing on Sunday morning, de Blasio said, "It was intentional, it was a violent act, it was certainly a criminal act, it was a bombing — that’s what we know." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added, "I believe the mayor was saying there was no connection with international terrorism, and that is correct ... A bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism. But it’s not linked to international terrorism. In other words, we find no ISIS connection," The New York Times reported.
Any time a nonwhite American carries out an act of violence in the United States, there is almost always an investigation into their potential connections to Islam, so-called Muslim organizations, and/or foreign countries. This is why the suspect in the Chelsea bombing was described as "a naturalized citizen of Afghan descent." This is why, during the investigation, the suspect's family was described by a customer as "secretive, a little mysterious ... too serious" — a narrative that relies on a trope that treats Muslim communities as "different" or not "like us."
Terrorism exists outside of this inherently racialized and Islamophobic framework. It's increasingly important that we examine "terrorism" outside the lens of Islam, because we are actively participating in the normalization of thinking of "Islam" and "terrorism" as interchangeable terms. The FBI's definition of domestic terrorism notes that such an act is "dangerous to human life" and a violation of "federal or state law." The intended goal of terrorism, according to the FBI, is to intimidate civilians, influence government policy, or "affect the conduct of a government."
When Dylann Roof, a 22-year-old white man, walked into a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, and shot and killed nine people who were there for bible study, all of whom were black, he was not charged with domestic terrorism. His case was not referred to as an act of terrorism. The Intercept noted how Roof allegedly admitted to a friend that his intentions were to start a "race war," and his online "manifesto" reportedly indicated his intention to intimidate people. Despite this, Roof was not investigated for terrorism.
When Robert Lewis Dear, a 58-year-old white man, entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Nov. 27, 2015, and shot and killed three people, he was not charged with domestic terrorism. Dear was described as "extremely evangelistic" and allegedly muttered "no more baby parts" during his arrest, and still he was not investigated as an alleged terrorist.
What does it mean when certain individuals and acts of violence are framed as terrorism, while other acts of violence that share similar characteristics are not? Investigating an incident as terrorism only in cases in which an individual may have some relation to the Islamic faith or a foreign country is a problematic and racialized framework that needs to be called into question. It has proven dangerous and violent to the Muslim communities across this country, which far too often pay the price for crimes with which they have no connection.
In 2016, it is both irresponsible and unacceptable to continuously apply the existing understanding of "national security" and "terrorism" to policy-making and the way we view certain acts of violence. We cannot allow our elected officials and law enforcement agencies to continue to casually associate the word "Muslim" with the violence of "terror."