Terrorist vs Lone wolf



There is a recurring narrative in the Muslim majority countries which essentially says this:

When some non-Muslims are actors of a terror attack, the attacker(s) is mostly not called a terrorist among media/mass-people/government/and so on, and instead given various titles like "lone wolf", "psychologically disturbed", "emotionally disturbed", "relationship issues", and so on, which essentially, either voluntarily or involuntarily, paints a soft picture of the attacker. Also, in the media and according to the mass-perception, the attacker's religion do not come into account. When some Muslims are the actors of a terror attack, the attacker's religion comes into play and hence they are taken as hostages as a whole irrespective of their nationality/race/color/community, and so on.

The following are some examples of this narrative:

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What is the origin of this narrative?

Note: to my opinion, this is true. When that Australian guy shot dead 49 Muslims in Christchurch, no one is talking about "blocking Australians to enter New Zealand" or laying mines in Tasman Sea. Rather everyone is like: "Oops! We just lost a point here."


Posted 2019-03-15T20:52:25.733


2Shouldn't your headline read 'NON-muslim majority countries'? – BobT – 2019-03-15T22:36:03.847

Which narrative are you interested in? Please limit your questions to a single answerable question. Do you have any examples of that narrative that we can discuss, rather than examples of people criticising that narrative? – JeffUK – 2019-03-16T00:13:59.853

@JeffUK, edited. – None – 2019-03-16T00:21:58.383

5Does this apply more to America and Israel than other countries? It seems like in Europe and New Zealand at least, they aren't hesitant to call out white male christian, jewish or atheist mass murderers as being terrorists. – Icarian – 2019-03-16T01:34:34.930

@Icarian - Since this is a broad characterization, I could easily be less typical of Europe. But given that Islamophobia exists in Europe too, I'd be a bit surprised if the same bias in language didn't exist. – Obie 2.0 – 2019-03-16T03:18:38.343

2But even Scott Morrison (Prime Minister of Australia) called him a terrorist yesterday. – curiousdannii – 2019-03-16T06:18:48.337

2The simple answer: the vast majority of people in countries creating these narratives are non-Muslim. A narrative blaming Christians or Whites isn't going to work in a country where those people are majorities. Some blame Blacks, but Blacks are a significant minority (and many are Christian), so even right-wingers are blaming them less. The most convenient minority to blame (in the major English speaking countries) is Muslims (some people do blame Jews, but WWII is still a fairly fresh memory) – None – 2019-03-16T13:35:21.570

As an aside, that sign in the picture is facepalm-worthy- I'm not sure how they think putting ISIS on the list fits in with the point they are trying to make. – None – 2019-03-16T21:14:27.187

6As far as I can tell, "lone wolf" refers only to the lack of ties to an organization or group, and certainly it does not exclude/oppose "terrorist". And I have seen it used to describe some Islamist terrorist acts. A more contentious term could be "self-radicalized Islamist", for which I have seen no "Western" equivalent (and I bet the NZ shooter will have often visited some "white power" webs to meet with like minded people and get his beliefs reinforced). – SJuan76 – 2019-03-17T08:26:18.077

The edit changes the question dramatically, from a question about the treatment of attackers to one about the backlash against Muslims after attacks.. – JeffUK – 2019-03-17T09:51:55.757

You SHOULD ask the same question inside linguistics SE. – mootmoot – 2019-03-20T12:28:53.850

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this site is not a meme-tracking service. – Fizz – 2019-03-28T14:29:57.017



The problem with narratives is that they mix facts with subjective interpretations, usually with a political motive. This question is ambiguous because it embraces a narrative (unequal treatment of Muslim vs non-Muslim terrorism), itself based on another narrative (Islam is a threat and leads to violence).

Both these narratives offer a very distorted view of reality which exaggerates and generalizes facts beyond reason.

  1. The idea that Islam is a threat and leads to violence (thus is incompatible with the liberal values of western societies) is a classic of the far right (including so-called alt-right obviously). Exploiting the actions of Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS in the recent years, this idea wrongly assumes that these groups views come from Islam and therefore apply to the whole Muslim community. Obviously this is not the case, as the vast majority of Muslims reject these views and many of them live peacefully in western societies: this narrative is plain islamophobia. Unfortunately this narrative enjoys a significant success among some parts of western countries population, has some visibility in some media (e.g. Fox News) and is supported by right-wing populist leaders (Trump, Orban, etc.).

  2. Naturally the first narrative tends to minimize the racist and terrorist nature of actions against Muslims, occasionally leading to visibly unfair actions or comments like this far-right Australian senator's comment or Trump downplaying the threat of white supremacist. This in turn leads to the second narrative: unequal treatment of Muslim vs non-Muslim terrorism, which rightly denounces islamophobia but also conflates it with the mainstream view in western societies. Again this is evidently not true. For example Trump faced significant challenges with his ban on Muslim countries; the vast majority of the newspapers immediately called Christchurch an act of terrorism. So here again extreme views are over-generalized.

This illustrates a polarization which is desired by extreme parties on both sides: it is in the interest of extremists to paint a dark and threatening picture of "the enemy" in order to rally more people to their views. It just happens to ignore that the vast majority of people would not recognize themselves on either side of this picture, as they are perfectly happy to co-exist with different cultures.

Edit: it's also worth mentioning that there is no commonly accepted definition of "terrorism", and sometimes this adds to the confusion especially when political motivations come into play.


Posted 2019-03-15T20:52:25.733

Reputation: 9 466


When some Muslims are the actors of a terror attack, the attacker's religion comes into play and hence they are taken as hostages as a whole irrespective of their nationality/race/color/community, and so on.

You should Google "white privilege". In short, minorities are responsabilized of the acts of any of its members, acts by members of the majority have only individual responsabilities.

A Muslim man beats his wife? "That's how they are", with some luck you will get acknowledged that not all of them do the same, and if some of them appear in the press explaining that they do, you will believe that.

John Whitson beats his wife? "He has always been a bad man." You will not ft as a result that Frank Blonde probably beats his wife, too, and you will not feel an urge or compelled to explain everybody that, even if you are white like John, you do not beat your wife.

Not that I think that this kind of thinking is a majority-only thing, and members of minorities can absolutely be as biased as members of the majority, but

A) except for ghettos, members of the majority can be more isolated from the minorities than otherwise.

B) the narrative that you most often see (specially in the media) is the majority's narrative.


Posted 2019-03-15T20:52:25.733

Reputation: 24 682

Actually a very good point; as you finish the phenomenon is ingroup vs outgroup rather than majority vs minority. Of course the effects are amplified by a group being the majority. – None – 2019-03-17T08:58:11.023


The origin of this narrative is likely Islamophobia.

I can't find direct evidence that this disparity does exist. I consider it quite likely, however, as it's easy enough to find other disparities in the depiction of Muslims and non-Muslims in connection with terrorism. For instance, a study found that attacks by Muslim perpetrations received several times as much news coverage.

As for the reasons, as I expect you already know, anti-Muslim sentiment is widespread throughout Europe and the United States. As such, there's a tendency to paint Muslims as being more violent. Since the word "terrorist" evokes more violent or dangerous connotations than "disturbed individual" or something along those lines, it's more frequently used for Muslim perpetrators of mass attacks than for non-Muslim perpetrators.

In the United States in particular, there's an additional dynamic. Many people on the right of the political spectrum believe in few restrictions on gun ownership. As such, when an attack occurs that involves a gun, they're more incline to place the blame on non-gun-related issues. If the shooter is white and Christian, typically this takes the form of mental illness. While they could, in theory, put forth white supremacist ideology as the reason, thus urging a focus on that instead of gun control, the Republican Party is also the more racially conservative party, and indeed the party more hospitable to racism. This is, of course, also why it's easier for their base (and to a lesser extent, society as a whole) to accept the alternate reasons of gang ideology for black shooters, and Islamist fundamentalism for Muslim shooters.

Now, that doesn't mean that the words "terrorism" and "lone wolf" don't have legitimate, unbiased uses. A terrorist is someone who employs violence, particularly indiscriminately, for a political or ideological aim. A "lone wolf" is an attacker who has no affiliation with an violent extremist group, particularly one who acts on their own. The two aren't exclusive, either: Eliott Rodger, for instance, was a primarily misogynist terrorist with no affiliation or even declared allegiance to any group. But there's likely to be a disparity in how frequently they're used to describe different classes of attackers.

Obie 2.0

Posted 2019-03-15T20:52:25.733

Reputation: 8 081

"there's a disparity in how frequently they're used to describe different classes of attackers. " Citation Needed! – JeffUK – 2019-03-16T10:20:03.730

@JeffUK - It's true, it does need to be cited. There may not be direct evidence, so my answer has to be edited. There is indirect research that makes me think it's likely. – Obie 2.0 – 2019-03-16T13:05:57.157


Whilst others have addressed some of the many problems with the premise, to which I will add a further point below, I'm going to point out the reasons why people may think so, which is the claimed question:

  1. Any group is likely to notice more when it's on the receiving end of criticism. This is likely to make it more noticeable when you are criticized than when you are not, adding to the feeling.

  2. When someone is criticized, they are likely to be defensive and claim they are being unfairly singled out. In this case the defensive feeling is possibly exacerbated in that the criticism has a 'guilt by association' effect.

These first two are reasons that will be true pretty universally; the next are a bit more case-specific

  1. Many of the people sharing this opinion live in a part of the world where there is far more violence, and when they do not see this in western media, associate it with a bias. However much of it will be simply due to the fact that western media cares most about what happens to the west.

  2. Some are simply conspiracy theorists. I note that the Protocols still sell extremely well in many of the countries

I will now address one of the major issues with the narrative; however note I am doing this from a European (I'm in the UK) p.o.v.

Here is a Wikipedia article listing high-casualty (more than ten fatality) terrorist attacks in Europe. Of the ones in western Europe in the last decade, only Brievik's was one that isn't associated with Islam by the perpetrator's self-declared motivation. He was, of course, declared a terrorist. (This relates somewhat to point 3 above.)

As an aside:

"Also, in the media and according to the mass-perception, the attacker's religion do not come into account. When some Muslims are the actors of a terror attack, the attacker's religion comes into play"

This is in large part due to the perpetrators self declared motivation.

and hence they are taken as hostages as a whole irrespective of their nationality/race/color/community,

This is a real problem, and sadly a fairly common one. In fact it is something that happens to other communities in Europe, for an obvious example to Jews who have been at the end of a series of terror attacks in recent years in Europe based on the same principles.

Finally, to address the 'note' at the end of the Q. :

Note: to my opinion, this is true. When that Australian guy shot dead 49 Muslims in Christchurch, no one is talking about "blocking Australians to enter New Zealand" or laying mines in Tasman Sea. Rather everyone is like: "Opps! We just lost a point here."

Firstly, the last bit about 'oops' is totally untrue. Secondly the rest of it is totally unrelated to the claim that white people involved in terror don't get called terrorists.


Posted 2019-03-15T20:52:25.733


And "the west" isn't based on geography, rather westness is measured by how white and English speaking the "average person" is. – Caleth – 2019-03-20T12:29:54.000

@Caleth To an extent, yes, undoubtedly; however geography does play a major part of it. (E.g. France would get more coverage than Eastern Europe) – None – 2019-03-20T12:36:12.337


Mass media military-industrial political propaganda is the origin. It shifts the narrative from some relevant diagnostic question like "Has our nation perpetrated comparable crimes elsewhere that might, when falsely denied and ignored, have predictably inspired grassroots retribution?", to less relevant and very peripheral symptomatic considerations like "Is foreign religion X good?", "Are we too tolerant?", or "How much shall we add to our security budget this year?"


Posted 2019-03-15T20:52:25.733

Reputation: 11 325

I think any answer that doesn't mention Islamophobia is missing something. And I think focusing on top-down propaganda as an explanation is the wrong focus. Not that it doesn't exist, but these disparities in coverage almost certainly arise from widespread and systemic prejudices in a society more so than editors laying down the law on a political slant that coverage should take. – Obie 2.0 – 2019-03-28T08:02:12.880

@Obie2.0, Re "...doesn't mention Islamophobia...": please note that this answer does include the text "foreign religion X", where readers are expected to solve for *X*. The variable X seems preferable to a specific instance, because the same mechanism can, over the years, be applied to the propaganda of several nations each targeting different religions. For example, in the propaganda of 1935 Germany, the first value of X that comes to mind would not be Islam. – agc – 2019-04-01T16:13:44.330