Linguistic variations in describing acts of terror

Dr. Halla Diyab

Published: Updated:

In response to the Newcastle Eid incident – where a car ploughed into Muslim worshippers gathering for Eid prayers near Newcastle mosque leaving two children in intensive care, a sense of fear has engulfed Muslim communities in the UK that they might be again subject to Islamophobic and hate attacks after that of the Finsbury Park.

Reading more into the details of the attack, the press emphasized the linguistic pretext that it was not believed to be a terrorist incident, over contextualizing the circumstances of the attack or the destiny of the victims, questions whether we are witnessing a growing rise of terror-themed phrases and imagery related to the rhetoric of the aftermath of street terrorism.

The fear is fed by the current modified linguistic terms used to define scenes of terror, especially those related to Islamophobic attacks. The image of a car ploughing above the pavement targeting the crowd is associated today with what a terror attack looks like.

This image is certainly evoked by attacks like the Nice Bastille Day killing, the Westminster attack, and Finsbury Park, to name a few. It gradually grows to be a visual archetype of the global popular culture of terror; a very steep visual framework but the twist lies in the language used in the way it is reported to the general public; terror or not terror.

Between the paradox of imagery and linguistics lies a steep feeling of public fear and anxiety, which are hardened to intractability, and nowhere is this more evident than in the current incident in Newcastle

Dr. Halla Diyab

Human error

Between the paradox of imagery and linguistics lies a steep feeling of public fear and anxiety, which are hardened to intractability, and nowhere is this more evident than in the current incident in Newcastle, where a human error of losing control of a vehicle was immediately assumed to be a terror attack.

The restaging of an image, which is intensively associated with terror attacks, provokes an element of a utilitarian and collective fear culture with the hallmark of violence. The shrewd classification of what terrorism is and what terrorism is not, is uniquely weaving linguistic caution and implicit oratory to how a violent act against a collective crowd is and should be reported.

The public perception of the Newcastle incident varied and this variation derives from tagging the event from an “incident” to an “accident” to a “collision”, and the word “ploughed” which is recently associated with terror, is quickly replaced with “struck”, all to avoid the possibility for it to be seen as an “act of terror” or an “attack”.

This linguistic variation is witnessed among the Muslim community itself where some tag the catastrophe as an “incident”, and where some Muslims suspect the female driver did it intentionally.

The public fever over what terminology should be used to describe an event shrouds the general rhetoric from the heads of states, to the general public, underlining how the use of language in reporting is used to avoid the spiral of community division, unspeakable civil-religious divide in the UK, and fear of faith groups to practice their religion in public.

The power of language

So instead of the act of terror shaping and defining the language and terminology, on the contrary, today’s power of language and terminology defines, shapes, and even manipulates the very definition of the act itself, so the words decide what is terror and what is not. So the terminology used to describe the Newcastle incident defined the very violent act by denouncing that it was “terrorism”.

Today’s rising restlessness, which is propelled by the use of terminology, suggests that there is a multi-facet to the language. It can have an extended impact and power on uniting and, arguably, dividing faith groups in Britain.

By heralding a linguistic twist to define any violent act targeting the public, terminology should be carefully selected with an aim to promote vigilance rather than Islamophobia.

This emphasizes the need to look deeper beyond the language used by the media, in order to gain a real understanding of how words, imagery and the actual act operates in defining “terrorism”.
Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. Her Twitter handle is: @drhalladiyab.

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