Are we Treating Extreme Right Terrorism Differently than Islamic Terrorism?

By Tamara Siwczyk
Last week the world was shocked by the terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 49 people dead and was the most lethal attack during peacetime in New Zealand’s history. Only a few days later on Monday an attack was committed in Utrecht, Netherlands, where three people were killed, and three days later the alleged gunman has been charged with terrorist intent.

Several statements made by politicians were criticised in the aftermath of the terror attack in Christchurch. These beg the question: does the Western world treat terrorism differently when the perpetrator is an extreme right wing supporter and the victims are Muslims? Would the media coverage have been different if an Islamic terrorist would have attacked a church during Sunday prayers?

Shortly after the terrorist shooting in Christchurch, US President Donald Trump denied a worrying rise in white supremacy movements by pointing out that they only constitute a small group of people “with very, very serious problems”.[1] The Australian Senator Fraser Anning commented hours after the terrorist shooting that “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place” and “let us be clear, while Muslims may have been the victims today, usually they are the perpetrators”.

Why does what these politicians say matter? It is crucial to state that media coverage matters, especially in the context of a subject that the general audience has not experienced personally, such as terrorism. In this case the information disseminated by the media can have a strong impact on the contextualisation and understanding of terrorism itself. A newly published study by the University of Alabama assessed that terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive on average 357 percent more media coverage than those committed by other groups (the study researched terror attacks on US soil between 2006 and 2015). It concluded that the perpetrator’s religion is able to predict news coverage of a terrorist attack. The study further concluded that “members of the public tend to fear ‘Muslim terrorists’ while ignoring other threats”.[2] Though it seems that the shooting in Christchurch did gain the attention of the global mainstream news that it deserved, it remains unclear if the media coverage would have been greater if the role of perpetrator and victims were interchanged. Despite this, when politicians claim that Muslims are usually the terrorists or when they treat terrorism differently based on who they are or which religion or ethnicity the perpetrator belongs to, it matters and it has an impact on public opinion for the future.

“There is a divergence in defining an attack perpetrated by a right wing extremist compared to attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists.”

Though there is not an internationally agreed definition of terrorism, there is a widely held belief in the field of terrorism studies, that the international community can minimally agree, that terrorism is criminal violence intended to intimidate a population or coerce a government or international organisation.[3] Still there is a divergence in defining an attack perpetrated by a right wing extremist compared to attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Despite the fact that most recent events show a rise in terrorist threats and attacks from the extreme right in Europe and the United States, this is still an area that receives less media coverage than the terrorist threat from Islamic groups and are often not immediately classified as terrorist attacks but called “premeditated racist violence or hate crimes”.[4]

In the case of the terror attacks in Christchurch fortunately the vast majority of politicians around the world condemned the attacks as an act of terrorist violence. The president of New Zealand, Ms Ardern, had an outstanding role in consolidating the country by centring the victims of the attack and their friends and families as the main focus. The absence of a political debate in New Zealand about declaring a state of emergency, the condemnation of Islamophobic statements as well as the banning of assault weapons show as well that New Zealand is dealing with the terrorist shooting in a unique way.

Terrorism (as well as counter-terrorism) and human rights have a particular relationship. The United Nations, as well as the international community in general, have repeatedly stated that terrorism has a destructive impact on human rights due to the threat it poses to international peace. However states and international communities, when countering terrorism, pose serious challenges to the protection of human rights themselves and violate them regularly (e.g. the Global War on Terror post 9/11).

“Even if a terrorist attack is targeted at Muslims, it is actually targeted each and every one of us.”

With that in mind, one fact should be indisputable in the debate about contemporary terrorism: that even if the recent right extremist terrorist attack was targeted at Muslims, it actually targeted each and every one of us. The Christchurch shooter attacked our common universal human right of freedom of religion, he attacked our universal human right on the right to life, (as well as the physical integrity of a person) and he therefore attacked our ‘way of life’, not any different than as the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated in 2015 after the Paris attacks.[5]

Tamara obtained a Master’s degree in Law at the University of Vienna, while also completing other courses in European and International Law at the King’s College London. She completed a legal internship at UNODC in Vienna focusing on Anti-Corruption Law and then her legal clerkship. She has worked for the past years in an NGO as a legal counsellor in refugee and asylum law. Her main academic interest lies in the relationship between international migration law, human rights and counter-terrorism.


[2] Erin M. Kearns et al, Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?, Justice Quarterly (2019)

[3] Saul, Ben, Defining Terrorism: A Conceptual Minefield (September 22, 2015), the Oxford Handbook on Terrorism, A. Gofas, R. English, S.N. Kalyvas, E. Chenoweth, eds, Oxford University Press, UK, 2017 Forthcoming; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 15/84. Available at SSRN:

[4] Jacob Aasland Ravndal, Tore Bjørgo. 2018. Investigating Terrorism from the Extreme Right: A Review of Past and Present Research. Perspectives on Terrorism 7 (6), 5-22