From the vaults: Melanie Phillips and ‘the terrorist threat’

Earlier this week, Melanie Phillips published a column in the Times, headlined ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’. I’ll make no comment on the piece here, but this response from Nicky Woolf in The New Statesman does the necessary.

Reading Woolf’s deconstruction of Phillip’s argument brought on a bout of scholarly nostalgia. A decade ago I wrote a dissertation titled With Us of Against Us: Moral Panic, Orientalism and the Reporting of ‘The Terrorist Threat’.

As the title suggests, I framed media coverage of ‘post-9/11’ terrorism in terms of familiar theories around moral panic, then historicised them by means of ‘Orientalism’ (and pre-colonial proto-Orientalism, actually). The central section featured discourse analyses of three comment pieces, all responding to a single incident (the Mumbai attacks of late 2008), one each from the biggest selling British dailies in the traditional newspaper sectors – broadsheet, mid-market and ‘red-top’ tabloid. There was a piece by Ed Husain (who we don’t seem to hear so much from these days) in The Telegraph; a ‘The Sun Says’ editorial, and a column in the Mail by the perennial Melanie Philips.

I dug it out of the vaults yesterday evening and took a look. It’s interesting to see what’s changed – not a word of IS, of course, but much discussion of al-Qaeda (though I seem, perhaps, to have caught a moment of shift in that respect). What hasn’t changed, though, is Melanie Phillips…

Here, as a sort of curio, is the section looking at her piece, and the subsequent conclusion.


Text Two: Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, 01/12/08; ‘The Mumbai atrocity is a wake-up call for a frighteningly unprepared Britain’

This is a longer, more complex piece, opening with a series of rhetorical questions about the nature of the Mumbai attacks, and the ‘motives’ of the ‘terrorists’, and then proceeding to ‘answer’ them in definitive fashion. But its fundamental argument is, like that of the Sun, that Britain is under threat, but is “frighteningly unprepared”, that “we don’t know what we are up against”, and that more must be done.

There are some key differences between this piece and the earlier text, however. The first piece was not attributed to any individual writer, and was presented as the opinion of ‘the Sun’ as a single entity. This piece is not only attributed to a named writer; it is by a regular ‘opinion’ columnist whose views are not necessarily those of the paper in which they appear. This immediately creates a slightly different relationship between the text and its readership: this is an individual stating an opinion, rather than the newspaper (and perhaps its readership) speaking with one voice. And indeed, in this piece Phillips to some extent separates herself from the ‘national we’.

I will deal first with the terms used in this text to label ‘the threat’. In the text from the Sun this labelling was simple: an initial “terrorist” segued to a consistent use of “Muslim”, which, possibly unintentionally, carried an implication: that “terrorist” equals “Muslim”. There is no such consistency here.

In labelling the ‘threat’, the term “Islamist” (that which I consider most appropriate) appears here, eight times in total. But this is by no means the only label used. Within this piece, as well as “Islamist”, Phillips identifies the threat as “terrorists” (sometimes unappended; sometimes tagged with “Islamist”), “fanatics”, “attackers”, “extremists”, “fundamentalists”, “militants”, the fetchingly alliterative “Islamic fundamentalist fanatics”, “home grown radicalisation”, “violent extremism”, and “a capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe”. There are also two references to “Al Qaeda [sic]”. Almost the entire gamut of potential labels is here.

We know that “labelling, defining and interpreting the problem” (Critcher, in Allan, 2005: 179) is a key aspect of the process of moral panic. But the use of over a dozen different terms, none of them particularly definitive, to label ‘the problem’ in this text highlights something important about ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic: the problem has not been definitively labelled; a satisfactory vocabulary has not been created. Because of this a wide range of terms is used. But if the ‘problem’ has a multitude of imprecise names, it is difficult precisely to identify it. And in attempts to make sense of ‘the threat’ it is natural to search for a constant in this unsatisfactory vocabulary. The consequence of this is manifest in the first text from the Sun: there is a perceivable constant in this sprawling vocabulary from ‘al Qaeda’ to ‘home grown radical’; the constant is ‘Muslim’. And so, as in the Sun, ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’ are conflated, and therefore Muslims, already long-subjected to hostile othering, become identified with ‘terrorists’ whether they are in fact ‘extremist’ or otherwise.

But in this text the word ‘Muslim’ is actually used very judiciously. It appears five times in the piece, but is never used directly to label ‘the threat’. That troublesome term ‘al-Qaeda’ is also used judiciously.

But despite – or arguably because of – this avoidance of sloppy use of ‘al-Qaeda’, a powerful implication remains. Phillips avoids labelling the Mumbai attacks ‘al-Qaeda’; she uses only generic terms that do not imply an organised group. She references “home grown radicals” in the UK, “Islamists” in general, and the specific, localised conflicts involving Islamist violence in Thailand, Nigeria and the Philippines, without suggesting the involvement of an ‘organisation’. And yet she also uses the phrase “a capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” to describe ‘the threat’. This could be seen as a contradiction: ‘home grown’ British Islamists, regional conflicts in Southeast Asia – these are surely disparate issues. And indeed, Phillips seems never to suggest that they are organisationally linked. Yet a “capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” has connotations of an identifiable, unified entity, an organisation (the very way in which al-Qaeda is so often portrayed).

It is possible to read through this apparent contradiction: in all the inconsistent vocabulary used to label ‘the threat’ in this text, that same implied, latent constant remains: ‘Muslim’. And if there is a “capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” which has not been identified as an organisation, then the connotation could be that this ‘enemy’ is simply Muslims – all of them.


The ‘enemy’, the threatening other, in this text, then, is Muslims. But there is also reference to a ‘we’. The ‘we’ here is not treated in the same was as in the Sun. In that text the voice of the Sun is identified with that of the ‘national we’, at odds with ‘them’ – the Muslims, and the unresponsive ‘non-us’ of the Government. Here, instead of differentiating the ‘we’ and the state authorities, Phillips conflates them and differentiates herself from the ‘we’: “we don’t understand what we are actually up against, we are not doing nearly enough to prevent this [my italics]” she writes; “Britain is still in a trance of denial”.

But Phillips makes it clear that she understands precisely “what we are actually up against”. She does this with a series of declarative statements about the nature of ‘the threat’ such as: “it has nothing to do with Muslim poverty, oppression or discrimination” (these are in fact opinions, but the use of the declarative structure presents them as ‘fact’). In this Phillips presents herself as a ‘maverick voice’, separate from the broader national ‘we’ (this is, to some extent, the convention for such ‘radical’ commentators).

The fundamental difference between this text and that from the Sun, then, is the object of its address. The Sun’s piece is presented as addressed to the Government on behalf of a ‘national mainstream’ at once identified with and indistinguishable from the Sun itself. This piece by an identified columnist is instead addressed at a ‘we’ in which government and national mainstream are conflated.

But despite this subtle difference in the target of the texts, what they both have to say is essentially the same: the ‘threat’ is Muslims, and ‘we’ need to “get tough”.

Summary and conclusion

Though there is a perceptible decline in the coherence – and therefore the force – of the argument across these three texts, from the Sun with its clear defining of ‘us and them’, and of its demands, to the ambiguity of Ed Husain in the Telegraph, they share a common position: there is a ‘threat’, “a war is being waged against civilisation”, and “short-sighted politicians” are not doing enough about it.

This conceiving of a ‘threat’ and demanding of action from the authorities is a familiar part of the process of moral panic. That all three of these texts appeared in response to one specific ‘terrorist incident’ demonstrates the way in which ‘the terrorist threat’ has developed as prompt for panic. I would argue that the idea of ‘the terrorist threat’ as a whole, the genesis of which in the widest public and media consciousness can probably be identified as ‘9/11’, now forms a constant ‘super-panic’. Individual ‘terrorist’ events – such as the Mumbai attacks – prompt individual moral panics within that ‘super-panic’. The media response to these panics-within-panic is very rapid, with the identifying and (unsatisfactory) labelling of the ‘problem’, the agenda formulation and the demands for action, coming almost instantly. This is because a discourse on ‘the terrorist threat’ already exists; the language, the claims, the demands are already in place.

What is not in place however, as I have shown in this analysis, is an adequate vocabulary. Almost eight years since the inception of the ‘super-panic’ the ‘threat’ has yet to be satisfactorily labelled. This leads to either incoherence, the questionable use of ‘al-Qaeda’, or the conflation of the ‘threat’ with its only obvious unifying connector – Islam – and the identifying of ‘Muslims’ in general as ‘the threat’. That 1400 years of folk memory, and an Orientalist discourse in which Muslims are a threatening other already exists only makes this easier.

It is interesting that despite the sprawling vocabulary used to label ‘the threat’ in the pieces by Phillips and Husain, the term ‘al-Qaeda’ (with its connotations of an organised group) is hardly used at all. In all the reports of the Mumbai attacks in my initial sample, there are only oblique references to ‘al-Qaeda’. This suggests the possible beginnings of a shift away from the kind of uncorroborated usage of this term that was prevalent a few years ago.

I believe that a shift away from instant, uncorroborated use of ‘al-Qaeda’ to label any incidence of Islamist violence would be a positive development: suggesting that ‘the threat’ is a formal organization is likely to lead to the formulation of different agendas and responses to those that might be formulated for a ‘threat’ that can merely be identified as an ideology and a motivation. The term ‘al-Qaeda’ will probably still be around for some time, however: journalists “find it a lot easier to sell a story to a news editor if they can involve bin Laden” (Burke, 2007: 18). And because of that deeply unsatisfactory vocabulary for describing and labelling ‘the terrorist threat’, when attempting to view ‘home-grown’ British suicide bombers, Iraqi insurgents and Thai rebels as somehow part of a single phenomenon, there are only currently two obvious means available: ‘al-Qaeda’, and ‘Islam’. Neither is appropriate.


At no point in the course of this dissertation have I suggested that ‘the terrorist threat’ does not exist: it does; manifestly. But on the basis of my research here I would argue that what does not exist is a satisfactory definition of what that ‘threat’ actually is. There is no vocabulary, no set of definitive words with clear, unambiguous meanings with which accurately to describe it. This, I believe, is a problem.

In the text from the Mail, Melanie Phillips states that “if we don’t understand what we are fighting, we cannot defeat it”. There is a certain irony here: this line concludes a text in which she has used at least 12 different terms to label ‘the threat’, none of them offering a precise definition. Phillips has no more idea of what “it” is – or at least no more ability to explain – than the next person.


Throughout this dissertation I have framed the basic media response to ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic: a ‘problem’ appeared; it was labelled and defined in a stylised and stereotypical (and deeply unsatisfactory) fashion; a response was demanded and formulated (‘getting tough’ and the ‘war on terror’). But there are a number of points about ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic that are unusual. The first is its longevity. Few other panics have maintained such a high media profile for such a long period. This has allowed the development of what I have termed a ‘super-panic’. This ‘super-panic’ is the continuous panic-driven media discourse on ‘the terrorist threat’. Within this ‘super-panic’, specific events prompt episodes of a smaller scale: rapidly unfolding panics-within-panic. In the media response to an event like the Mumbai attacks, the key elements of moral panic are identifiable – the identifying and (unsatisfactory) labelling of the problem, the agenda-setting, the demands. But because the routine of a ‘terrorist threat’ panic is well practiced, because the demands and agendas are already in place, these panics-within-panic unfold at high speed, with all of Cohen’s (2002) and Critcher’s (2005) stages of moral panic sometimes being identifiable within a single newspaper editorial.

It is also possible to see the ‘terrorist threat’ super-panic as part of some even wider phenomenon. Andy Beckett writes that:

[O]ur striking susceptibility during the 90s to other anxieties – the millennium bug, MMR, genetically modified food – [was] a sort of dress rehearsal for the war on terror. The press became accustomed to publishing scare stories and not retracting them; politicians became accustomed to responding to supposed threats rather than questioning them; the public became accustomed to the idea that some sort of apocalypse might be just around the corner. (Beckett, 2004)

The media response to ‘the terrorist threat’ appeared in this existing framework of regular moral panics where the media routine was already well-rehearsed. It could be argued, then, that the media response to an event like the Mumbai attacks is a moral panic, played out at high speed, within the ever-present ‘terrorist threat’ super-panic, which in turn is the ultimate manifestation of something even larger – a ‘mega-panic’ perhaps. So we have panic-within-panic-within-panic in a finely practiced routine.

But – and this is the central finding of my research here – what we do not have, despite this vast framework of moral panic, is a clear definition of ‘the problem’. I identify two main reasons for this situation.

The first is due to the initial ‘post 9/11’ oversimplification of the ‘problem’. In the early prosecution of the ‘war on terror’ – namely the invasion of Afghanistan – ‘the threat’ was much more definitively labelled than it is today: Osama bin Laden, and an organised ‘al-Qaeda’. But in the years since, that the ‘threat’ is rather more complex has been abundantly demonstrated in the form of ‘home-grown’ suicide bombers, instability in far-flung corners of the world, and the framing of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of the ‘war on terror’.

Though the concept of an organised ‘al-Qaeda’ clearly does remain, my research suggests that it may be becoming less readily used. In the ten stories about the Mumbai attacks in my initial sample, not once was the event tagged as ‘al-Qaeda’, or even ‘al-Qaeda-linked’. But as the ‘al-Qaeda’ label (which, though inaccurate, is at least definitive) becomes less common, nothing replaces it; no new, absolute term to describe ‘the threat’ has appeared. Instead we have the sprawling collection of imprecise terms that appear in the pieces by Melanie Phillips and Ed Husain. This may in part simply be because ‘the threat’ is beyond definition – it is sprawling itself; it would be much better viewed as multiple ‘threats’.

But there is another reason: in the process of moral panic as described by Critcher “labelling, defining and interpreting the problem and its perpetrators” (Critcher, in Allan, 2005: 179) occurs at an early stage. If that initial label and definition (in this case bin Laden and ‘al-Qaeda’) collapses at a later stage – which may now be beginning to happen – long after the agendas have been set, the claims legitimised, the actions demanded, then there is no need to replace it. Indeed to do so would likely prove impossible: you cannot stop a moral panic and start it all over again once it has already begun.

The other reason I identify for this absence of a defining vocabulary is that an idea of ‘Muslims’ as a threatening other existed long, long before the emergence of the current ‘terrorist threat’. Connecting ‘the threat’ to Islam instantly provided a pre-existing discourse with which to approach it: that of Orientalism and ancient hostility.

Often in the reporting and discussion of ‘the terrorist threat’ there is a latent suggestion (perhaps unintentional) that the threat is simply ‘Muslims’ in general. This suggestion was fairly overt in the editorial text from the Sun that I analysed; it was also perceivable in Melanie Phillips’ column. This identifying of ‘the threat’ as Muslims happens partly because of the absence of an otherwise useful vocabulary (only ‘Muslim’ identifiably links ‘home-grown radical’ with ‘Thai insurgent’). But it also happens because a sense of a threatening Muslim other has a very long pedigree in ‘the West’.


To conclude: the moral panic response to the ‘terrorist threat’ may have been inevitable, but its development has certain features that are linked directly to the idea of a threatening Muslim other, and as such, form an aspect of a continuing Orientalist discourse. The use of crude yet imprecise labels, the ready conflation of ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist’, and also the lingering concept of an organised ‘al-Qaeda’: none of this helps the formulation of clear agendas and responses to this particular ‘problem’ (which really ought to be termed problems in the plural).

In 1981 Edward Said wrote the following in criticism of reductive terms:

Respect for the concrete detail of human experience, understanding that arises from viewing the Other compassionately, knowledge gained and diffused through moral and intellectual honesty: surely these are better, if not easier, goals at present than confrontation and reductive hostility.  And if in the process we can dispose finally of both the residual hatred and the offensive generality of labels like ‘the Muslim,’ ‘the Persian,’ ‘the Turk,’ ‘the Arab,’ or ‘the Westerner’ then so much the better” (Said, 1981:xxxi).

Three decades later it is hard to be optimistic about this: until we have some better, more appropriate, more meaningful alternative we will continue to use ‘the Muslim’, ‘the Persian’, ‘the Turk’ (or their modern equivalents), and indeed ‘the Westerner’. And in this respect it is hard to foresee any more positive developments in the public, media and Government responses to ‘the terrorist threat’.  In this much at least, Melanie Phillips is right, though perhaps not in the sense that she intends: “if we don’t understand what we are fighting, we cannot defeat it”.

© Tim Hannigan 2018

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