Framing the Boundaries of the American Perception of Terrorism and the Entrance of Islam in the Image

Dr Rachael M. Rudolph

The anti-Islam film has sparked outrage around the world, leading from nonviolent to violent protest.  Condemnation from state to non-state actors can be heard over the film.  Anger in some places has led to greater division, while in others it produced displays of solidarity among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Reflective of the entire incident is the larger and more fundamental problem that continues to transcend boundaries, culture and societies.  It is the problem of perception.

Perception and reality at times collide, with the former being usually a figment or at least defining the perceived boundaries of the latter.  Never fully defined are the chaotic mess and disorder of life’s realities, but the glimpse captured enables order to emerge and provides guidelines for interaction.  The times are crying for tolerance, moderation and dialogue. Yet, some states and political actors are bent on violently attaining order.  Violence begets more violence, which is a lesson we seem not to learn well from the past.  Yes, there are times when it becomes necessary, especially to defend against the violent actions of another, but rules, guidelines and ethics dictate its use.  Have we not learned from or progressed from our past?

American perceptions have been bounded by two heads. Seen in the image casting of those outside America’s boundaries is the battle waging of modernity and tradition, with symbolic similarities and differences converging and diverging, creating images that are both simultaneously positive and negative.  Modernity and tradition are dichotomous conceptions that permeate the lens through which the American mind has come to see others and the world.  At the heart of America’s conception are the economy and economic development.[1] Emphasis thereon has a lot to do with the importance of capitalism to American political philosophy and thought.

The influence of American capitalism in her political thought is seen not just in how others in world are perceived, but also in America’s use of sectarian discourse and political strategies in her relations.  Some are cast in her image in the transition from tradition to modernity by being designated “friends” and “allies.”  Others are castigated by being designated as “enemy” or “extremist.”  We also cannot forget the dreaded, political designation of an actor as a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism.  Finally, there are even those who linger somewhere in the middle, where designations are reserved, to be determined later, or merely referenced in a positive light, such as a “strategic partner.”  As we have learned too well over the years, tomorrow’s friend could be the future enemy and a so-called terrorist in one context and freedom fighter in another.

Why is this?  It is because of the images of the others are cast to the public by the mainstream media, being used as tools rather than to promote a basis of deep cultural understanding.  They are not solely to blame, for we too, as the public, have a role to play.  We have chosen in the past to overlook rather than query.  Information and the interpretation thereof, as presented by the “authoritative” sources used from government and political elite, have led to the adoption of the mainstream narrative of the “other,” with rarely a counter-narrative being presented outside of the perceptual boundaries that have been created over the years.

Given the brewing crises within America and over the world, this article seeks to examine American perception of terrorism.  It is particularly relevant with the passing of 911 and a counter-hegemonic narrative having finally emerged within America to challenge the mainstream dominant discourse.  On a side note, it should be mentioned that the material presented is based on a chapter in my forthcoming book, which will be published by I.B. Tauris.  The chapter examines American perception of Saudi Arabia over a 38 year period.

American Perception and Terrorism

Desire for emotive stories contributes to explanations of salient media issues among the American public.  Context and contextual variables also play a role, as these exacerbate the need for and guide which issues become salient within a given time and place.  Issues will oscillate temporally and spatially according to how they come together and interact with the other variables.  This process helps to understand why there are different patterns around the world.

Terrorism is an emotive issue that has been salient on the American public agenda since the 1960s.  It reached its apex on 911, thus preventing the development of a counter-hegemonic narrative.  A counter hegemonic narrative would develop only recently within the American public discourse. Failure to question the narrative or the public framing of terrorism after this catastrophic event permitted the synonymous treatment of Alqaeda and terrorism over the years. Its high level of salience also defined and narrowed the type of policy action possible. Understanding this is particularly important because other policy issues were affected as a result, especially the way America framed other countries and people. Framing impacted policy and how US policymakers and the public saw, assessed and interpreted actors and states alike.

911 is not solely responsible for the perceptual shift that occurred in the treatment of some actors and states.  American perception of some has been made possible, in part, because of its preexisting biases. American biases are rooted in the modernity-tradition dichotomy that has permeated the lens in which all others are viewed.  The coloring of the biases from the inherent philosophical dichotomy coupled with the preexisting frames on terrorism and impacted relations with certain actors and states.  It is hoped that by understanding the role of perception and its relationship to the policymaking process we will be able to move beyond the cognitive barriers blocking progress so bridges for a better tomorrow can be built.

In what follows is a presentation of America’s general perception of terrorism. General treatment thereof provides a contextual understanding for how her perception of certain actors and states could change after 911.  911 resulted in the collision of the preexisting biases she held. To understand the collision, terrorism’s entrance into the mind of the American public must be examined.   Examination also helps to see how Islam would enter the terrorism frame and the way in which America used sectarian discourse to divide and parse the image of friends and foes at certain periods, particularly during elections or points of tension.  Thus throughout the evolving American perception of terrorism, the role of context and politics are highlighted.

Terrorism’s Entrance:  From Palestine to 911

Terrorism entered the American public frame in the 1960s after Palestinian groups hijacked a commercial airliner to express their grievances against Israel.[2] Constant framing of the Palestinian issue through a terrorism lens and the rise in anti-Americanism abroad led a majority of Americans to believe that an attack inside the US was, or somewhat, likely in the second half of the 1980s.[3] In the 1980s, 11 percent of the coverage referenced religion and terrorism; 26 percent in the 1990s; 60 percent in the 2000s; and, 29 percent from 2010 to the end of 2011.[4]  As the numbers indicate, public framing and discussion of Islam had been limited prior to 911.

An examination prior to 911 helps to understand the shape taken and impact on other issues.  Terrorism’s continued presence ensured it had a place on the public agenda, which increased following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.  The Oklahoma City bombing is important for understanding the American perception of terrorism and the entrance of Islam in the conceptual, public framing of the issue. As some may recall, the first suspect for the bombing was not US home grown terrorism but, rather, Muslims, the perceived foreign “other.”  A Jordanian American was traveling from his home in Oklahoma City to Amman, Jordan on the same day of the incident.  He was arrested, held and interrogated.

Media agencies throughout the US ran with the Middle Eastern terrorism angle, interviewing experts who claimed the bombing was similar to the World Trade Center explosion that occurred two years earlier.[5] The incident ended up causing severe trauma to not only the innocent man arrested but also his family. While concern was raised abroad over the immediate reaction, there was limited domestic outrage at the initial framing.  This is problematic and suggests a deeper problem.  For America, understanding is particularly important given the current and growing ethnic and religious tensions within her borders, as well as the way she is perceived by others outside her borders.

Coverage and the initial framing of the 1995 bombing were made possible because of the image constructed since terrorism became a dominant public issue in the 1960s.  The general image that conflated the Middle East and terrorism was not challenged. This limited a counter-hegemonic public narrative from developing.  It also led many to see the perceived “other” in such a perceptual framework.   Even the “Muslim religious extremist” that entered the frame at the end of 1979 following the Iranian Revolution went unchallenged.  Then it was used to refer merely to Iran and her allies, but it would later come to also refer to others. This was most evident in the post-911 period. Yet, we must all remember that every perceived image has its roots somewhere in the past and in preexisting biases that have went unchallenged and unchecked.

Islam, Sectarianism, Terrorism and the Middle East

As referenced above, terrorism and its relationship to Islam became central to America’s image of the Middle East in the 1990s. Centrality corresponded to an increase in the coverage of the bombings on US interests and targets abroad.[6]  Specific events to be noted included the 1990-91 Gulf War, which created animosity among certain segments of the region who disagreed with reliance on the US for dealing with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the 1995/1996 bombings of US targets inside Saudi Arabia. By the end of the 1990s and before 911, the peak in terrorism coverage was quite high.  After 911 America’s image and the relationship between terrorism and Islam were no longer limited to the Middle East. It transcended all domestic, regional and international boundaries and led to an increase in Islamophobia throughout America.

There was also a sectarian component in the public discourse used to cast the Muslim “other.”  As will be recalled, Islam emerged following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  Entrance within the Iranian context also meant that Hezbollah and Lebanon were likewise included. Discursive distinctions were made between the “moderate” Sunni and the “extremist” Shia.  Yet, readers should keep in mind that slight negative public utterances of the Sunni other would make their way to the light during times of US policymaker’s displeasure, during election cycles, or when the Israeli lobby was not happy with a particular proposed policy action.

America’s sectarian discourse would become further complicated in the middle of the 1990s.  It was during this period she became a target of those she once defined as the Sunni moderate in the Cold War period.  Divisions were no longer discursively confined to one segment, but also now encompassed the entire Muslim community.  Yet, distinctions would be made between government and the role of the religious community when a change in relations was needed.  The distinction would emerge as a political strategy in the policymaking process, just as the Sunni-Shia divisive strategy would be used in the past.

Dividing the enemy or other and parsing their images are not new.  The US military has posited that dividing the enemy “is the right strategic vision for the Global War on Terrorism.” [7] This strategic vision was most demonstrated by American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Creating divisions within and among society reduces the threat of the “other,” as it forces them to turn inward as opposed to looking outward.  This is especially the case where policies and visions among friends, strategic partners, and enemies may differ and challenge America and her interests.  Even faith is not to be spared, whether intentionally or not. A question readers may be pondering at this point is who drives American public images.

Driving and Framing an Image: From Government to the Media

Some scholars highlight the government as the driver of public images, especially with media’s reliance on information provided by officials and/or taken from the documents they provide.[8]  Studies of the media’s impact on the policy-making process demonstrate the interrelationship between policymakers and public opinion on particular issues, especially crises.[9]  Likewise, there is also agreement that media do have an impact.[10]

Research extending back to the 1920s demonstrated that most individuals rely on the media to contextualize events and frame the salient issues within a given time and place.[11]  This is even the case when individuals experience acts first hand. With respect to terrorism, the greater the proximity to having experienced an act the more there is a heightened perception of risk.[12]  There is also a greater potential for a behavioral or perceptual change. Most individuals do not alter their lives in the absence of an imminent threat or immediate crisis. The environment or context, therefore, influences perceptions and whether they are able to change; what the media covers; and, how issues will be framed.

While scholars debate the influence each has on the issues that reach the public agenda,[13] none disagree that both play a role in framing the issues the public is to think about.[14]  Framing of a particular issue is important because it identifies the parameters of thought surrounding what should concern the public.  911 is an excellent example that demonstrates the policy relationship between the government and the media and its impact on shaping perception. US Counter terrorism policies were constrained because of this linkage.[15]   After 911, the public could accept military action over diplomacy in the context of links to Alqaeda. This helps to understand, in part, why US officials attempted to make the connection and argue a relationship between Iraq and Alqaeda.

Context, government and media influence American views on terrorism by shaping the perceptual boundaries of the image.  What was demonstrated is heightened public awareness as a result of context and framing by the government and media.[16]  Heightened public awareness draws forth and leads certain images to collide into one at a particular time and in a specific place.  Impact varies, however, with some individuals within a given time and place being influenced more than others.

Impact varies to a large degree on contextual variables, which heighten others such as demographics.  A study on the perception of 911 and US liability found that the media’s framing initially varied among different communities, with religious and ethnic cleavages being distinguishing factors.[17] These and other demographic variables were found to have an initial impact on perception, but had little variance over time.

Difference and variation are explained by the role of interpretation.  People can observe a phenomenon in a convergent manner, but they can interpret it in divergent ways. This is because interpretations change with the introduction of new information and from cultural, philosophical or other contextual variables. Variance in interpretations has to do with the role of interests, environment and the temporal period. Understanding the way the variables come together will help the public and policymakers see the way an image is framed, its various and differential symbolic meanings, and the perceptual shifts occurring over time, which will contribute to change.  The perceptual boundaries cannot be altered if there is no understanding of the way they expand and contract in a given relationship.

Warning bells of generalization should be, therefore, ringing in the mind when pondering public and private images held.  Yet, what we find when framing an image is such generalizations.  This is problematic because it is broad sweeping characterizations that are passed down or form the conceptions or the basis of myths about a culture, people, society or religion. Terrorism is likewise treated.

Terrorism is an emotive phenomenon that elicits negative rather than neutral images.  Yet, studies have found most initial perceptions are misplaced or inaccurate due to the emotive role and trauma of an event.[18]  After a major emotive crisis or event, negative perceptions tend to be heightened and the existence of a counter mainstream narrative is minimal.[19] Over time and as the emotive reaction becomes less salient among the larger population and in the absence of another event, a counter narrative develops, which neutralizes to a degree the immediate emotive reaction.[20]

The development of a counter-hegemonic narrative depends on diverging interpretations among the sources used by the media to frame an issue. As Antonio Gramsci pointed out, media are the vehicle in which hegemonic and counter-hegemonic narratives are presented and challenged. Immediately following 911, the government and political elite were the authoritative sources upon which the media drew for events and issues. Thus, the narrative was primarily supportive rather than questioning or negative. No counter narrative developed within the mainstream US media in the post-911 period.

A counter-narrative did develop in alternative, social, and non-US mainstream media, but it would not rival the US mainstream hegemonic narrative within the American public mind. It was not even able to spark debate within the public framing of 911. The lack of debate can be, in part, explained by the authoritative sources used. America’s rejection of international and external criticism, which is fueled by American exceptionalism, helps also in understanding why a counter narrative failed to take hold in the mainstream.

Narratives are more easily believed when they are not too divergent from the core set of beliefs or the image held by those who are responsible for its construction.[21]  Thus, those derived from other alternative or non-mainstream sources are not usually regarded as trustworthy or credible.[22] It should also be noted that perceptual acceptance has more to do with the image being similar to preexisting conceptions rather than the frequency in which something is said. Frequency does play a role, however, and the one conveying the message matters.[23]

Osama bin Laden and Alqaeda received more media attention than did President Bush. Frequency, thus, becomes relevant after acceptance. Acceptance of a different narrative also depends to a degree on a change to or questioning of a core set of beliefs or image held.   Understanding the trends of human behavior and the way the media covered permitted Alqaeda to use it to its advantage just as negative images were used in other context by politicians in electoral periods or interest group politics.   Had Alqaeda not had an effective media strategy, then coverage may have been limited.

Media attention and the Alqaeda message fulfilled the image that Bush framed, which increased sensations of fear among the larger population and enabled a non-questioning consensus over the recommended policies for handling 911. With 911, the result of the actor-policy nexus and its impact on framing was the conceptual juxtaposition of Alqaeda and terrorism.[24]  In addition to making them synonymous, the preexisting frame of terrorism, Islam and the Middle East was reinforced by this event.  An alternative image was not possible due to the perceptual boundaries erected by the government and media, which was reinforced after its framing by the media.  Change was not immediately possible because the image held went unchecked.

Shifting Perceptions and Potential for Change

People are usually unaware of a particular image and its correlation to a specific issue or set of issues unless connections are made within the media.[25]  Concern for an event and support for action increase immediately after occurring but then subside over time.[26]  911 was an unusual event when comparing it to others. It was a traumatic crisis in American history that powerfully shaped perceptions and emotions of the public.[27]

The perceptual shift went from domestic to international terrorism following 911.[28] Yet, the shift was actually rooted in the mid-1990s.  Perception, like policy, always has roots from the past that carry forth to the present.  Previous references to the targeting of American interests in Africa and the Middle East prior to 911 might help to recall the spatial and temporal connection.  The 911 period merely solidified the images held, while the post-911 era initially surpassed all previous periods. There was such a high spike immediately after the event.[29] This helps to explain why it took far longer for public concern over terrorism to subside.

A shift in America’s perception of terrorism began to occur in the latter part of 2005.[30] It was marked by a drop in coverage to 50 percent.[31]   A slight peak occurred following the 2005 London attacks, but it still did not increase more than 50 percent of the population. It is interesting to recall at this point that a majority of the American public believed the US war on and invasion of Iraq in 2003 made the country and the people more at risk for terrorism than safer. Thus rejected was the image framed by the White House and argued was that the war on Iraq would make America safe from terrorism.

Today, in 2012, terrorism once again competes with other issues such as the economy for national interest and public attention. The American public is now questioning US foreign policy toward Afghanistan similar to the way it did Iraq.  No longer can the 911 period’s terrorism frame be unquestioned, which has an impact on policies and the way in which academia, government and the media interpret and frame others.  Moreover, the actions following the anti-Islam film are begging for the American public to assess and question past and present images and their impact on policy, for the reactions and animosity shown around the world has more to do with US policy more than anything else, in spite of what the politicians who craft the boundaries of the public image posit.

Conclusion: The Power of Perception and the Need for Public Awareness

America has a proclivity to see things in her own image rather than accepting development and progress within the context of the cultural, economic, historical and religious environments of the “other.”  Perhaps it has, in part, to do with the pedagogical methods used, but the role of American exceptionalism is also present.  Why does America seek to explain or visualize positive and negative change through her exceptional lens rather than one of equality, where all cultures and people are of equal value? Why do we also see the negative in the “other” but fail to recognize it in our own “self”?  Yet, at times it seems that to glorify and demonize and to simultaneously create unity within one segment and division in another are the dichotomous rhetorical tools in the perceptual political games played and battles waged.

Persistent, contradictory and dichotomous American perceptions of other actors and states were made possible due to preexisting biases and their strategic use during specific times and places by political actors. Policymakers and political actors were able to define the hegemonic narrative of the image held and use the various perceptions within because of failure on the part of the American public to question the dominant narrative, seek information, and engage the “other” in dialogue.  Awareness is only possible through constant reflection, evaluation and assessment of the “self” and “other”, the relations between the two, and the search for greater sources of knowledge.  A society or individual who thinks they know all, in fact, knows nothing.  It is our moral, intellectual and social duty to humanity to constantly seek knowledge.  Seeking knowledge and accepting our own part in the process will lead to better policies that promote more harmonious relations among humanity.

Promoting more harmonious relations requires understanding of the power of perception.  America needs to reevaluate herself, her perception of the “other” and their impact on politics.  Politics and divisionary strategies used in the past and present divide and devour, conquer and conjure.  In the end, the American public is left to wonder which perception is real or a creation of the mind of another.  The solution is only to seek and inquire and to question and ponder, especially when it comes to the perceived phenomenon of terrorism and the framing of the so-called “other.”

Dr Rachael Rudolph is Head of International Relations for Facilitate Global.  She can be reached at

[1] Davis, D. and N. de Duren (2011). Cities & Sovereignty, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Nacos, B.L., Y. Bloch-Elkon, and R.Y. Shapiro (2007). “Post-9/11 Terrorism Threats, News Coverage, and Public Perceptions in the United States, International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 1(2): 105-126.

[3] It should be noted that economically, the beginning of the 1980s were devastating to the American population, with slight and slow improvements beginning around 1983. The US economy would not recover until 1992. Studies have demonstrated that contextual variable heightened the perception of fear and risk among the people. Simultaneously, in such hard time and it makes conditions more ripe for the potential of either unrest or violence. The form of collective action, as is discussed in more detail in chapters two and three, depends on the existing conditions and the presence and absence of particular variables at a given moment for there to be certain types of violent or nonviolent protest.

[4] A chart of the data used can be provided upon request, but will be found in the Appendix of the forthcoming book.

[5] Fuchs, P.B. (1995).  “Jumping to Conclusions in Oklahoma City? American Journalism Review.  Available at:  Last Accessed on August 29, 2012.

[6] Nacos et. al. supra note 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Woods, J., T.A. Eyck, S.A. Kaplowitz, and V. Shlapentokh (2008). “Terrorism Risk Perceptions and Proximity to Primary Terrorist Targets: How Close is to Close,” Human Ecology Review, 15(1): 63-70.

[9] Timus, Natalia (2006). “The Role of Public Opinion on the EU Policymaking Process: The Case of EU Enlargement,” Perspectives on European Politics and Society 7, no 3: 336-47.

[10] Knecht, T. and S. Weatherford (2006). “Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: The Stages of Presidential Decision Making,” International Studies Quarterly 50, no 3: 9-27.

[11] Nacos et. al. supra note 2.

[12] Woods, et. al. supra note 8.

[13] Baumgartner, F.R and B.D. Jones, (1993). Agendas and Instability in American Politics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[14] See Zayani 2008; Knecht and Weatehrford 2006; and, Foyle 2003.

[15] Pillar, P.R. (2011). “American Perceptions of Terrorism in the Post-0/11 Decade,” The Counter Terrorism Center. Available at: Last accessed August 16, 2012.

[16] “New Study Indicates Media Influences Americans’ Perceptions of Terrorism,” The Jimirro Center for the Study of Media Influence. Available at: Last accessed August 16, 2012. See also: Woods, et. al. supra note X.

[17] Lee, Y., V. Ottati and G. Yan, “Perception and Interpretations of Terrorism, Justice and Conflict: Three Cultures and Two Sides of One Coin,” in Lee, Y., C. McCauley, F.M. Moghaddam and S. Worchel (2004). The Psychology of Ethnic and Cultural Conflict. Praeger: 217-234. Available at: Last Accessed August 16, 2012.

[18] Pillar supra note 15.

[19] Lee, Y., V. Ottati and G. Yan, “Perception and Interpretations of Terrorism, Justice and Conflict: Three Cultures and Two Sides of One Coin,” in Lee, Y., C. McCauley, F.M. Moghaddam and S. Worchel (2004). The Psychology of Ethnic and Cultural Conflict. Praeger: 217-234. Available at: Last Accessed August 16, 2012.

[20] Woods, et. al. supra note 8.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Nacos et. al. supra note 2.

[24] Pillar supra note 15.

[25] Woods, et. al. supra note 8.

[26] Pillar supra note 15.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Nacos et. al. supra note 2.

[29] Woods, et. al. supra note 8.

[30] Nacos et. al. supra note 2.

[31] Ibid.

(Visited 25 times, 1 visits today)