The Problem With Calling Them 'Muslim Killers'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I can’t write about every bad New York Post front page because I already have a full-time job. But today's issue shouldn’t be ignored.

The front page on the left is from the subscriber edition, which prints late at night so it can be mailed out in the early morning. The front page on the right is from the newsstand edition, which prints later and is also used online. Police confirmed the names of the two suspects, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, at a press conference late last night; the Post’s editors rewrote the headline accordingly for the later edition.

Changes between print editions aren’t uncommon, especially during a breaking-news story. What’s striking is that the first front page was still factually accurate. The Post jettisoned it nonetheless in favor of an inflammatory and irresponsible “MUSLIM KILLERS” headline.

Note the abandonment of pretense. The shooters aren’t “Islamist killers.” They aren’t “jihadist killers.” They aren’t even “radicalized Muslim killers.” Nor are they given any of the other qualifiers commonly used to distinguish between the vast ocean of Muslims and the small but violent undercurrent of extremism. They’re simply “Muslim killers.”

The tabloid isn’t ecumenical when linking mass shootings to the religions of their perpetrators. Some observers on Twitter correctly noted that the Post didn’t single out white men or Christians after Robert Lewis Dear shot and killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week. While that’s true, it sidesteps the uniquely paranoid bigotry towards American Muslims that the Post apparently sought to express and exploit.

That bigotry can have dire consequences for American Muslims, who bear no more responsibility for Farook and Malik’s actions than I do for Dear’s. The New York Times wrote last month about the disturbing backlash that American Muslims in New York City faced after the Paris attacks:

In the past week and a half, several Muslims in New York, mostly women wearing head scarves, have reported being victims of verbal abuse and physical assault. Even some non-Muslims — including at least one Latino mistaken for a Muslim — have been subjected to Islamophobic taunts or worse, community leaders said.

In an episode the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported this week, two Muslim women in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn said that a man claiming to be a postal worker assaulted them, elbowing one and spitting in her face, and telling them he was going to burn down their “temple.” The police arrested a man on Tuesday in connection with the episode and charged him with aggravated harassment and menacing as a hate crime.

Sensationalist and controversial front pages are central to the Post’s brand, so it would be easy to shrug off this one as just another example of it. But doing so ignores the media’s ability to shape narratives and inflame anger. Most Americans have the luxury of seeing front pages like this without fearing violent retribution. Some do not.