A backlash of anti-Muslim attacks since the Woolwich murder coupled with flawed assessments by certain policymakers raises serious concerns
Since the shocking murder last week of Drummer (Private) Lee Rigby, a soldier and young father, there has been much due condemnation and commiseration from all quarters, including from the Muslim community. Social media has been alive with disgust, while community leaders have spoken out against the crime unreservedly. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Britain’s largest representative umbrella body, has shared a message of denunciation and thoughts for the victim, his family and friends.
Nonetheless, there has been a disturbing backlash faced by the Muslim community, both from violent English Defence League (EDL) activists as well as certain policymakers; a wave of attacks on Mosques, Islamic centres and Muslims across the country. Meanwhile within hours of the Woolwich incident our government saw fit to identify it with the highly charged term of “terror”, holding emergency Cobra meetings, calling in MI5 and informing the Queen. With investigations barely begun, it is curious the authorities were so quick to label this incident as such.
On Saturday, Faith Matters reported 162 calls of anti-Muslim attacks on their helpline, up from the daily average of six. Tell MAMA UK, an anti-Muslim abuse reporting service, has reported 193 cases of anti-Muslim attacks and 11 mosques attacked as of Sunday. These included firebombs at mosques and assaults on Muslim women. Fiyaz Mughal, Director of Faith Matters, observed, “What’s really concerning is the spread of these incidents. They’re coming in from right across the country.” In a joint statement with Tell MAMA UK, the organisations stated: “The terrible events in Woolwich this week can in no way justify reprisal attacks or threats to British Muslims, a huge number of which have spoken out against the atrocious murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.” They further observed, “There also seems to be significant online activity, suggesting co-ordination of incidents and attacks against institutions or places where Muslims congregate.”
By the government’s definition in the Terrorism Act 2000, terrorism includes a threat designed “to intimidate the public or a section of the public” to advance a “racial or ideological cause”. Its actions include serious violence against person or property and creating “a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public”. One can then term the current onslaught on British Muslims, which has spread fear in the community, as terrorism. However, over 200 attacks later we have yet to witness any Cobra meetings addressing far-right terror or any statements on the need to address the susceptibility of people to far-right radicalisation. Unless the authorities urgently clarify their position, people must be forgiven for thinking that the state-bandied version of terrorism selectively excludes Muslim communities as victims.
The rhetoric of some of our policy makers does little to reassure. Home Secretary Theresa May, was soon speaking of the “thousands” of specifically British Muslims allegedly susceptible to radicalisation and outlining a series of more draconian measures to combat this perceived threat, including more stringent website censorship, a lower threshold for banning groups deemed extreme and renewed pressure on universities and mosques to reject “hate preachers”. The MCB has responded by calling for new and effective strategies rather than knee-jerk policies that threaten to create a “society less free, divided and suspicious of each other.”
Ms May is the same person who allowed the detention of Britons Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan for years without charge under controversial anti-terror legislation and then their extradition to the US under a deeply problematic treaty. Both men are now incarcerated in notorious US supermax prisons. The Home Secretary’s response to Woolwich may then be considered characteristic. It is worth considering that while the authorities saw fit to inflict such injustice on Ahmad and Ahsan, an openly inciteful and notoriously publicity hungry figure like Anjem Choudary is permitted to freely continue spewing messages of divisive hate, especially through disproportionate media attention. One must ask why.
In an op-ed Mayor of London Boris Johnson was swift to point a simplistic finger at the “Islamist” bogeyman and their purported desire to force everyone into Sharia law. Mr Johnson speaks freely of the “virus” of Islamism that we must “stamp out” rather than engage with, summing it up thus:
“This is a sinister political agenda that promotes a sense of grievance and victimhood among a minority of Muslims. The Islamists want universal sharia law, and other mumbo jumbo…. [They say] the only way to avenge these injustices is jihad.”
The oversimplification and seeming ignorance displayed by the mayor of one of the world’s most diverse cities is astonishing. Neither is Sharia a monolithic entity nor is Islamism. Both are nuanced, both have their spectrum of interpretations. The former is a complex legal tradition with a 1400 year history of interpretative scholarship and maturation. And, much as Mr Johnson may dismiss the “mumbo jumbo” of Sharia law, our government is falling over itself to make the City of London a hub of Sharia compliant finance to boost the economy.
Islamism too is a varied political tradition. Like the shades of rightist politics, including the extremists in the EDL, Norway’s mass murderer Anders Breivik and the moderate Conservatives now in our government, Islamism has its spectrum. From the extreme al-Qaeda to the balanced AK Party of Turkey and Ennahda of Tunisia that actively participate in democratic processes and do not call for Sharia upon all nor advocate militant jihad.
Over 500 richly diverse Muslim organisations constitute the MCB, the same democratic umbrella body that has been campaigning for British Muslim civic participation and integration for years and condemning vile crimes like Woolwich. A few offshoot organisations of balanced democratic Islamism are also among their many affiliates. The Mayor of London must understand those he represents before making sweeping statements. It is doubtful he would enjoy having his own political persuasion clumped in with the EDL and BNP, amid calls to “stamp out” the “virus”. Furthermore, an important and informed discussion must be had as to what in fact constitutes extremism and who defines it; for too long it has been a term problematically defined and disproportionately associated with a particular community. As the EDL and Breivik have proven, the reach of extremism is not limited.
Mr Johnson, who has made adamant statements dismissing the role of UK foreign policy in these crimes in spite of the suspects clear evocation of it, also issued troubling statements on campus Islamic Societies including on gender segregation at events and the need for universities to be “much, much tougher in their monitoring of Islamic societies.” Such references are absurd for two simple reasons: firstly to suggest segregation at events promotes extremism is similar to suggesting segregation in public toilets helps create terrorists. Secondly, the alleged killer Michael Adebolajo had nothing to do with campus Islamic Societies. If anything, the press has been buzzing with news that Adebolajo had been tortured in Kenya at the alleged behest of the British authorities and approached for recruitment by M15 – something his friend Abu Nusaybah informed the BBC of (Abu Nusaybah was curiously arrested immediately following this interview). As such, to bring up student Islamic Societies in this context is inaccurate, irresponsible and harmful for Muslim students already under immense and undue pressure.
The horrific Woolwich murder shocked the nation for its inhumane and callous brutality. The correct way to respond to this is by coming together as a nation; building partnerships, sharing in our grief and joining in a shared commitment to build a better Britain. Further targeted and divisive alienation is not the answer. Rather it is that ingredient which contributes to fostering extremism in the first place.
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