The Twitter outpourings on the evening of the Manchester attack included those sickened by people making jokes and infuriated by the associations made with a religious doctrine before all the facts had come in. The hostility shown towards those brazen enough to follow the pattern, to connect the dots, to merely pay attention over the past year was startling for two reasons. First, it is the mere noise of these concerns which demonstrate just how self-sabotagingly caring and tolerant we truly are. More worryingly, why haven’t these people been paying attention?
The impulse to wait until the motives and the affiliations of the attacker are known is understandable. It would’ve been easy to get it wrong last week in Times Square when the man that plowed into pedestrians, as we have seen in Nice and London, was found to have no terrorist intentions but to be mentally ill. The pattern is much clearer for instances of bombing, but the key point when any case of mass slaughter happens in a western conurbation is that it is not “Islamophobic” to notice this pattern; if one had jumped to the conclusion prematurely during the numerous attacks in European cities one would’ve been proven right. Doing so again is not bigoted. The failure to notice this pattern, and the associated failure to acknowledge it after the fact, is what we should be concerned about.
What to do now? Open acts of defiance or quiet reflection; we’re understanding enough to allow room for both in our society — it is just a shame defiantly carrying on comes so often at the expense of reflecting on what needs to be done. No to bigotry, of course. But yes to rational criticism of a set of ideas that thankfully are mutable and interpretable and — we better hope– reformable. That this set of ideas goes under the umbrella of Islam, from which stems multiple factions that really do range from peaceful to much less so, should not deter us from talking about the religion in earnest. Whilst it should not stop us from entertaining the possibility that reducing wholesale immigration from countries cultivating extremists is a good idea, as homegrown extremism abounds it is far more likely we will continue to see ISIS inspired attacks from those who have been nominally British all their lives, as was the case in Manchester.
Meanwhile, why not muster up some scorn for a doctrine that — used by those weaponizing a new wave of anti-western sentiment and attendant grievances — can and has, from Stockholm to Brussels to Paris to London, been a self-reported motivating factor in the pursuit of terrorist ends. Worry all you like about waves of “Islamophobia” hitting the streets; as with every attack in the west the anticipated wave withers into the trickle of a few hate crimes on social media and a few rare confrontations in the streets. These are worth a word of scorn, no doubt, but some other things you’re missing are worth a bit more. Remember after all that these streets filled with Islamophobes are also filled with people that have so far welcomed more immigrants from more parts of the world in greater numbers than any other country in the west. Now such is our concern for minorities that Twitter sentiments far outweigh the feeble noises made by smatterings of genuinely prejudiced people.
Remember, those nice enough to worry out loud about bigotry are citizens of a country supposedly devoid of a national identity or a British ethos to be proud of. Our culture isn’t limpid or robust enough to worry about it being diluted by competing cultures from other areas of the world which are evidently far less tolerant of new people and ideas. Thankfully, our nebulous lack of principles still stands in stark contrast to some beliefs from a culture we are told we are not at odds with: when was the last time the majority of non-Muslims in the country thought homosexuality should be illegal? Have any of us (let alone polling figures ranging from 4-12%) ever had anything like sympathy for suicide bombing against civilians?
So let’s stop shouting at each other, one side thinking Islamophobia is the pertinent problem and the other thinking those who agree share portions of the blame. Because this religion does inspire sects of the benign and peaceful, groups of people who follow a faith that can collide with the humanist, liberal notions of British life without friction; Secular Muslims who even embrace them, who understand and abide by the rule of law. But sadly, these truly peaceful Muslims are also the ones most derided by less peaceful ones. Because Islam in the UK also includes factions which are opposed to this harmony on principle, antagonists to the law of the land, they find themselves free enough to flourish in. These factions are antithetical to our secular democracy, to the principles we take for granted. Acknowledging there are more than just peaceful Muslims living amongst us is a far cry from being prejudiced against all Muslims or spouting racism.
From these hotbeds of zealotry, gradual radicalization takes hold. Ideological fervor is tempered through social media streams dialed into ISIS propaganda, this grows with charismatic recruiters and supporting familial and communal structures that either fan the flames of fanaticism or turn their back to the fire. All these things combine with a conveyor belt of grievances, domestically and internationally driven, some legitimately and discretely political, others drawn straight from scripture. Others take the former and hold it to the lens of the latter. This is happening, in mosques and communities around the country right now, to the detriment of the rights of women, children, whole swathes of necessarily closeted agnostics, ex-Muslims, LGBT Muslims and more minorities within the minorities who care more about the thugs and hostile dogmatists in their own communities than they do the caustic rhetoric of the far-Right. Our search for cultural enrichment here fails to enrich the lives of the muslims who suffer most under the cosh of their fundamentalist patriarchs and brothers.
But how much is this really Islam? At one end, terrorists take cherry picked lines of scripture to justify or give a religious vigour to otherwise material, earthly problems. Elsewhere, Islam fosters peace and co-operation in the same way ignoring a lot of the old testament and embracing parts of the new has allowed Christians to live peacefully. In the Islamic case, the chronology is reversed and in the path from messages of restraint to the defensive battles at Medina to waging Holy War, the principle of abrogation is liberalized and earlier messages of peace adopted. And so to say Islam has nothing to do with the violent version, but everything to do with the peaceful version, is to compound ignorance with wishful thinking. They both have something to do with Islam and its scriptural precepts, a small part of a wide-ranging picture, but one that has real consequences.
Just as you move from small numbers of nihilistic and violent jihadists to more widespread and pervasive acts of illiberalism (like the subjugation of women and the hatred of gays) you are moving towards acts with a theological basis more widely accepted. Yet, to pretend this sort of hate is a ready recruiting base apt to turn the medieval outlook of private intolerance into suicidal attacks is paranoia. But it is equally ungrounded to pretend that those perpetrating violence are a manageable threat of a few crazy radicals who no true Muslim could sympathize with. Around 6% (100,000) of British Muslims fully supported the 7/7 bombings; we will be caught out, prostrate and obtuse, if we are to continue the bromides about lone wolves acting in solitary without support. We are not managing, their numbers are growing, there is some sympathy for them and we are a net exporter of jihadism as a nation.
No serious person wants to stop all immigration, indiscriminately close mosques or tell British Muslims how to live when quite a deal of them do a fine job of not being homophobic, apologizing or recruiting for terrorist organizations or mutilating young women’s genitals. (It is shameful to have to labour around a point which sets the bar so low.) Similarly, no serious person wants immigrants with illiberal beliefs to bring a net increase of intolerance to this country, to keep mosques preaching hate or preachers inciting violence unmonitored or to allow British Muslims who do subscribe to illiberal tenets to continue harming the minorities within their own communities. No one wants either of those scenarios to play out. For politicians to mobilize and admit they’ve been following the pattern, the grassroots dialogue must begin to openly accept the reality of the illiberalism of much of Islam in the UK. If the conversation can happen without recourse to charges of Islamophobia, this step itself might start to help us reform the narrative for those at risk of radicalization, but it will also provide the basis from which politicians who can change our methods at a policy level feel confident to start engaging with this topic honestly.