These are trying times for native Mancunians like myself, as they are for the rest of my fellow Britons. But as we try to get our heads around the horrific attacks of 22nd May, some people are simply not helping. Ranting and raving on television, as Piers Morgan has been doing of late, is not going to make us any safer. In fact, it makes us more vulnerable.
It is only human to respond viscerally to such circumstances, but it is obscene to see an influential public figure calling for anti-Muslim genocide, as Katie Hopkins did the day after the attack. Similarly, it is entirely unhelpful to accuse an entire community of bearing the responsibility for the actions of a single “withdrawn” individual who did not get along with religious leaders in the Muslim community.
Muslims are as much to blame for the Manchester attack as Jeremy Corbyn is for the Iraq War; both were vocally opposed to the 2003 invasion. ISIS was, according to former US President Barack Obama, an “unintended consequence” of the illegal Iraq invasion. This is the same ISIS that claimed responsibility for the attack on Monday. By Piers Morgan’s logic, we should blame all Britons and Americans for the Manchester attack. It is obviously asinine to make such an outrageous claim. Why should we tolerate such claims when they are directed towards a minority community whose members are routinely demonised in the media?
Alienating Muslims only helps ISIS
In fact, this state of affairs could be contributing to the creation of more ISIS sympathizers. Groups like ISIS try to spread propaganda that the West as a whole is the enemy of Islam; that Muslims are second-class citizens, always seen with suspicion, always portrayed as a fifth column in the West that cannot be trusted. People like Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan, who have such a massive following in the UK are working, unintentionally, towards actualizing such propaganda for ISIS.
I’ve written previously that an important part of countering ISIS’ propaganda is to counter the alienation that young Muslims feel from media storms like the one currently swirling. With genocidal columnists like Katie Hopkins on the loose, how can Muslims feel safe? But worse still, some young testosterone filled idiot somewhere will try to cope with his (even her) alienation by rebelling against society. In the past, this might have meant getting tattoos, using drugs, or flouting social conventions. Nowadays, the media has contributed to promoting another possibility—becoming a ‘Muslim terrorist’.
As veteran French expert Olivier Roy has argued, ISIS represents not so much the “radicalisation of Islam, but [...] the Islamisation of radicalism.” This partly explains the stories of people converting to Islam before perpetrating a violent attack. And the media contributes its fair share to the promotion of the ‘terrorism option’ for Muslim youths by giving it wall-to-wall coverage. In its own way, this could be viewed as the glorification of terrorism, and the sorts of people who find such criminal acts appealing can only revel in the notoriety it gives them.
The problem of blaming Islam and Muslims
ISIS is rightly characterized as a death cult, but does it make sense to claim that they are ‘Islamic’. Sure, at an academic level, they have a twisted ideology based on an interpretation of Islam that is rejected by Muslims as a whole. But Muslims see ISIS as an isolated aberration from the 1.6 billion strong global Muslim community; and they feel as insulted by the suggestion that ISIS represents their religion as a Christian would rightly be if the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Ku Klux Klan were characterized as ‘Christian’, as though they were somehow representative of true Christianity. As Obama has put it, “All of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like [ISIS] somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorists’ narrative.”
Blaming Islam only reinforces ISIS propaganda. It is self-defeating, as well as unrepresentative of the Islam that the vast majority of Muslims around the world believe in. The Syrian scholar Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi speaks for Muslims when he says:
We all recognize that it is a perversion of Islam and the Iraq war, among other factors, that helped create ISIS, and we should combat it on the basis of that knowledge; but it helps no one to “grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek,” to cite Obama once again. Furthermore, it is deeply alienating to Muslims, who should be recognized as important partners in our fight against ISIS, that they are actually Islamic, rather than perverters of that faith.
Blaming the victim
Not only do Muslims want desperately to extinguish the scourge that is ISIS, in the UK, they could be the front line in fighting them alongside their compatriots. Muslims are doubly fearful of terrorist attacks in the UK. Like the rest of you, we fear being victims of an attack, but unlike non-Muslims, we also fear the aftermath which will typically involve hotheads on TV and social media pointing the finger of blame at us, directing the ire of the nation towards a minority that is discriminated against, abused, and vilified in the media already. It’s not a great formula for building bridges with a community desperately seeking a way to deal with the blight of terrorism. Mehdi Hasan has noted that part of ISIS strategy in the West is to make Muslims feel that they are not welcome there. We should not be helping them realize such aims.
Muslims should not be marked out as a ‘problem community’ in response to such attacks. Rather, they should be embraced as victims of the Salman Abedis of the world; and we should all join hands and work together to find ways of combating would-be mass murderers like Abedi who want us to be divided. Muslims are not outsiders to British society. We are as Mancunian, and we are as British as any of the victims of the attack on Monday. One of my teenage cousins at Altrincham Grammar School shared her sadness on our family WhatsApp group when some of the girls at the concert didn’t show up to school the day after the attack. In Manchester’s broader Muslim community, a GP whose husband was working as a trauma surgeon in the early hours of Tuesday, lamented how some were using the attack as an excuse to divide our great Mancunian community.
These people have no more to do with ISIS than the average non-Muslim Briton. These people represent Britain’s Muslims. Salman Abedi no more represents Britain than Jimmy Savile, or the murderer of Jo Cox. Joseph Harker has shown how absurd such claims of collective guilt sound when they are directed against “the white community.” Why can’t we see the absurdity of such prejudice when talking about the Muslim community?
So what is the solution?
This is where the real soul-searching needs to take place, and sadly, the powers that be do not have the appetite for it. As is usual, there is a degree to which this is the case of the powerful blaming the weak for a problem that they have done more to contribute to. Rather than asking what the Muslim community can do, the real soul searching needed to take place before ISIS was created by the conditions that arose in the wake of the second Gulf War. Some might consider this water under the bridge at this point, but the reality is that the lessons need to be learnt from that time and since. The way in which Britain, as a leading member of the international community, has seen fit to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, or the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, does have a role to play in radicalization. As the former head of MI5 stated years ago, British military adventurism in Iraq played a role in radicalizing the 7/7 bombers who viewed the war as an attack on Muslims. This is, after all, what the leader of the 7/7 bombers stated as his motivation for the attack.
British post-colonial adventurism, and the flagrant double standards we apply to violence we visit upon innocent people abroad to this day, is an extremely important component of the multi-pronged approach necessary for combating ISIS.
But there are many others. These include fighting socio-economic deprivation in the poorer parts of Britain; assisting the organic growth of institutions of Islamic education across the country; funding the training of imams, mental health workers, and Muslim community leaders to deal with troubled youths; funding programs that promote social integration and greater interaction and solidarity between Britain’s diverse communities, combating the segregation that can result, in part, from white flight. This could involve promoting cultural sensitivity and greater mutual understanding across communities. It could promote a stronger sense of belonging, among alienated youths, to the wider British society. From within the Muslim community, such programs could be led by individuals working as full partners in such efforts, rather than people who merely serve as government enforcers of externally imposed agendas. In wider society, there needs to be a concerted, governmentally supported, local and national effort to counter Islamophobia at all levels of society, from the job market, to the representation of Muslims in media and the political sphere.
These are just some ideas that are worth thinking about. There are plenty of people within the Muslim community who are already involved in initiatives of this nature. As a member of the incredibly diverse and varied British Muslim community, I know that we would all welcome such initiatives with partners from across civil society, and indeed the government and business sectors, who want to contribute to the organic growth of a healthy and vibrant British society for all of us.