Within 12 hours of the London Bridge attacks on June 3, 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May finally said “enough is enough” and called for an explicit, unapologetic focus on Islamist extremism, which is being incubated in far too many British enclaves—in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and elsewhere.
Admitting what British-based security critics have long known—that “there is far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”—May even asserted “the superiority” of pluralistic British civic values. Better late than never, perhaps, but it is still worrisome that it took the UK government three attacks in under three months, with 30 dead, 10 of whom were under 20 years old, to remember that this (and most) nation’s civic values are better than the jihadists’.
Our prevailing logic—exemplified in the The New York Times—has been exactly backwards. After terrorist attacks, victims of terrorism need not exercise “maximum vigilance” lest we all fall prey to “divisive ethnic, racist and religious hatreds.” It’s extremists who promote and use violence and who are beset by hatred. Salman Abedi killed British teenagers because he views them through a prism of prejudicial hate—their “Western” ethnicity, British nationality, assumed religious beliefs, and secular lifestyles (young girls enjoying music in public). ISIS made this case in Dabiq, “Why We Hate You & Why We Kill You,” just as London Bridge attackers fanned out from their low-tech terrorist van, as per ISIS instructions, to murder pedestrians on the open street. Such bigotry is thus operationalized not only to spread hatred but to kill.
It is time to name the sectarian hatred—against Western culture, minority religions, ethnic groups, gender and sexual identities, and others—that motivates much global terrorism and defines thousands of Islamist organizations. Policymakers who tell us “we will not be divided” are like Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit—too late. Each attack brings officials who have tumbled down the rabbit hole of confused logic and policy, imploring the public that the best response to murderous hate is unity—something victims never contested. Suspects are scooped up by law enforcement in a brief frenzy, while weaponized systems of sectarian hatred in neighborhoods and networks are left to fester.
Ordinary people are plotted against as “soft targets,” neighbors and family desperately report radicals to authorities that demur, and victims are lectured to by helpless politicians who defend failed policies as the new normal (it’s not). Meanwhile, pub and concert goers, tourists, and school teachers pay the price for authorities’ failed understanding, as they fight off strategic killers in public places with chairs and bottles, while forced to play battlefield medics, using shirts as tourniquets for mortally wounded compatriots.
Thankfully, this empty narrative and emptier policy response is eroding, largely due to public pressure. Long before Theresa May, many ordinary people—including Muslim dissidents and reformers—were risking charges of political incorrectness to speak out. Democratic politics are beginning to put an end to passivity or apologetics, even if it means electing blustery, untraditional leaders. Public servants, risking careers, are insisting on pragmatic measures to curb terrorists and not just symbolic cultural politics to paper over extremist-created divisions and self-isolation. In Manchester 20,000 concertgoers alone—many parents—will likely become an outspoken bulwark against failed security, integration, and prevention policies, like the families of Pan Am Flight 103 victims mobilized decades ago.
But pressure is also mounting from afar thanks to dynamics too large to ignore and publics all too familiar with the social destruction, divisiveness, and insecurity jihadists cause. More than 60 million people—many minorities and most children—are fleeing homes beset by extremist hate, violence, and chronic conflict in Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, in the largest forced migration since World War II.
If Western-based analysts have trouble facing the reality of Islamist sectarian hatred, simply ask religious and ethnic minorities about their plight—whether Yazidis, Ahmadis, Hazari, Copts, Assyrian Christians, Makranis, Ismalis Ibadhi, Sufis, or others. Or examine their status as “just terror” targets in the pages of Dabiq, Inspire, or Rumiyah and extremist field and recruitment manuals. Minorities witness governments’ lax or biased efforts at their protection and the existential threat they face from extremists who harry them, kill them with satisfaction, and even infiltrate civil service institutions. Such Islamist groups even follow minorities wherever they go.
The naming of sectarian hatred as the dynamic behind global Islamist extremist and jihadist ideology is long overdue. Indeed, sectarian hatred has become the common denominator that motivates today’s terrorism and its seemingly random violence and that links West and Non-West.
For too long such realities have been denied or ignored, thanks to disabling myths about terrorism and terrorists. It’s time to discard the false, distracting debate that we’re talking about religion not sectarian hatred—we’re not. However, rejecting that myth also means that religious groups organized politically do not get to dictate the terms of public safety, the nature of terrorist threats, or law enforcement’s response. It is also time to retire the myth that premeditated murder by organized, known-to-authorities extremists is part of big city life—it’s not. Then there’s the folly of stretching refugee status—against the limits of the UNHCR Convention Article1(F)—to include extremist foreign fighters, such as Abedi’s father. Foreign or returning British fighters are far from innocent migrants fleeing persecution and war or adventurous kids seeking travel, but often killers trained in atrocities on irregular battlefields. They are one common link in recent European mass-casualty attacks and a glaring hole in British and EU security vetting systems for immigrant candidates.
But by far the most disabling myth is blaming terror attacks on radicalized loners who can’t fit in—a myth of the lone radical who kills because of alienation, not sectarian hatred—that ignores how “successful” extremists have been in recent years. Forty thousand foreign terrorist fighters have flocked to ISIS territory since 2012, with more than 4,000 from Europe and 1,000 from Britain. Hundreds have been killed across Europe, with a 650% increase for OECD nations in terrorist deaths from 2014 to 2015, and nearly 30,000 lost souls globally. This myth not only excuses violence but ignores twin Islamist “success” strategies: first, operationalizing extremists to become terrorist fighters and, second, building community sympathy—or at least silence—for extremism.
It is time to speak frankly about the sectarian hatred informing violent extremism—not only as a reality check on moral and policy platitudes, but to highlight a worsening problem and a worldwide increase in victims of hatred and terror. We must develop adequate collective solutions for fighting Islamist extremism in the policy and law enforcement domains, as well as in public culture, in the media, in government-led public discussions, and in ethnic and religious communities and enclaves across the UK, Europe, and the US.