In the aftermath of tragedy, it feels as though there is no correct time to return to politics. It feels insensitive when you see parents pleading on social media for any information about missing children, or confirmations that children as young as eight are among the victims. The very act of doing anything which could be interpreted as using the situation to back up your agenda is horrific and deserves to be scrutinised.
I hope, however, that this piece is actually timely, relevant and above all necessary. It is a reflection on contemporary terrorism as a whole, and comes from a burning desire to aid in the prevention of such tragedies occurring, despite the small readership I am able to reach.
I’ve had an interest in Middle-eastern politics and terrorism for a number of years, primarily because I have long feared that the division in society on this subject is one of the most problematic and potentially catastrophic in our contemporary culture. I have always found the argument that terrorism is a complex issue with more roots in politics than Islamic culture compelling, and therefore I took an online short course at Georgetown University in Terrorism to expand my limited understanding on the topic and see how correct or incorrect this theory was.
The surprising aspect of the course was its obsession with semantics and what ‘terrorism’ actually means. It went at great length to explain how - though there are disagreements amongst scholars and experts - that there are some very common similarities present when defining terrorism. The common similarities, and defining characteristics were:
Violence or use of force (used to attract attention and rally the masses)
Inherently political in nature (fundamentally about achieving a political aim)
Attempt to generate fear and anxiety (terrorists feel they can manipulate)
Threat of more violence to come (randomly done - people worry they could be at the wrong place at the wrong time.)
I believe it is incredibly important for people to understand the above points. Terrorism is a word used so casually by the public and the press that its meaning becomes distorted. Combating ‘terror’ for example is completely different to combating ‘terrorism’. It also lays out in plain terms that there is a distinct difference in terrorism and acts of insurgent warfare for example, as terrorism care more about the effect and reaction rather than the act. This implies that the response we give to terrorist acts is to them (especially when it is hostile), their fundamental aim. Daesh has repeatedly said as much, stating that their principal aim was to align the world into two camps: ‘either you are with the crusade, or you are with Islam’. It is vital to understand that this is their goal, not the number of deaths caused by their acts (though the more shocking obviously results in the high publicity), but Muslims around the world to come to the same conclusion as them: they will have to choose which side they are on.
This is why our response and our leaders’ responses to the acts are so important. It is common on social media to find an angry response to the ‘we will not be divided’ message of the progressive west. A regularly copy-and-paste comment seen is:
We all know the protocol by now:
This has nothing to do with Islam
The guy was a mentally ill ‘lone wolf’
Those who object to points 1 and 2 are racist bigots
Change Facebook profile to flag of inflicted country
Light some candles, hold a vigil and go on a peace march
Wait for the next slaughter to happen
My personal frustration with the mentality behind this comment is, essentially, that it is actually the correct procedure (minus point 3, as it is my belief that desperately wanting to find a cause for tragedy is not racist, but a genuine reaction, although in my view it is misguided to simplify the cause as just ‘Islam’). For example, I felt that the ‘we’re at war’ reaction of Francois Hollande in 2015 played directly into terrorist hands, despite seeming appropriate given the horrific attacks. The problem here was Daesh now had a sound bite for European muslims: ‘France is at war with you’ and so on. Simon Jerkins of the Guardian gave a powerful interview after the Westminster attacks, pleading the mainstream media to treat the attack in the same way that crime is reported and minimise the extent of the publicity given to it by the British press. When the aim of terrorism is understood, a viable counter-terrorism technique is, therefore, to not give the attack the level of publicity and the accompanying narrative that terrorists crave.
Another section of the course was a detailed exploration of ‘who are the terrorists’. A fascinating finding of a study into Daesh militants recruited from European countries was that there was not one solitary profile, but a vast range of differing backgrounds, educations and religious affiliations. Two contrasting examples include: Richard Reid (the ‘shoe bomber’) was a secondary school dropout, juvenile delinquent and recruited in prison. Ahmed Sheikh was from an upper-middle class family, educated in posh schools and even received a scholarship to study at the London school of economics. There were also some similarities which included radicalisation due to following friends and peers, second and third generations being more susceptible and people who share frustrations and anger about their life and their role in their society.
Although these points (amongst others) are all equally important, I would like to focus primarily on radicalisation.
Pin-pointing radicalisation as the main concern above Islam or physically confronting terrorist groups itself might appear less engaging and irresponsible, but it is my belief and the belief of others that combating terrorism is inherently an ideological fight, much more than a military war. The theory is that you cannot kill an ideology with a gun and a bomb, it continues to radicalise individuals, creating a higher possibility of terrorist attacks conducted by locally born people. Though there have been substantial efforts to address this serious issue with promising results compared to neighbouring countries, its importance in the fight against terrorism often does not get the platform it needs. It is not as attractive as a loud sensationalised headline, but nevertheless it needs to be brought further into public awareness.
There is further debate to be had about Islam itself. Although I believe that the points I have raised above would not exactly create a vast hostile counter-argument, any attempt to defend Islam however can generate a strong, negative response. I will not expand hugely on my view of the subject (as I believe it is deserving of a much larger post, and am already grateful to whoever has read this far), but I will mention my overriding view, which is that there are, naturally, problems in contemporary Islam. To name a couple; (i) the problematic element of the Quran being the ‘literal word of God’ means it is harder to criticise interpretations and differing views which many Muslims take away from their religious education and (ii) the dual complexity of ‘non-Muslims criticising Muhammad according to modern standards and Muslims who take the standards of his time as eternally valid.’ These are genuine criticisms which should encourage a debate, but instead of having that debate, the media and individuals are too keen to debate issues such as quotes without context and the merging of oppressive dictators and religious law (a frustrating conversation which, for example, uses Saudi Arabian politics as an absolute representation of Islam).
The Daesh militant personnel findings also made a point that many militants had only a basic knowledge of Islam, this, along with the numerous polls which back an overwhelming percentage of Muslims worldwide who believe that bombings or any violence against civilians is rarely or never justified does support the argument that the threat of radicalisation is not inherently caused by religious devotion. Having read the Quran and biographies of Muhammad in the most neutral way I could, I personally found many arguments much more compelling than finding clear advocacy in the text. Arguments such as:
Frustrations about political or societal situations hostile to individuals and their culture (for example, Western intervention in Muslim majority countries).
The feeling of alienation from host or home countries (here studies show that second and third generation immigrations are most susceptible to radicalisation, those who feel ‘caught between’ two societies and not feeling like they belong to the one they’re residing in). (France and Belgium (both have the highest number of Daesh fighters from Europe) passed bills against Muslim dress shortly before the Syrian civil war began.)
Stigmatisation of individuals by divisive media and (press articles focusing on the terrorist’s religion are not as common when they are not Muslim).
Political rhetoric (Donald Trump’s speeches and ‘ban’ on Muslims, Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam manifesto).
I’d like to finish with some pompous recommendations which I believe are needed to prevent radicalisation from happening at such an alarming rate. Having absolutely no governmental input might leave such recommendations weightless, but I will state them nevertheless, as an argument loses a great deal of legitimacy if you cannot suggest an alternative.
It has long been my belief that a misinformed or a misunderstanding of topics which fuel such division and hatred directly cause a continuation of the established consensus in the West, which often holds an anti-Islam form. Though personal opinions should naturally be kept to oneself, the lack of understanding of Islam by both Muslims and non-Muslims is something which could benefit from further education through an expansion on UK GCSE Religious Studies syllabuses. This should of course be included alongside other world religions, but I believe that it is necessary to teach these religions in relation to contemporary issues. It is a small alteration and admittedly includes many potential obstacles, but would be vital in encouraging educated debates rather than succumbing to sensationalism. A compulsory GCSE subject for politics could also encourage the population to be more familiar with the system.
This is hugely complex and cannot be condensed at all into a legitimate summary. Suffice to say that there is a real issue with bias in the UK media, much of which is owned by wealthy individuals who encourage politics to be reduced to a media spectacle. Ed Miliband, in response to the Leveson inquiry, suggested that new legislation would have to be introduced to change the rules on media ownership, specifically referring to the opinionated Rupert Murdoch’s News International owning a significant percentage of the UK’s media. A study from the University of Cambridge found that negative mainstream media reporting was a direct contributor to the rise in Islamophobia. As quixotic as it might sound, journalists should have the responsibility to report events in a neutral way, irrespective to a populist narrative.
Create a more inclusive culture.
This one sounds the most loony, but it is in a way a summary of this entire post. If our schools, leaders and media embraced the urgency to deal with radicalisation without dangerously oversimplifying it then perhaps we will start to encourage a more progressive look at 21st century Islam. There are many liberal voices attempting to make themselves heard and constant reports of Islamic groups denouncing the likes of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. If the main ammunition they’re getting is the radicalisation of our own, then it might be time that we turn the pointing finger of blame onto ourselves and ask if we are also complicit in this disturbing phase of human existence. This can be achieved by not giving the terrorists the response they desire, by becoming more educated on issues such as religion, politics and indeed terrorism and especially by our media being more responsible with their coverage of events such as the horror of the Manchester bombing.
There is no easy answer and certainly no likely solution. The atmosphere is still highly toxic and will likely continue in a similar manner unless the indirect cause of radicalisation is addressed more aggressively and openly. The sad reality that many are unaware is that a negative, hostile reaction - though completely and utterly logical - plays directly into terrorist hands. A responsible and structured debate is required, and should be encouraged at an early age by those we look up to. As tragic and sickening as each attack is, it requires a monumental amount of self-control to react in the only sure way of making terrorism a failure - by not giving it the publicity, the outrage and the division it so badly craves,