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Terror in the wake of Woolwich

The aftermath of the Woolwich murder casts a worrying light on how Muslims are perceived and terrorism is defined in the UK. 

Last month, Drummer Lee Rigby, an ex-soldier and young father, was brutally murdered in a London district by two men citing western interventions in the Middle East as motivation for their actions. Since the shocking incident, there has been much due condemnation and commiseration pouring in from all quarters, including from the Muslim community. Social media has been alive with disgust at the brutality, while community leaders have spoken out against the crime unreservedly. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Britain’s largest representative umbrella body, issued a message denouncing the perpetrators and expressing sympathy for the victim, his family and friends. They also met with faith leaders to work together amidst this tragedy.

Nonetheless, the Muslim community has faced a disturbing backlash in the aftermath, both from activists associated with the English Defence League, a far-right street protest movement , as well as certain policymakers. A series of attacks on mosques, Islamic centres and individual Muslims across the country has been reported since Rigby’s murder. Meanwhile within hours of the initial incident the UK government saw fit to identify it with the highly charged term of “terror”, hold emergency ‘Cobra’ meetings, call in MI5 and inform the Queen. With investigations barely begun, it is curious the authorities were so quick to label Rigby’s murder as an act of terror.

Faith Matters, an anti-extremism NGO, reported a “huge rise in hate incidents reported against Muslims”. In the week following Rigby’s murder, reports from Tell MAMA UK, an anti-Muslim abuse reporting service, suggest that there was a 15-fold increase on last year’s average for the number of anti-Muslim attacks. Eleven mosques have been attacked - some with firebombs - since Rigby’s murder. A Muslim community centre has been burned to the ground and a suspected incident of arson took place at an Islamic boarding school over the weekend.

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 organisation 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.”

According to the government’s definition in the Terrorism Act 2000, terrorism includes a threat designed “to intimidate the public or a section of the public” for the purpose of advancing a “racial or ideological cause”. Such 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 faced by British Muslims, which has indeed spread fear in the community, as terrorism. However, over 200 attacks later we have yet to see or hear of any Cobra meetings addressing far-right terror, nor any statements on the need to address the susceptibility of people to far-right radicalisation. Unless the authorities clarify their position, people could be forgiven for thinking that the state’s version of terrorism selectively excludes Muslim communities from victimhood.

The rhetoric displayed by some of the UK’s leading policy makers does little to reassure. Home Secretary Theresa May, was soon speaking of the "thousands" of British Muslims allegedly susceptible to radicalisation and outlining a series of more draconian measures to combat this perceived threat. These included more stringent censorship of websites, 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 that do not risk creating a “society less free, divided and suspicious of each other.” Ms May is the same person who chose to allow the detention of Britons Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan for years without charge under controversial anti-terror legislation and their subsequent extradition to the US under what is to many a deeply problematic treaty. Both men are now incarcerated in notorious American ‘supermax’ prisons, and are still awaiting charge and trial.

Ms May’s response to Woolwich may then be considered both worrying and characteristic. It is worth asking why the authorities saw fit to inflict such injustice on Ahmad and Ahsan while permitting incitement to hatred by divisive individuals such as Anjem Choudary, who in turn receives a disproportionate level of media attention including from public institutions such as the BBC.

In an op-ed on the Woolwich murder, Mayor of London Boris Johnson was swift to point a simplistic finger at the “Islamist” bogeymen 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 Sharia nor Islamism is a monolithic entity. Both are nuanced and both have their spectrum of interpretations: extreme and balanced. The former is a complex legal tradition with a 1400-year history of interpretative scholarship and maturation. Furthermore, much as Mr Johnson may dismiss the “mumbo jumbo” of Sharia law, the British 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 right-wing politics, ranging from the far-right extremists in the English Defence League and Norway’s mass murderer Anders Breivik to the moderate Conservatives now leading the UK government, Islamism has its spectrum. The latter  encompasses a plethora of organisations, from the extreme al-Qaeda to the balanced and democratic Ennahda of Tunisia and AK Party of Turkey 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, which has been campaigning for British Muslim civic participation and integration for years and has condemned vile crimes like the one in Woolwich throughout its history. 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 sweepingly 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 recently proven, the reach of extremism is not limited.

Mr Johnson, who has adamantly dismissed the role of UK foreign policy in these crimes in spite of the suspects’ clear evocation of it, also issued troubling statements on university Islamic Societies. These statements included comments 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 very simple reasons.

Firstly, to suggest segregation at events is an ingredient for violent 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 Nusayba informed the BBC of (Abu Nusayba was curiously arrested immediately following this interview). As such, to bring up student Islamic societies in this context is misleading, irresponsible and harmful for Muslim students already under immense, undeserved pressure.

The horrific Woolwich murder shocked the UK for its inhumane and callous brutality. The best way to respond to this is for the country to come together as a nation, build partnerships, share in its grief and join in a shared commitment to build a better Britain. Further targeted and divisive alienation is not the answer but rather the ingredient which contributes to fostering extremism in the first place.

About the author

Lubaaba Amatullah is joint Editor-in-Chief of The Platform. She completed her BA and MA at the University of London, and is currently pursuing her PhD, researching England’s early encounters with Islam. The views expressed here are the author’s own.


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