As Josh Lyman in The West Wing put it, ‘Islamic extremism is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity’ i.e. in no way representative whatsoever. It’s worrying that so many Muslim leaders felt that they had to condemn the attack. That so many fingers were pointed at them as if they were in some way responsible. That Islam has been singled out by senior politicians including a former Prime Minister, with the astounding implication that present-day extremism is somehow confined to being ‘within Islam’. That, concurrently, so few have spoken about the danger posed by EDL, far-right extremism and the racially-motivated violence it provokes. Danger to communities, which they try to divide, but also to individuals, such as the 75-year-old Mohammed Saleem, murdered as he walked home from a mosque in Birmingham in May, who police say was killed in a racially-motivated attack. Indeed, one helpline said it had received 162 calls reporting anti-Muslim incidents in the three days that followed Rigby’s murder, with a number of mosques targeted.
Comments like the Home Secretary’s claim, about Rigby’s tragic death, that ‘The attack was an attack on everyone on the United Kingdom’ were extremely unhelpful. Have Home Secretaries ever described similarly gruesome murders carried out by white Britons in the same way? Indeed, as has been effectively argued, turning Rigby into a symbol while focusing on the religion/ethnicity of the perpetrators reinforces the narrative that white Britain is under attack by non-white threats. Nick Robinson’s immediate declaration that the attackers were ‘of Muslim appearance’ was astonishing. Islam is a religion which people of any race can subscribe to, yet he was referring to a stereotypical construction of what the post-9/11 era has constructed into our collective minds. Video footage released identifying the killers as having a darker skin colour than he had assumed, though, shows that he even failed on his own terms, highlighting just how absurd it was to link religion and race so fundamentally and be focusing on them just minutes after news of the tragedy broke in the first place. You might expect that from the Daily Mail, but not the Political Editor of the BBC.
Going back to the Home Secretary’s quote, everyone in the UK may well be repulsed by the nature of the attack – we certainly should be. Saying it’s ‘an attack on all of us’, however, implies that we all feel under threat like we did after 7/7. I certainly understand why people with connections to the army – if they have a relative who serves, for instance – might feel threatened. I can see why they might feel it’s an attack on them or has made them and their families feel less safe. But I don’t think many people without army connections do. And if so, it’s probably at least in part because of the incessant media coverage, the way in which it’s been frequently described as ‘terrorism’, and scaremongering of people like Theresa May, who is now trying to use the attack to pass rushed legislation which infringes civil liberties but, evidence shows, would not have prevented Rigby’s death. It was more of a hate crime than a terrorist attack.
There’s an interesting discussion to be had about how much we should move from the murder into a discussion about Anglo-American foreign policy. It's stupid to try and deny that it might have been a factor in turning the perpetrators towards doing what they did. Before he invaded Iraq, the security services warned Blair that it would increase the risk to the UK. At the same time, however, I do agree with Jonathan Freedland when he writes that we shouldn’t use it to vindicate our position if we, as I do, oppose UK/US foreign policy and illegal wars in the Middle-East. Just as those of us on the left rightly made the case that Breivik’s appalling killing spree did not show that ‘multiculturalism had failed’ and that it should be abandoned as a result, we should not fall into the trap of trying to use Woolwich as part of reasoning for changing foreign policy (it should anyway be changed on other grounds). That is what the killers want.
On one hand these almost seem like contradictory positions, but they are compatible. It is bizarre to somehow deny that foreign policy might have been a contributing factor. Let’s not, however, try and use such a tragedy to say ‘I told you this is what happens when we invade umpteen countries’ (a view I happen to in part agree with) and certainly not change course as a direct result.
John O’Dowd of Sinn Féin made the following point powerfully on Question Time the other day. We can’t seriously say to leaders in the Muslim community that we want to work with them to eradicate Islamic extremism without simultaneously tackling the surge in far-right extremism, of people who are predominantly White Christians targeting Muslims. We may not have recently seen a murder as gruesome as that of Rigby, but we’ve actually seen more murders of British Muslims than of British soldiers in this country in the last few years. From the amount that Woolwich has been reported and tragedies like Saleem’s almost completely missed by the media, you would not think that. On media coverage and politicians’ rhetoric alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that British soldiers are constantly coming under attack on their own soil and British Muslims are not.
Sure: the distorted amounts of media coverage may partly be because of the ghastliness of Rigby’s murder – the sick method involving a meat cleaver in broad daylight on a busy high street. Also, perhaps, the role of the heroic passer-by. I find it difficult to accept the obsessive focus on Islamist extremism in the UK, though, when similarly if not more threatening to individual lives is the racially-motivated violence of the EDL. The disparity between the amount of coverage of the Rigby and Saleem murders might just be an anomaly; but the similarly endless coverage of the Boston Marathon attack, where 3 lives were lost, compared to the lacking coverage of bombings and terrorist attacks in the Middle East which have killed thousands more suggest that it is a far from an isolated example. The dubious balance between the amount of coverage of attacks on Israel by Hamas and those by the Israeli military, which kill considerably more civilians each year, echoes this. I digress slightly.
Interesting point but the right to protest is a fundamental right in our society
— Sue Mountstevens (@SuMountstevens) May 25, 2013
The pathetic response of the Police & Crime Commissioner for Avon & Somerset to worried Bristolians hearing reports of Somali women being attacked by the EDL that ‘the fundamental right to protest needs protecting' epitomises the failure of UK authorities to show that they are as just as focused on addressing far-right extremism as they claim Muslim leaders should be Islamist extremism.
Few deny that the right to peaceful protest must be protected. There is a difference, nonetheless, between ‘protest’ and inciting violence, which the EDL are clearly doing in addition to carrying it out themselves. I don’t feel passionate about ‘protecting free speech’ if that speech is clearly inciting racial hatred and violence. I make no apologies when I say I oppose inviting the EDL and BNP onto the BBC (just as I’m against Newsnight giving a platform to Anjem Choudary). I understand the argument that exposing them to more scrutiny leads to people seeing through their arguments. That does not change the fact that racially-motivated attacks in the UK doubled after Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. That is not a price worth paying.Until the police show Muslim leaders that they are on their side, I imagine it must be difficult for them to keep hearing that they ‘must do more to keep people away from this extremism' without hearing simultaneously that the police and UK political establishment will do more to ensure that Muslims are protected from the disproportionate amount of violent crime they are currently subject to. Similarly, until they treat the EDL as the inciters of hatred and perpetrators of violence that they often are, not merely as ‘protesters’.