Woolwich murder: With universal condemnation comes the need for wise action

The former leader of the Muslim Council of Britain calls for a wise, evidence-based and inclusive strategy to tackle the causes of Islamic terrorism

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The horrendous murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, a soldier of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, has put Britain’s near-three million Muslims in the dock again.

That the murder happened in broad daylight in a peaceful suburban road in Woolwich, south East London, was shocking enough. That the murderers wanted it captured on camera (in a video released on international media) was worse. These men were sick, cowardly and their actions beyond disgraceful. We took some small comfort from the bravery of a mum who confronted the attackers and risked all by asking them to hand over their weapons.

Unfortunately, since Wednesday last week there was a massive spike in Islamophobic abuse. According to the anti-Muslim hate crime project, Tell MAMA, 83 new incidents of threats or violence reported by Muslims to its helpline in the first 24 hours after the murder; in total more than 170 incidents and 9 mosque attacks have been reported since Wednesday.

Ever since the 9/11 atrocities Muslims and their religion are seen through the prism of suspicion, but the Prime Minister’s statesman-like comment: “There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act,” gave a clear message to the British public not to point fingers to any one community or religion. London Mayor Boris Johnson spoke in the same language and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg held a meeting with community leaders to find better ways of working together.

British Muslims, haunted by the spectre of the 2005 7/7 London bombings, unequivocally condemned the gruesome murder. Hundreds of prominent imams came up with an unambiguous public condemnation and Britain’s largest Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, issued a statement describing the killing as "a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and we condemn this unreservedly".

What motivated the killers to carry out this shocking act? Were they deranged, online fantasists, hyper-radicalised, over-politicised; or were they inspired by the ‘evil ideology of ‘Islamism’, as some vocal Islamophobes want us to believe? This needs deeper research and proper remedy. It is now clear that they were within the MI5 radar and were known to be radicalised by now-banned Al-Muhajiroun group run by Anjem Choudary, and created by Omar Bakri Mohammed; one of the killers was even offered a job by MI5! Worries will be expressed about MI5’s role in dealing with Muslim extremists and also how these extremists slipped through their net.

The Government is now setting up a taskforce to ‘look again’ at its strategy for dealing with extremism and radicalisation in the wake of this murder. In doing so, we hope wisdom prevails and a balancing act between freedom of expression and our security is preserved. We need evidence-based strategies to ensure such violence does not occur again. We must be vigilant to ensure we do not inadvertently fall into the trap of violent extremists, making our society less free, divided and suspicious of each other.

As citizens, we need tough conversation within our communities – and beyond – about the causes of extremism and the role of religious and educational institutions, as well as prisons, online and social media. Our actions thereon have to be knowledge-based and nuanced and with better understanding of our diverse cultural or religious expressions. A muddled, lazy and pre-conceived discussion about what constitutes ‘extremism’ versus, say, social conservatism, political disagreement or peaceful protests, will not assist in our end goal of preventing future attacks. The language, terminology and jargon have to be well-defined so that extremists from any quarter do not feel inflated with their criminal acts and ordinary people are not misinformed.

For our common good we need to be seen as treating all communities equally. Sadly in recent times we have seen terrorism carried out by a Muslim to be ‘Islamicised’, bringing distress and fear to a whole community, whereas if done by a non-Muslim it is seen as an individual aberration. This goes against the teaching of all Abrahamic faiths, which say: ‘No soul should bear the burden for another’. It is also contrary to basic justice. Why should all Muslims as a block pay for the actions of a few bad apples?

A creative space is needed for us to discuss all the serious issues that our young people, particularly young Muslims, face. Treating a whole community with suspicion, and its young people only through the prism of security, may satisfy a small section of politicians and pundits but is an unrealistic route to solve problems. We need an ‘out-of-box’ imaginative and bold national and local leadership, including from within the Muslim community. We also need non-judgmental contributions from the mainstream political and media class, and from academic and policy-making institutions. There is no shortcut to achieving our goal of protecting life and keeping ourselves safe.

It is vital to forge a genuine partnership with those in mosques and other organisations who have already shown an extraordinary unity and zeal to fight the menace of extremism. In order to do this we need to look into the effectiveness of the current Prevent policy. Prevent under the Labour government failed because it conflated security with community cohesion. The Coalition’s Prevent agenda was based on the presumption of a ‘conveyor belt theory’, assuming that individuals start off angry and disaffected, then become more religious and politicised. Finally they turn to terror. There is hardly any evidence to prove this theory. Its ineffectiveness lies with the fact that mainstream Muslim groups were seen as ‘non-violent extremists’ by people in power. There was no buy-in from the Muslim community. Far more important, so many academics now believe, is the power of ‘self-radicalisation’ (particularly via the Internet and common to most ‘lone wolf’ scenarios).

Secondly, it is important for all of us to be careful with language, terminology and rhetoric in describing various Muslim groups and individual actions. Insensitive use of some core Islamic words taken from Arabic, such as ‘Jihadists’ and ‘Islamists’, displays huge ignorance of Muslim culture and vocabulary. Most Muslims do feel really hurt when they see indiscriminate and distorted use of a venerable word ‘Jihad’ (that means ‘utmost effort’). In the same vein, although some try to differentiate between the words Islam (‘willful submission to God’) and Islamism, many Muslims see this as an extension of a Cold War vocabulary, badly used in place of Communism; Islamism can mean different things to different people.

Thirdly, the role of media cannot be underestimated in aggravating this situation. Our fourth estate has often miserably failed when it comes to Muslims and Islam. Even our national pride, the BBC, often proves insensitive in covering Muslim issues. The recent example is their decision to give airtime to the Muslim community’s most hated person, Anjem Choudary, in its flagship Newsnight programme, angering many.

In a world torn by division, sanity and wisdom is needed. Three years ago this month, President Obama declared the ‘War on Terror’ was over. It is a poignant reminder that we find better ways of dealing with insecurity and terror in our midst.

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