A little over two years ago, the day before my father’s 80th birthday and the day he was due to fly home for a family celebration, my brother died unexpectedly in Bali, Indonesia.
I write this to underline that I empathise with the families of Mia Ayliffe-Chung and Tom Jackson, both killed in an Australian hostel last week. When Mia’s mother Rosie Ayliffe writes, as she did here in The Independent, that her daughter’s “body is on a slab somewhere in a cold dark place”, I know what she is saying. My last image of my brother is his lifeless body on a morgue table in Bali before we took him for cremation.
My brother was not killed and his death was not linked to Islam, the main religion of Indonesia but a minority religion on the Indonesian island of Bali. My family therefore did not have to go through the additional trauma of incessant speculation about a link with terrorism.
I respect and agree with Rosie Ayliffe when she writes the killer “is not an Islamic fundamentalist, he has never set foot in a mosque.” But this won’t stop those who seek to link this tragic death with another cause. This tendency to jump to terrorism as a foregone conclusion plays right into the hands of Isis.
Isis understands well the propaganda machine that is social media. It has used the medium effectively to inspire people to join its cause. Calling people terrorists who may not be, latching on to reports that a killer shouted, “Allahu akbar!” before stabbing two young tourists, or banning the Australian-invented burkini from French beaches are all gifts that Isis is more than happy to receive.
While there is no doubt that some recent killings, such as the coordinated attacks in Paris last November, were conducted by organised fanatics who follow a twisted and flawed interpretation of Islam, other isolated loners have been given an elevated status they do not warrant.
Not all those who claim that they kill in the name of God are terrorists; some are mentally unstable, or taking advantage of a media landscape in order to gain themselves notoriety. Crying “terrorist”, before even Isis has the chance to, is a grave error.
By rapidly naming certain loners as Islamic terrorists and incorrectly giving them status, the media ends up doing Isis’ propaganda work for them.
For example, were the Orlando murderer, the Sydney siege murderer, or the Nice murderer terrorists? Like Mia and Tom’s killer, these three did not appear to be part of organised groups. We know none of the Nice, Sydney and Orlando killers had a deep religious history. All three rarely prayed in mosques. They drank, had sex out of marriage, failed to fast in Ramadan. None was a “devout Muslim”, according to anecdotal evidence from people who claimed to have known them.
But what did they have in common? All three men had broken relationships with their wives and partners. They were all estranged loners who didn’t “belong”. They all had a history of family violence. In the case of the Orlando killer, he had a long history of steroid use, which has been linked to aggression. Although claims were made during the attacks, no formal links with Isis have been found.
But if they weren’t terrorists, what were they?
In 1990s USA, we saw a sudden spike in what became known as “suicide by cop”. A group of deranged people decided to end their lives in a burst of publicity and misery, killing others in their wake and then forcing others to kill them.
In death, sick loners like these look for a sense of belonging. They look to die in publicity, being labelled a hero of a group. These people don’t kill because they are Muslim; they kill because they want to be on the front page. And they know if they yell “Allahu akbar”, they will get the publicity they crave.
Why give these people what they are looking for in death? Why give them what we want, and risk encouraging more fools like them to follow?
These men were killers, but they weren’t terrorists and do not deserve to be given the right to terrorise us. We should follow the French lead and no longer publish these murderer’s names. We shouldn’t falsely attribute to them a cause, as if they had a proper reason to do what they did.
Rosie Ayliffe wrote today about preparing for her 21-year-old daughter’s funeral: “After talking about the misrepresentation of Mia’s death in the media as an act of terrorism on the part of an Islamic fundamentalist, the minister delivering the service suggested we include a Koranic reading, and he will find something suitable with a friend who is an Islamic scholar.” If this brave woman can stand against prejudice and Islamophobia even now, then we can all manage to resist the easy narrative and pay attention to the more nuanced one.
When these butchers kill people, let the security services determine if they are terrorists. Everyone else should just call them for what they are: killers.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting Professor at Kings College London and a former UN and Red Cross official who served in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others. He has negotiated with warlords and terrorists. He can be followed on Twitter @Why_slow_down
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