Photo from my own collection
“We are not afraid.” That was the simple note written on one of many floral tributes on London’s Westminster Bridge after last week’s terror attack there. I read this defiant message while walking along the infamous Bridge where, just a few days earlier, 52-year-old Kent-born terrorist Khalid Masood killed four innocent people and injured dozens. The defiance of Londoners and their determination to get on with their lives, despite this tragic event and the ongoing terror threat, was palpable everywhere around the city.
Beyond defiance, however, there were mixed responses to the heinous crime. Some rushed to exploit the attack by denigrating the British Muslim community; others promptly responded by defending Muslims, dissociating themselves from terrorism. Newspapers highlighted how Muslim women gathered on Westminster Bridge in a show of solidarity with the victims of last week’s terror attack. Others fueled public debate by comparing attacks by radical Islamist groups to the IRA bombings or by blaming Western foreign policies in the Middle East for the rise of radical groups.
These confused, almost competing responses are active whenever there is a terror attack in a Western city. Each echo chamber has an almost identical response after every terror attack, which reflects its own political attitudes. As Polly Toynbee has written: “All of us responded in our tribes.”
Amidst those chaotic echo chambers, attempts are made, consciously or subconsciously, to cast an air of confusion on the phenomenon of radical Islamism, mainly to serve often-competing political agendas. But the rhetoric fuelling this confusion is simply a betrayal of the victims of such violence. Islamist radicalism is not that difficult to understand, and the first step in understanding it should be by dispelling a few of the myths circulated after each terror attack. Here are some:
Myth one: It is Islamic terror
British Prime Minister Theresa May was more accurate than many in her assessment. “It is wrong to describe this as ‘Islamic’ terrorism. It is ‘Islamist’ terrorism; it is a perversion of a great faith.” May pointed out, albeit subtly, to the ideological root of violent Islamism, emphasizing that it is an ideology, not a faith. In simpler terms, it is a political ideology that appeals to a tiny minority of followers of the Muslim faith who believe Islam is not just a religion, but also a system of governance that should be dictated by Islamic laws. Many argue that Islam’s holy book, the Quran, backs this ideology. That is simply a farce. Muslim scholars have disagreed for centuries about interpretations of Islamic texts. What we have witnessed recently are attempts by certain groups and states to assert their own vision of Islam, using financial and cultural influences to lure Muslim communities in both the West and in the Muslim world.
Myth two: It has nothing to do with Muslims
While it is important to understand the difference between Islam as a faith and Islamism as an ideology, it is crucial to acknowledge the complexity of radicalism and how it grows and recruits a few Muslims.
A recent report in The New York Times sheds more light on the complex link between radicalism and Muslim communities. It explains how Khalid Masood had a connection to Birmingham, Britain’s second-biggest city, which has produced a disproportionate number of convicted Islamist militants, including some linked to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and to last year’s bombings in Brussels. Anjem Choudary, a founder of Al Muhajiroun, which has been classified as a terror organization, blurred the boundary between religion and violent extremism for many years. His entourage used to arrive in big vans on Birmingham’s Coventry Road, an area associated with conservative Islam, preaching and distributing leaflets. Choudary is now in prison after being convicted last year of encouraging support for Islamic State, but his legacy continues.
The problem is, there are many shades of Choudary within Britain’s Muslim communities, and arguably in other Western countries. Unlike Choudary, some Islamists adopt a softer tune, spreading a similar message of hate and radicalization, but are hard to spot among ordinary Muslims. It is not bigoted or anti-Islam to acknowledge that simple fact, and to work harder to expose people like Choudary who try to exploit Muslims to fulfill their poisonous agendas. In fact, the best way to confront bigotry and racism is to address these issues and openly discuss the challenges facing Muslims in Britain.
Myth three: Non-violent Islamism is not part of the problem
Despite acknowledging the difference between Islam and Islamism, the British PM, its government, and the wider political elite in Britain are still refraining from discussing Islamism as an ideology. Even in its non-violent form, Islamism is problematic for two reasons: First, is its ghettoizing nature: For Islamists, religion should be the top identity of any Muslim; and this identity must be protected. Islamists are naturally isolationists. They adopt a veneer of openness and use it as a campaign tool to attract sympathizers among human rights advocates and policy makers. They see others as a threat to their way of life and discourage their followers from integrating properly within their wider communities. Second, Islamists encourage perpetual victimhood by pooling endless historic grievances and mixing them with the current unfortunate realities in many Muslim countries. The end result is a poisonous environment that breeds emotionalism and anger. In fact, the combined ingredients of social dissociation and emotionalism provide a perfect recipe for radicalism to flourish. It engenders a deep reluctance to discuss Islamism for fear of offending Muslims, which is not just wrong; it is dangerous too!
Myth four: Essentializing Islam
As I have written before, the cynical glee with which the Western media publicly flaunts — and generalizes — the practice of Islamic customs has become a disturbing pattern.
Symbols like the Hijab (disputed by many liberal Muslims) have become a favorite trendy logo whenever Islam is mentioned. Using the hijab recently as a logo during the Women’s March against Trump is just one example. Western media tend to juggle Islam and Islamism depending on the story. Here is a headline from The Independent: “Thousands of Muslims from across the world converged on the UK for a convention where they rejected extremism and violence of terror groups such as Isis.” What the headline does not reveal, however, is that this congregation belongs to the Ahmadiyya Islamic movement, a sect of Islam that most political Islamists regard as heretical. Again, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth joined the commemoration of the Westminster attack, but again, media outlets branded them as Muslims without explaining the distinction between them and Islamism.
It is hard to walk along Westminster Bridge and not to agree with William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem “upon Westminster Bridge.” The messages of defiance and solidarity with the victims of terror indeed make the bridge, more than ever, ‘a sight so touching in its majesty.’ But outside the splendor of the scene, there is a vulnerable society rife with myths, denial, tribalism and exploitations. Terrorism is a symptom of deeper illnesses we should all confront. We cannot afford the cowardice of the elite, and exploitation by ideology.