In the aftermath of a suspected Islamist extremist attack in Westminster, it is now conventional for Muslims to have to stand up in front of the media to roundly condemn the actions. Even though it will never be clear (and with all suspects now released by the police) whether Khalid Masood acted in the name of Islam or was just a violent individual who happened to have converted to Islam, Muslims are prevailed upon to publicly distance themselves from him and his actions. Yet when the Far Right nationalist Thomas Mair murdered the MP Jo Cox in 2016, I do not have to stand up and say ‘As a white British person, I absolutely stand against such behaviour’. I can simply condemn, as a human being. While Anders Breivik wanted to preserve a Christian Europe, Christians did not feel they had to say ‘As a Christian I am horrified by this and want to stress this is not true Christianity’.
Guilt by association?
But does the very act of identifying oneself in openers such as ‘As a Muslim, I condemn…’ insidiously act to bracket all Muslims even more closely with political Islam? Is it seen as an example of Gertrude’s response to Hamlet, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’?’ The aim of such parading of ‘moderate’ Muslims is understandable, i.e. that it should act as a brake on the Islamophobia that becomes heightened when Islamist terrorism happens. Yet I am not sure it achieves such aims. If I said ‘We Brexit campaigners condemn Thomas Mair’, there is a hint of some sort of potential alliance, however small. People would wonder what the connection was.
There is enough guilt by association occurring anyway. As soon as there is an extremist or terrorist incident related to Islamism, the media swiftly rush to pinpoint backgrounds and geographies. With Khalid Masood having once lived in Birmingham, those parts of the city he might have touched upon are viewed with renewed fingers of suspicion. Cities such as Birmingham are unfairly labeled as “hotbeds” and often residents suffer not only stigmatisation but also increased fear of retaliation from far right extremist groups. The community becomes blamed for nurturing him and asked to provide some insight about why this could have occurred.
Equal (media) scrutiny of the far right?
Politically violent women are an unsettling concept because they disrupt our gendered understanding of the world by challenging perceptions of the peaceful. When presented with women who reject our way of life we see attempts to explain away their behaviour (and thus the discomfort it creates) through the circulation of almost Hollywood-style character tropes. The ‘Jihadi Bride’ is the most viciously pedelled of these, whilst the hyper-sexualisation of the women interviewed by Vice is another common and prevailing example. Like these narratives, the intellectual mockery of women like Shamima Begum is designed to leave us comforted – these women are not a threat because they don’t have the intellect to be. This approach is not clever. The decisions of these women were made in the midst of serious, complex and moving factors that we won’t understand unless we enquire.
What can we do?
As an atheist, I am not going to apologise for the mass killings by Stalin or Mao. Muslims should not have to say sorry for their faith as if its appropriation explained everything. Instead, the media and educational programmes on preventing violent extremism should stress the enormous complexity of backgrounds and journeys into and out of violence, and not join in the rush to find singular scapegoats.
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