It just seems like déjà vu. Another terror attack in a western city and another nail in the coffin of Muslim community relations! Weeks after the Boston bomb attack, the gruesome Woolwich (South London) murder of a British soldier, by people of Muslim faith, has once again put a spotlight on ‘radical and political Islam’. Almost on cue most policy makers have been quick to rush and condemn the Woolwich incident as an inherent problem with the Muslim community in general. Quick to follow up on that have been various members of the public who have protested outside mosques or even worse, committed acts of vandalism or even violence against members of the public.
There have of course been those people who have acted with self restraint and gone out of their way to differentiate between normal Muslims, the religion of Islam and the acts of some nut cases.
I choose my words carefully. The acts in Woolwich are not the acts conducted by anyone sane. The barbarity of the act is that of a psychopath with mental instabilities like what we see on shows like Criminal Minds or NCIS. Despite religion being used to justify such acts, no religion can condone such wanton acts of violence and murder. However this doesn’t stop people using religion to justify violence. History is replete with incidents of people misusing religion for evil. However, this shouldn’t mean that the religion and the majority of its followers should be painted with the same brush. This to me is the greatest threat arising from the Woolwich incident.
As a deeply spiritual, practicing, politically active Muslim, what the perpetrators in Woolwich (or even Boston) did doesn’t represent me or the religion I truly love and practice. Whilst there may be a minority who can find justification in scripture and history for these types of actions, this doesn’t resonate with anything that I have found in the religion. I do, though, draw a line in having to explain – or worse, apologize for – these events after they have taken place as if they have been done in my name. I feel that we should have reached a level of maturity in terms of distinguishing between the bad apples and the whole bunch. The narrative has to be developed towards tackling some of the root causes that push people towards a life of extremism (be it the isolation or the deprivation that they face) and countering a narrative that has been twisted to meet the needs of certain individuals. The latter is about education and tackling gross ignorance about faith and faith teachings.
It is in effect about recapturing the spotlight from the fringes and bringing it into the center. In doing this, for those of us involved in community and interfaith work, we have to hold the mirror to ourselves and scrutinize whether there is a gap in our work. I ask this question, because despite all the great efforts done to build community relations, we always seem to go a step back once an incident like Woolwich (or even Boston) happens. After 9/11 there was a disastrous knee jerk reaction against the Muslim (and Sikh) community which forever damaged relations and perceptions. The quick realization was that this was the wrong reacton. Hence there have been some great efforts and initiatives in order to realise community relations and build stronger interfaith understanding.
Yet the experiences of the last month has been that though these efforts are good, they are not good enough and have not penetrated the public space. There may be people who disagree with me on this. The litmus test for me though is when people see beyond the headlines to avoid generalizing faith and race based on the actions of a few. After all if football fans are killed in acts of violence by members of rival teams, we do not really condemn the sport of football or say that this is a bad ideology.
There will always be a few bad apples, but like those who go on killing sprees in the name of some ideology or belief, we isolate the lone oppressor from the majority thinking. Yet it seems to be slightly different when it comes to Muslims. Somehow when an act of violence is perpetrated by a lone Muslim, it seems the whole of Islam is condemned.
So where do we go from here? We need a new paradigm that brings a more nuanced discussion into the public sphere. For example, A few weeks before Lee Rigby was brutally murdered in what has been described an act of terror, an elderly man of Pakistani origin on his way home from attending early morning prayers in the mosque was stabbed brutally and left to die in the streets in another major city in the UK. The police called this a hate crime. This subtle difference in rhetoric and classification sends mixed messages to communities feeding on their insecurities of identity and faith. It leaves open the door for confusion as to where people belong and ultimately leaves open the door for the confusion. Hence there is a sense of responsibility from the point of view of policy makers to ensure that messaging is consistent and doesn’t feed into existing preconceptions and fears. There is also a responsibility for engagement with the communities and between communities. This means a wider engagement than is currently possible. We can’t allow the terrorism entrepreneurs to dictate the agenda in terms of who constitutes a ‘good’ Muslim or not. A profit motive that determines community engagement will not be objective. In addition, the brick wall and the glass ceiling that many young people (especially those from migrant communities) face in terms of social mobility has to be brought down.
There is a responsibility from the Muslim community, especially community leaders who act as gate keepers to understand and acknowledge a problem. The problem of a disconnect between older and younger generations and the need to channel frustrations, fears and insecurities in positive manners. This problem is not something that is dictated from outside but something that is internally realized. There is a need to answer some of the deep theological questions that many young people have in order for them to truly understand the faith. The era of apology and defensive tactics has to be something of the past.
There is a responsibility for the wider community, helped by interfaith groups and institutions like the media, to ensure that the space for proper dialogue and engagement is provided. There need to be buffers created that will be useful when events like Woolwich and Boston happen, so that there is damage control.
All in all we need to rethink very seriously our community engagement and relations, looking at pragmatic and practical ways of moving forward, otherwise we are doomed to be in the cyclical phase of defensiveness.