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Islamic terrorism is bubbling up through the cracks of European society and the world as a whole, but our strategies of addressing seem to have failed. Terror shows little sign of abating. There is a vast chasm between those researching the history, trajectory and prevention of jihadist terrorism and the way the public and media discuss it.
In short: the reason we are not succeeding is because we are not discussing the problem.
Little over two years ago, shaken by the merciless slaughter of 12 cartoonists in January 2015, we poured into our streets and city squares to proclaim our civic solidarity and rejection of terror. A month later two more were killed in Denmark. Brave passengers stopped a would-be terrorist, wielding a Kalashnikov, in August of 2015, but this brief respite was later met with the death of 130 at the Bataclan and elsewhere across Paris in November. A month later, 14 were shot dead in San Bernadino. In March 2016, 32 were shot and killed in Brussels. In June, 50 were gunned down in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In July, 77 were mowed down in Nice as they celebrated Bastille Day. An 85-year-old priest had his throat slit to exclamations of ‘Allahu Akbar’ on the altar of his 16th century Norman church. October and November of 2016 saw further so-called lone wolf strikes in Hamburg and Ohio. In December, a further 12 were mowed down at a Christmas market in Berlin. Following a failed attempt on the Louvre in February of this year, a spree at Westminster took the lives of 5 more. This April, a dozen were murdered at the St Petersburg underground, five more run down on the streets of Stockholm, and another gendarme slain in Paris. Now, we’ve added Manchester to the bottom of a list that has no foreseeable end.
Messages of love, hope and solidarity have always poured out after merciless slaughters such as that which took place at Manchester Arena. It is morbid to imagine that we could ever become numb to grief and police sirens. Many, including myself, were shaken by the incomprehensible depravity that drives a man to detonate himself as a human nail bomb amongst children enjoying a concert. If, however, we think that any of our symbolic gestures will address the problem, then we are sorely mistaken. Calm and considered discussion is critical to our resilience as a society, but without the proper action and civic resistance to extremism, our efforts to quash the spectre of jihadist terror haunting Europe are doomed to fail.
The frequency of these occurrences has become such that the reactions that follow have become predictable themselves. Yet how we react is critical in addressing this problem. The initial reaction of many well-intentioned individuals is to hold out, postpone judgement, and maintain some semblance of virtue by pretending to not expect the all too obvious. It would, of course, be disastrous for the public if every alarming incident was assumed terroristic and allowed to feed hysteria. Journalists do have responsibilities to prevent this, after all. Additionally, it is entirely understandable that many Britons from Muslim communities, anticipating a backlash in bigotry, hold out hope that the assailant is not a self-proclaimed foot soldier of Islam.
More concerning than either of these, however, is the increasing cult of virtue that has developed amongst ‘progressives’ in the western world who pretend that we are not living under the threat of a radical ideology at all and who claim that to suggest otherwise is an admission of bigotry, racism or Islamophobia. This has been described as the ‘Voldemort effect,’ a phenomenon in which fear of describing and discussing the threat supersedes fear of the thing itself. It might better be described as the ‘narrative narrative’, wherein we must at all costs avoid ‘confirming the narrative’ of the Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots.
Underpinning this seemingly well-intentioned line of thought is a very troubling notion: that any discussion of a relationship between adherents of Islam and the political ideology of Islamists would drive legions of otherwise good people into the arms of genocidal theocrats who throw gays from rooftops, behead journalists and fetishise martyrdom. It is this cognitive dissonance amongst self-proclaimed progressives that infantilises Muslims as incapable of having a discussion of ideas without abandoning their entire moral compass. It is the bigotry of low expectations.
When reasonable people cannot both recognise the historical and political illiteracy of making sweeping statements about IS and Islam, whilst also recognising that jihadists are not experiencing false-consciousness when they fight under the black flag of the Prophet bearing the ‘shahada’ (declaration of faith) and proclaim their battle cry ‘God is great’, then we preclude all rational dialogue. Pronouncing ‘takfir’ on jihadist terrorists, declaring them non-Muslim, is not only theologically problematic but an abdication of engagement with their crude interpretations.
The tyranny of silence created by current discourse on terrorism leaves the power with two extremes; those in the Muslim community and on the left who say Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, and those on the right who say that it has everything to do with Islam. Not only does this gridlock produce immense frustration, it prevents any progress in getting at the core precepts of those who justify a nihilistic and apocalyptic struggle in which cartoonists, Muslims, atheists, tourists and children enjoying a concert are the principal and justified target of jihad.
We cannot begin to resolve the threat of Islamism or shore up our civil resistance until we are all able to start having a conversation and learning to understand what drives those self-proclaimed foot soldiers of the Islamic State abroad and those in our midst. In the 20th century, democratic societies grappled in a battle of ideas against communist tyranny. Today we grapple with an ideology that does not discriminate between rich and poor, or east and west. Islamism’s founding texts are not Marx’s Communist Manifesto but Sayyed Qutb’s Milestones; the utopia of the jihadist is not the communist state but the caliphate and the rewards of martyrdom. Those of us who have not engaged in the civic battle of ideas must do so beyond righteously tweeting #lovewins and #terrorismhasnoreligion. We must collectively understand and root out the malignant perversion festering in our families, friends and communities. For the loved ones of those 22 persons who will not be coming home, there is little we can offer but our collective sorrow and support. Honesty, engagement and action in the future, however, no matter how insignificant, could be the difference between successful prevention and another legion of weeping relatives and funeral caskets.