Our news organisations, our media and our police tend to call most of the recent terrorists Islamist terrorists. Just how much does this contribute to the undeniable levels of anti-muslim sentiment in this country, which we often label Islamophobia?
Sadly, I can’t directly answer that question in a quantifiable fashion. I’m not sure that anyone really can because I’m sure if you challenge a lot of people about it, they would say they weren’t prejudiced, but research shows us, and if we’re honest a bit of soul-searching shows us too, those prejudices are still there. If you see someone 2 metres tall, with bulging muscles, piercings and tattoos near a university campus do you assume they are there to a) mug a student or b) ask for directions to an interview for a post-doctoral research fellowship? You might be more likely to be right if you said a) but I’ve met several people where b) is the right answer - it’s prejudice that makes us assume a. That one is easy to point out, others are harder to catch and more invidious.
Back to that use of the phrase Islamist Terrorist. If we go back to look at organisations like the IRA and the UVF, we’re still looking at fundamentally terrorist groups with largely religiously-based membership. I appreciate supporters of either organisation might not consider them terrorist organisations but they both carried out shootings and bombings and they both targeted civilians, and particularly in the case of the UVF are regarded as acting out of religious hatred. The IRA certainly attacked civilians but tended to target the security apparatus more often.
Attacks from these groups (and other such groups, there were others, those are just the largest ones I can most clearly remember and expect other people not directly tied to The Troubles to remember too) we not, at least not that I remember, referred to as Catholic terrorists or Protestant terrorists despite the fact the loyalists seem to target people based on religious hatred according to external assessments. The US State Department briefing on loyalist paramilitary organisations says so, for example.
Within Northern Ireland there is plenty of animus, perhaps even hatred, remaining between the communities, despite the peace process and the Stormont Assembly. But there are glimmers of hope for on-going peace as well.
Outside Northern Ireland, in Great Britain, there is in some sectors a level of animus for some or all of the various paramilitary organisations but, by and large this in the groups who have been affected by the various organisations. Part of me feels sympathetic - if I’d been blown up by an IRA bomb, had friends of mine killed by one, would I be relaxed about seeing senior members of the IRA forgiven and part of the assembly? I would like to think yes, not from any sense of Christian duty, but simply because I think the chance for people to grow up without being blown up in future is that important that I need to get over what happened to me. But I’m not in that situation, so I don’t know for sure. However, no one I’ve heard, even the most bitter of them, outside of Northern Ireland, blames a particular religious group - they blame a particular political or paramilitary group.
And that is why I have real problems with calling these recent attackers Islamist terrorists. This label doesn’t identify these people as separate to the bulk of other followers of Islam in the way that saying “IRA terrorists” or “UVF terrorists” separated them from Catholics and Protestants or from Christians did. It’s easy for me to say “I’m smart, I know the sad, deluded idiots that kill others believing they’re doing it in Allah’s name don’t represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims,” and I’m sure most of the small number of people that read my blog will say the same. However, the truth is we all have some prejudices and we can be influenced by what we see, hear and read as well. I’m pretty sure I don’t have this particular prejudice but I’ll admit to being influenced to write it when I heard a vox pop somewhere. Why was no one in any doubt that the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market was a terrorist attack but many questioned if the attack in Finsbury Park should be treated as a terrorist incident and if the attacker was mentally ill instead? All of the actions were the same except this time it was a white guy targeting muslims instead of a muslim targeting everyone else. It seems to me there’s only one explanation and that’s prejudice.
While I wonder what makes someone driving a van into a crowd of people a terrorist attack, for all its cock-ups, I’m pleased the Met called them both terror attacks so quickly and treated them both the same.
I don’t know what name we should use in place of Islamist terrorist but I really think we should use a name that separates them from the rest of the Muslim community and reduce the levels of prejudice in this country, not increase it. Perhaps we should have Da’esh-inspired Terrorist or something like that rather than “Islamist”.
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