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Friday, May 24, 2013

Woolwich Attack: have we learned anything?

A couple of days before the horrific Woolwich events, I was checking the Quilliam Foundation website - a site that has proved to be a reliable barometer of trends in  a government-sponsored industry that claims to have the answer to  islamic radicalism. The 'in the media' section of the website featured on the entry page was dominated by a striking headline on Boston: Boston, the latest 'Triumph' of a Global Jihad Brand. Less than 48 hours later, the terrible news of the Woolwich attack on the unfortunate British soldier reached me  My first reaction was one of horror, and I think I was not alone in feeling and thinking in this way. How can something like this happen in the middle of a busy neighbourhood in the capital of the country? Especially after Boston, is this 'solitary' type of violence going to become the pattern of 'terrorism'? And, upon reflection, could one speak of a terrorist crime in this instance? In some ways, the effect of the actions of the two perpetrators bears all the hallmarks of classical definitions of terrorism and other acts of political violence. It aims to reach a wide audience and shock them. The almost casual interview-like speech of Michael Adebolajo, one of the perpetrators, in front of the phone video of a bystander could be construed as an attempt to invest the act with a political motive and to share this with the wider public. His willingness to be filmed, his readiness to address onlookers and, I am sure he recognized, a much broader audience may betray a belief, or an effort to believe that such brutality was justified and, more importantly, purposeful. 
On the other hand, it was not: the predominant belief that this was not an attack that enjoyed the support of a broader network, indicates that although it bore the marks of and had the effect of terrorism, it, nevertheless, was an 'isolated' act, planned and executed, not by an organized group, not the product of a more generalized conspiracy. Like the Boston bombing, it was not the product of organized 'Global Jihad'. It was a, more or less, exceptional and extraordinary event; it did not involve attending bomb-making tutorials on the web - the ones that most tv studio pundits tediously complain about, it was not the product of visiting Pakistani training camps and mastering the art of terror campaigns. It is chilling to admit that despite its exceptional character, this may be a sign of things to come. I will here, reluctantly and temporarily, agree with the Quilliam Foundation in one aspect of their autopsy of the Boston bombing; such acts, despite their solitary character have found legitimacy in the idiom of 'Global Jihad' - the 'Global Jihad' brand as they aptly call it. Although radical organizations may not attract many members and may not even command the support of large numbers of Europe's Muslims, the discourse of violent Jihad has entered the public domain and the imagery associated with it is hard to eradicate.
This does not, of course mean that Europe's Muslims are likely to be lured by this discourse and start to commit atrocities on a daily basis. In a study we conducted with Roza Tsagarousianou on Muslims in Europe, that tried to get a sense of the complex processes of building communities, solidarities, and of developing repertoires of social action and discourses of what it means to be Muslim in Europe today, we found that the number of people condoning violence as a solution to various challenges Muslims in Europe (and elsewhere) confront is relatively small. Having said that, we have certainly encountered, and are still encountering, individuals who are inspired by jihadi videos and the violence that these glorify or would rejoice hearing the news from Woolwich. But, more importantly, we have found that many more, may not condone, but can find some justification of the use of violence (especially when this relates to places such as Palestine or Chechnya). What we have also noticed (and we are sure this is not news to anybody) is that Muslims in Europe are very sensitive to the plight of Muslims elsewhere and, more importantly, many tend to link perceived injustices in their own countries to what happens in far away places in the Middle East and beyond. It is this construction of broad injustice frames through which Muslims in Europe see their position in the societies they live in and globally that has the potential of providing a language that renders acts of violence plausible, acceptable and, in some quarters, desirable.
Sadly, the current discourse of European governments and the various government-sponsored initiatives to quell extremism overlook this reality. They do not contemplate that the success of what they call Global-Jihad brand depends on the fact that this feeds of a widespread sense of injustice among Europe's Muslims. It is true, that when we talk about injustice we effectively deal with perceptions but the fact is that Muslims in Britain and in other parts of Europe have a lot of raw material to sustain such  perceptions. Research conducted in France and Sweden indicates that access to jobs and housing can be hampered through the sheer suspicion that applicants are Muslim, everyday life becomes a test of endurance as media onslaughts and organizations such as the English Defense League and its other European affiliates do their best to remind Muslims that they 'do not belong', that they have to continually be tested and prove their allegiance and patriotism. The racist reactions to the Woolwich murder starkly remind Europe's Muslims that their daily lives are subject to some sort of probation, that it just takes one incident to rekindle prejudice, fear and hatred. And looking further afield, Western involvement in the Middle East  and beyond (or its complacency in the cases of Chechnya or Palestine for example) does not even start to address the lingering suspicions that Muslims may have about Western intentions or Western disregard for Muslim lives in the eyes of many of the people we talk with everyday.
Perhaps, instead of targeting the Muslim communities, asking Muslims to come forward with information on people of 'dubious credentials' within their own neighborhoods, mosques and organizations, instead of preaching to them that they are the bearers of some original sin that makes them perpetually suspect, one needs to look at how trust can be built on both sides of this false chasm that we have constructed in the midst of our societies. It is time we all owned up to our responsibilities.

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