From mosques to swastikas: Images of terrorism

In November 2016 the far-right terrorist Thomas Mair was sentenced to life in prison for the politically-motivated murder of MP Jo Cox, which happened earlier in the year. It’s telling that many news outlets featuring headlines about the verdict chose to place quote marks around the word ‘terrorist’. Other terms that media outlets used to describe Mair included ‘deranged white supremacist’, ‘far-right fanatic’, and ‘neo-Nazi’.

While all of these terms are true enough and suitably negative, they also suggest that the media remains reluctant to label Mair as what he is: a terrorist. Only one article in the Guardian not only included the word in the headline (without quotes) but also in the opening sentence.

This may seem like a trivial problem of semantics. Surely terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ are good enough to describe Mair in light of his actions. But there’s more to it than that.

Perceptions are at the heart of the matter. The point is fairly obvious and it’s been made many times; if this white man had been Muslim he’d have been instantly called a terrorist (without a quote mark in sight). By putting the word in quote marks or using terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’, the media paints Mair’s actions as unusual and an anomaly.

It does not imply any ongoing link between white men and terrorism. That one is reserved for brown men with beards – and has been that way for the best part of two decades. Perceptions in the public mind of terrorism and Muslims are writ large and obvious, full of double standards. Islam’s image has become synonymous with terrorism.

Much of that image has been built and reinforced by the constant drip feed of media narratives that draw oft-hysterical links between terrorism, extremism and Muslims. The resulting Islamophobia has formed a grim backdrop to everyday life for numerous Muslim communities. Repercussions have been immense and damaging, ranging from everyday discrimination to acts of outright violence.

There’s also the added challenge of counter-terrorism measures such as Prevent, which focus disproportionately on Muslims, creating an atmosphere where innocent citizens feel singled out and victimised. On top of this, the much-publicised crimes of Daesh (ISIS) have further inflamed the situation over the last two years. Resentment, fear and distrust of Muslims is at an all-time high.

In recent months however, the so-called Islamic State has taken a back seat to the rise of a new group: the so-called ‘alt-right’, otherwise known as far-right extremists. The resulting media furore surrounding the Brexit vote and Trump’s election has thrown the spotlight onto far-right extremism. The far-right has always been around – it makes up 1 in 3 cases referred to Prevent – but until now hasn’t received such high levels of media coverage.

There isn’t much that’s positive about such hateful trends. But against this backdrop, with Daesh fading into memory, perhaps the image of Islam will regain some ground. Society must realise that violent extremism and terrorism are not just related to Islamic groups. Hate and dissatisfaction comes in many flavours and there’s a much broader spectrum out there than mainstream media coverage would suggest. For example, before Al Qaeda, many people associated “terrorism” with the IRA; white Catholics.

It’s time for the image of Islam to start reflecting reality; and for people to realise that terrorism and Islam are not synonymous. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, perhaps the rise of far-right extremism could help bring this perception shift into fruition.

History repeats itself

Lately, terrorism has started feeling like old news. We no longer see new beheading videos emerge online, nor do we hear reports of attacks in major Western cities. For the time being, Daesh has retreated backstage. A new actor has emerged, one who peddles fear just as effectively as any terrorist group ever did. Of course that’s Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States.

Trump’s rise to power was a shock for many. Yet there were others who predicted it; and many more who actively welcomed it. He campaigned on a platform of popular fears, goading his audiences to ever-deeper depths of hysteria as they talked of Muslim registers, Mexican walls and abortion bans. Now this cartoonish individual is sitting smugly at the top of the tree; crowned the world’s most powerful leader. In many ways his campaign was smarter than his rival Clinton’s, who thought her political pedigree would carry her to victory. But she was too complacent. Trump’s campaign strategists tested the mood of the nation and anticipated it perfectly. His win was no accident.

Now the world faces an uncertain future. The Trump administration is staffed with individuals who promote division, fear and hatred. The most alarming among them is surely Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News, an ultra-conservative online platform that promotes white nationalism, stands against immigration, is pro-gun, anti-abortion and heavily against anything that appears politically correct. Bannon is now chief strategist in the Trump administration.

Out of curiosity I opened up Breitbart News while writing this post. I felt slight trepidation at what I might find there, yet sought to understand more about the ‘other side’s’ point of view. It struck me how lively the comment sections were. An interview with Bannon attracted particularly high engagement, with the number on the ‘Show New Comments’ button flying up from zero to 31 in the time it took to type this paragraph. A quick scan of the comments told me that Breitbart readers see politics as war, ‘love the aggressiveness of Mr Bannon’, believe they were treated like ‘helpless peasants’ during the Obama days, and consider Washington D.C. as ‘the enemy’. Many also think that Hillary Clinton should be jailed, for crimes that include ‘treason’ and ‘importing illegals and rapefugees’.

It was a baying mob, aggressive and full of hate. Many commenters believed that events like Sandy Hook and 9/11 were fake, ‘false flags’ as they call them. But what struck me the most was the Breitbart readership’s resentment and outright hatred of the American establishment. Breitbart was founded in 2007, just before Obama took office. I don’t know much about its trajectory since then, but today it has clearly become a force to be reckoned with. So much so that Breitbart readers and their far-right counterparts around the world have begun to challenge the very foundations of liberal democracy.

Much of our current debacle revolves around the simple marketing advice of ‘knowing your audience’. Good marketers know their audience’s pain points, speak their language, and try to solve their concerns. Much of Trump’s rhetoric directly speaks to the type of concerns expressed in the Breitbart comments sections. With an audience as actively engaged as this it’s no wonder he was able to gain power so easily. It’s a perfect alignment between message and recipient. Now there’s a risk that Breitbart-esque views will start to become normalised. Expressing views that espouse hatred and mistrust of Muslims, for example, may become more acceptable than before. Trump’s remarks about setting up a compulsory registry to keep track of Muslims are nothing short of persecution, akin to the Jews in pre-war Germany.

Trump, Breitbart and their ilk have opened up a Pandora’s box in the West. As similar far-right groups rise up across the Western world, harassment of minorities is likely to become more prevalent. That makes the narrative of groups like Daesh far more resonant. Although terrorism has become less prominent in the news for a while now, it’s inevitable that it will soon return in some form or another, likely angrier and more dangerous than before. History will surely repeat itself. Promoting better understanding between all groups in society is the only way to stand a chance of counteracting this situation. That includes those who consider themselves liberals seeking to understand what drives alt-right perspectives, however repugnant that prospect may seem.

Reclaiming a ‘crumbling’ world

 

“Their world is crumbling, ours is being built.”

– Florian Philpott, Front Nationale chief strategist

It’s the second day after the night before and at first everything felt like a bad dream. But it’s really true; the unthinkable has happened. Donald Trump, the man whose face launched a thousand memes, has become president of the United States. We thought it was impossible. Safe in our ivory towers of so-called common sense, insulated in our echo chambers, we were convinced that logic would prevail. We should have learned from Brexit that it would not.

Instead the educated liberal global elites just repeated the same mistake again. Ironically it’s the most popular cliche in the US Congress; that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This time, we played directly into its hands.

We can argue that those who voted for Trump, as with Brexit, did so based on hatred, misinformation and lies. This is true to an extent, as all politics is subject to a fair amount of propaganda, made even easier in our always-on media age. And there’s plenty of hatred to be found among the average group of Trump supporters. It’s frightening that things have sunk to this point. But the fact remains that large swathes of American (and British) society have legitimate concerns, which the election results have thrust to the forefront. Many of them are racist, bigoted and hateful, but it’s not constructive to ignore or belittle them; and it’s a natural reaction that the more we insult people’s views, the more vehemently they cling to them.

This is where part of the problem lies, in this self-selection into camps of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Labelling Trump supporters as ‘stupid’ and ‘deplorables’ may trip easily off the tongue; after all so many of them express the unpalatable. But if the educated liberal sections of society truly seek social cohesion, what about putting aside the insults and getting to know the driving forces behind these ‘repugnant’ views?

A note now on psychology and human nature. Why do people react so viscerally when their views are challenged? When humans develop an opinion on an issue it tends to become more than just academic. It becomes part of our worldview, which defines our identity. That influences who we are, what we believe and which group we belong to, making any challenge to our identity feel deeply personal. At a sub-conscious level the brain readies itself for an attack on our self-esteem.

That’s why it often feels so difficult to change people’s minds on an issue. Most attempts to persuade simply backfire, no matter how many facts are supplied to support the point. This makes the gulf between opposing views even wider and less possible to bridge. According to behavioural science, the more facts and evidence that are brought to the table, the more adversarial most people become, and the less likely reconciliation becomes. On both sides of the Atlantic this proved to be true. People rejected the experts and went the other way.

So how do we get people to listen to our viewpoints? Clue: it’s not by bombarding them with facts and then insulting them. According to behavioural scientists, the technique of affirmation may hold some hope. If you tell people something positive about themselves, they become more amenable to changing their views on an issue. In contrast, when challenged by evidence, the brain shows more activity in areas linked to emotion, conflict, moral judgments, and reward and pleasure, but far less activity in the area most closely associated with rational thought.

The Democrat campaign in the US and Remain in the UK might have fared better if their strategists had considered the fundamentals of human behaviour. It’s too late for now; Brexit and Trump have taught us a resounding lesson. But going forward the most useful approach would be to try and understand the driving factors that produced this outcome. We need to discover people’s concerns when they voted for Trump. What aspects of the establishment were they rebelling against? What do they truly fear? And what do they hope to achieve in the future? By setting aside our liberal disgust at the racism and bigotry and delving deeper into the issue we can try to salvage this situation and learn something from it.

So get out of your echo chamber and talk to someone who voted for Trump. Ask them why they did it. Don’t insult or belittle them, just listen to their explanation. Even better, get away from social media altogether and go outside. Find real-life people who voted for Trump (or Brexit if you’re in the UK). Talk to them, engage with them, and see if your liberal tolerant views can extend to understanding the other side, no matter how repugnant you find it. In this way we can try to tackle the root causes of fear, and perhaps improve Western social and political systems in the process. Yes, we could also keep on protesting, insulting, and talking about how badly we’re doomed. But that approach will never lessen the divisions.

 

Is prevention better than cure?

A spirited debate this evening at King’s College London highlighted precisely why the issue of Prevent remains so important in today’s terrorism and CVE realms. It was discussed as part of a seminar exploring the role of education in countering terrorism; asking whether peace can be taught.

Firstly, Prevent, part of the British government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent has a stated aim to ‘safeguard people and communities from the threat of terrorism’. Whether or not it actually succeeds is a matter of much contention among academia, policy-makers and grassroots actors in local communities. Many would argue that it actually worsens the very problem it aims to fight against.

Tonight’s panel was asymmetric in terms of the speakers and their stances on Prevent. Only one of them, Abu Ahmed, a representative of the Home Office, was there to speak on behalf of the policy, while the rest were champing at the bit to rip it apart. And rip it apart they did.

Ahmed argued that Prevent saves lives. But this rang hollow despite what initially should sound like highly commendable outcomes. As an audience member was quick to point out, everything said about Prevent approaches the extremism issue from a standpoint based on the effects. Very little is said about tackling the causes.

Although Prevent claims to tackle all kinds of extremism, there’s a disproportionate focus on Muslims. No-one in their right mind could deny this fact. Ahmed showed some slides featuring photos of young Brits who had become radicalised and committed crimes as a result. The photos showed almost all brown faces. It was telling when Ahmed pointed out the white far-right extremist in the bottom corner, saying ‘you probably haven’t heard of this one’. Yet this man attacked and burnt down three mosques. Why wasn’t this newsworthy? That’s a topic for a whole other debate…

Rob Faure-Walker, an East London teacher-turned-academic, drew on first-hand experience to illustrate his critique of Prevent. He recounted a time when, before Prevent was enforced, he had debated the issue of homosexuality with some Muslim students in the classroom. They were initially hostile to the idea of anyone being gay, and even went as far as to suggest ‘gays ought to be stoned’. But instead of squashing this aggressive viewpoint, Rob decided to open it up for debate.

For weeks the class debated vehemently about homosexuality. Rob didn’t get very far in shifting their views. Some months later, the bill for gay marriage was passed. Rather dreading the reactions from among his students, Rob braced himself for the worst. But he didn’t get it. The students had decided that ‘marriage between any two people who love each other must be a good thing’. They had picked up their previous less tolerant views by absorbing rigid dogmas. Via the medium of open debate they had been able to challenge these dogmas and had developed more critical views as a result. This can only be a good thing.

If Prevent had been in force at that time, any Muslim students who had raised negative views about stoning gays would surely have been reported to the authorities. Today, Prevent is dampening debate in schools because people (in particular Muslims) have become afraid to raise contentious viewpoints. But this is short-sighted. Without debate how can they have any hope of learning alternative perspectives? How can they learn to challenge dogmatic worldviews? Schools should help to create more critical citizens. Teachers should facilitate debate, not spy on students.

To situate Prevent within a wider context, the panel went on to examine the terms commonly used within it: radicalisation and extremism. Originally purely political terms, both have now become deeply associated with violence, even though this was not inherent in their original meaning. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to hold extreme radical views and to not be inclined towards violence. The two are not synonymous.

Living in societies where freedom of debate is stifled is unhealthy. We may believe the UK is nothing like Egypt, for example, where the secular rulers kept the Muslim Brotherhood repressed for decades, eventually leading to violent outbursts and the rise of terrorism. Nor do we believe the UK is like Syria, where the Assad government vehemently held back religious extremists for decades. Libya under Gaddafi was much the same. We only have to look at the state of these countries today to see what happens when sections of society are systematically repressed and targeted.

Prevent is risky because it spreads fear and ‘prevents’ constructive debate. Those who don’t believe that the Western democratic model is the only way the world could potentially be governed are unfairly targeted by Prevent. Conditions like these only serve to heighten a sense of victimisation and encourage the spread of extremist views and potential violence.

To conclude the session, Dr Rizwaan Sabir pointed out that there are a multitude of expensive PR strategies supporting the core themes of Prevent, but none of them really work. This is because the reality does not reflect the messages – and everyone knows it. Until the two add up, there will always be disconnect. Far-reaching social and political changes are needed, not just targeting the effects of flawed policies on certain sections of society. Actions always speak louder than mere words and people will see through the latter in the blink of an eye.