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.

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.

Mixed-up emotions


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

– H.P. Lovecraft

Why do people, both as individuals and as groups, constantly act against their best interests, seemingly without logic?

A recent article by Alex Van Gestel caught my eye as it encapsulates many of my thoughts about the nature of emotion and its effect on political decisions. The emotion most frequently at play is of course fear. Van Gestel talks about emotion – specifically fear – as the driving force that swung the Brexit outcome in an unexpected direction.

In a high-stakes political campaign like Brexit, the winning side will be the one that harnesses the emotions of its target audience most effectively. Simply presenting an array of rational arguments, no matter how sensible they are, is not the way to do this. Rationality and emotion don’t mingle well – in fact they’re polar opposites.

In the case of Brexit, the Remain campaign, full of liberals, globalists and intelligentsia – the so-called elite – failed in its mission. It was outsmarted by the blatant emotional pandering of the Leave campaign. We might find it vile when Murdoch’s papers run headlines likening refugees to cockroaches, or when Nigel Farage uses a campaign poster depicting ‘hordes’ of brown men on their way to the UK border. These techniques are distasteful and unfair, but they’re also highly effective. The Leave side won because they sensed the spirit of the times and knew how it related to their target audience. All they had to do was channel emotions through carefully crafted messaging.

People often act against their best interests when emotion overrides reason. Think about all the irrational fears people have, such as fear of flying. All the flight safety statistics in the world won’t make an aviophobe feel comfortable on a plane. The fear emotion is too strong and well-primed.

Never forget that audiences “buy on feelings, not features,” as Van Gestel points out. When creating strategic campaigns for anything, from selling a product to instigating social change, the role of emotion should be kept at the core. To do this, we need to connect with our audience at a deep level to really get to know them and understand what they want. We need to know their fears, their dreams and their darkest desires.

This is where the Remain campaigners, among them some of the world’s best marketers, went wrong. They didn’t understand the concerns of the target audience. If the marketers had understood better, perhaps the Remain campaign could have responded more effectively to allay fears, instead of simply blinding the audience with logical arguments that fell on deaf ears.

The Leave campaign triggered people to vote against their economic interests. Places such as Cornwall, which receives a lot of support from the EU, voted overwhelmingly to leave it. An irrational fear of immigrants, stoked by the mainstream media, trumped people’s rational interests in their economic needs. Emotion cheated them from what was most beneficial.

To heighten the climate of fear still further, the brutal terrorist acts of Isis fed into an irrational reaction towards immigrants that drove the UK towards Brexit. Isis committed much-publicised atrocities in various cities around the world, from Istanbul and Baghdad (which people care about less), to those closer to home, Brussels and Paris, which deeply affected us in the UK.

At the root of this inconsistency is basic human emotion. Istanbul and Baghdad are far away and what happens there does not generally affect us. But bring the terror to our very doorstep and we start to get frightened. This is the perfect time for opportunistic political groups to seize the moment. Once fear is running high they can launch their campaigns for maximum effect. The message will resonate and people will respond, even if it is against all logic, rationality and common sense.

Fear creates a vicious cycle. As society becomes afraid of the ‘other’, it soon becomes more divided and suspicious. Those who don’t fit the mould become objects of fear. In the time of Isis it has meant that Muslims have borne most of the brunt of these fears. From innocent refugees to long-standing British Muslim citizens – the effect of rising Islamophobia has been felt deeply. The resulting hostility only serves to create further divisions. When people are afraid they are less likely to use logic.

Knowledge can quieten the madness of fear. Finding ways to cut through the fog of emotion and allow people to understand the true nature of a situation is key. One way to do this is by appealing to them on a grassroots, human, everyday level.

To explore this further, Fear Interrupted will soon begin publishing a series of interviews with people who are leading independent initiatives to dismantle fear and promote understanding.

A short history of fear

Throughout history, humans have been afraid. Fear is one of the most primal emotional responses and can take many forms. It can be individual and specific, like of that flying or of spiders, or more generalised and widespread, such as the ‘Yellow Peril’ fear of the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, or the looming terror of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that arose decades after that.

Fear stems from a lack of understanding. Individualised fears of flying, heights or spiders affect only the individual and are usually harmless to society as a whole. But when fear spreads and takes root, aimed at a group, a race, a nation, a religion, or a concept, that’s when it acquires the dangerous potential to be leveraged as a technique for social control and manipulation, usually to the detriment of some groups and the benefit of others.

In the past, it was difficult to identify exactly how these widespread fears begun, or what factors propelled them to spread across societies. Today, our globalised and tightly connected information society offers new scope for uncovering the truth. Independent journalists and citizen bloggers can share their stories with the world, with the minimum of resources needed to do so. At the beginning, this shift had the potential to dilute the power to shape the wider narrative that governments and mainstream media possessed. But they soon jumped on the bandwagon and emerged more potent than before, sometimes using less obvious yet perhaps more insidious methods.

Unfortunately, the information age offers many ways to hide truth, often by creating smokescreens based around false perceptions. With 24/7 news at our fingertips, information and misinformation spreads like flames sweeping across a field of parched grass. It’s called ‘going viral’, and it’s every digital marketer and content producer’s dream.

But false perceptions are deeply damaging to those affected. If a country has a bad reputation, such as for safety, tourists and investors will hesitate to go there. The economy will suffer and so will the country’s status in the world. It takes a lot of careful planning to restore a lost reputation.

For groups of people, false perceptions are even worse. They become objects of fear wherever they go. They don’t get the chance to show society who they really are, because all the assumptions have already been made. It’s not a level playing field when the narratives of fear are at play. Opportunities shrink away for the members of the feared groups. They experience vilification, whether overtly or more implicitly. They become constantly on the back foot in society.

In 2016, the world’s most feared group is Muslims. This has been the case for over a decade, ever since the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and their vicious aftermath. The narrative constructed around the threat of Islam, Muslims, and the need for the Western ‘war on terror’ has resonated across the years, bolstered by reams of media coverage. Today, it has become an integral part of Western mainstream consciousness.

The Islamophobia narrative received a further boost to almost hysterical levels in 2014, when Islamic State (Isis) burst onto the global scene in a flurry of blood and gore. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere (although we know this is far from true) the aggressive tactics and ruthless nature of the group struck a further heavy blow to the image of innocent Muslims across the world.

Syria and Iraq had already been war-torn before Isis arrived in the public eye. As the group captured their cities, refugees began pouring across the border into Turkey, and from there into Europe. At first, stories such as that of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy who washed up drowned on a Turkish beach, resonated with the world and spurred sympathy in many quarters. None more so than in Germany, where the leader Angela Merkel actively encouraged refugees to move there. This move, which seemed so positive, soon morphed into the beginnings of a new wave of fear. The incident in Cologne on New Year 2015, when North African men were accused of attacking German women, was hijacked to place the blame squarely on refugees. A spate of new Isis atrocities followed, widely reported. The resulting hysteria grew and spread. And so the fear cycle continued.

Since then, Islamophobia has grown to epic levels. It has swept across and permeated Europe, the UK and the United States. The mainstream media is largely to blame, for fuelling exaggerated and often patently untrue narratives. But the unquestioning masses lapped them up, soaking in tales of dangerous refugees who refused to integrate into European culture, instead spending their days groping local women and plotting how to impose sharia law. These perceptions drive far right responses, which in turn shift the political direction of many countries towards the right.

From amid this toxic brew we now reap the effects of fear that was sown. In the UK we have Brexit to contend with, a vote for UK independence driven on the back of exaggerated and often false narratives around immigration. The main party gunning for Brexit, UKIP, used provocative campaign posters to play on British fear of the ‘other’. The posters, ostensibly anti-immigration from the EU, showed large groups of men of Middle Eastern appearance, not white as might be expected from EU countries such as Poland or Bulgaria. The message was loud and clear. Refugees, and hence Muslims, were really the ones to be feared.

Across the Atlantic, the US is experiencing its own backlash. Donald Trump, a man who began the presidential race widely perceived as a bad joke, has gathered steam and emerged as the competing candidate for the White House. Again, he stokes people’s fears of the ‘other’, mainly of Muslims, but also of Mexican immigrants and black people. This has led to an increase in harmful incidents on the ground, affecting ordinary people, such as Muslims being forced off flights for speaking Arabic, kids beaten up at school for being Muslim, and an assortment of other discriminations within an already deeply racist society.

Islamophobia has become entrenched. It won’t go away any time soon. And the people affected by it will respond in various ways. Many will be circumspect and simply carry on with their normal integrated lives. But others will soon grow to resent the constant battering from media and society alike. Some of the affected individuals will want to fight back. Combined with a morass of different factors, from social constraints and lack of opportunity to identity crises and toxic masculinity (the exploration of which are beyond the scope of this post), a few outliers may head down an altogether more dangerous path.

Fighting radicalisation has become a fully-fledged industry these days. Many academics, journalists and commentators make their livings from studying it. Western governments, especially in the UK, have tried many times to devise strategies to stop young people from becoming radicalised.  These are widely deemed to have failed. Again, discussing the multitude of reasons why this is so are a topic for another post. But suffice to say, the nature of the mainstream narrative has an important role to play. One way forward is by trying to shift this in a positive, constructive direction that involves affected groups directly, letting them define their own new narratives at the grassroots level, then making sure those narratives reach mainstream hearts and minds.

Fear Interrupted will act as a platform to do precisely that. It will explore examples of counter-narrative building from around the world, mainly in the digital sphere, showcasing a range of citizen-led initiatives that are trying to reset the mainstream narrative, promote understanding between groups, and, albeit on a small scale, bring some semblance of normality back into our distorted and uneven societies.