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Life after Manchester – pointing fingers or facing realities?

May 28, 2017

It’s been a week since the Manchester bombing. After a short grace period, the general election campaign has resumed. The politicians and other axe-grinders have been busy ascribing blame for the rise of religious extremism in Britain.

We know the arguments pretty well by now. It happened because we’ve cut back on police numbers. It’s because of our foreign policy – we attack countries that have not attacked us, and we’ve caused the deaths of millions of innocent people. It’s because of oil-rich Middle Eastern monarchies, who have introduced the virus of extremism via the mosques they build, the schools they establish and the imams they send to preach the message of hatred. It’s because of unfettered immigration. It’s because of multiculturalism.

Politicians believe that we voters look for simple truths, and feed them to us whether they’re true or not, often stripped bare of context.

If we want to indulge in a blame game, we could probably establish a causative chain that takes us back to the Pharisees who urged the Romans to crucify Jesus, or even back to Adam and the serpent.

Of course it’s important, as doctors tell us, to diagnose the cause of an illness if we are to cure the patient. Treating the symptoms is not enough. But the analogy breaks down if there are multiple causes producing multiple symptoms. It follows that there need to be multiple treatments. And if we extend the definition of terrorism beyond acts carried out by jihadis – which we certainly should – the picture becomes infinitely more complex.

There are no easy answers – no Einsteinian grand unified theory. If there were, the massive resources brought to bear on the problem would have solved it by now.

So perhaps we should set aside grand theories, symptoms and causes for a while, and focus on realities – things that are staring us in the face. Depending on where we sit and what we believe, we all have different realities. But for me there are a few realities that I think we sometimes forget amidst the sound and fury of each successive outrage.

First, we have to accept the internet for what it is – both a great benefit to mankind and a weapon of mass destruction.

It’s a benefit because it exposes us to ideas, to people and to experiences that otherwise would have been unavailable to us. It’s changed our world as much as did the invention of the printing press and the translation of the Christian bible into the languages of the worshippers.

It’s a weapon of mass destruction because some of the ideas that now reach us are catalysts or enablers of destructive acts. It’s not destructive just because you can download instructions for making a bomb, but because it’s become an enabler for those who incite hatred, division and conflict – of all kinds. It’s the primary means of communication for those who wish to plan, transact and execute in secret. It’s what has enabled terrorists to become states, and states to become terrorists

We can’t shut it down unless we’re prepared – at huge cost – to re-invent the way we do business. It’s become as essential as electricity. Yes, we can impose massive fines on the search engines and social media outlets for failing to take down sites and videos that incite hatred and violence, provided we do so fairly and target all sites regardless of provenance and ideology. But that will only be a palliative measure. The determined will find other ways of getting their message across.

We could follow the Chinese in erecting a series of Great Firewalls across boundaries, but again, this would only be effective up to a point, and would lead to howls of outrage within the liberal democracies over the curtailment of free speech.

The prospect in front of us is a long-term game of catch-up between the renegade and the state. This will not end soon, and if the threat from ISIS burns itself out, it will be replaced by other threats.

In short, we can no more control the internet as it is now than we can the proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction.

But we need to recognise it for what it is. And that means you, me and everyone else who willingly posts, likes and transacts – not just the shadowy organisations we entrust with keeping us safe. We have personal responsibilities. Just as we wouldn’t dream of touching live electrical cables or lighting bonfires in our lounges, we need to understand the implications and risks of what we do on the internet.

The second reality is the importance of context. Nobody who has just lost a child in a bombing wants to be told that their loved one – statistically speaking – stood a far greater chance of dying through a knife crime, a drug overdose, a car accident or through natural causes. But our politicians have a responsibility to remind us that the chance of death through terrorism is still small. And governments should avoid public displays of action that cause people to be focused on terrorism to the exclusion of all other risks.

Our media needs to avoid taking every opportunity to ascribe blame. For example, headlines pointing out that the security services were warned about Salman Abedi hide a positive aspect of the story. The warning might have been ignored or given a low priority, but the fact that it came from within the Muslim community shows that contrary to the common narrative about the shortcomings of the government’s Prevent strategy, there are people in all communities willing to report their concerns and name names.

Both our politicians and our media have a duty to report, highlight and condemn other criminal acts of similar magnitude as that of Abedi. A couple of days ago the New Arab reported that “The bodies of 34 migrants, mostly children, were recovered from the sea off Libya after some 200 migrants tumbled into rough waters when their overcrowded smugglers’ boat capsized on Wednesday.” The British media also covered the story, but in The Times the death of these children seemed incidental to the main thrust of the story, hence the headline “Six million migrants waiting to reach Europe as more die in the Mediterranean”.

Is it therefore surprising that there are people in the UK who feel that the rest of us care more about the children who died in Manchester than those who drowned in the Mediterranean? Our seemingly callous lack of concern for those who are dying in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya and other parts of the world serves to fuel the narrative of resentment that in turn plays into the hands of the jihadi recruiters.

I accept that the newspapers and the online media are not public servants. Their viability as businesses depends upon their ability to sell us news they think we want to hear. Right now, all we want to know about is Manchester, and the media responds to that desire. But they’re also purveyors of opinion. To be fair, The Times focused on Libya in one of its leaders a couple of days ago – for obvious reasons. But how often in recent months has it or any other newspaper for that matter urged action to help repair that shattered country?

Just as finger-pointing is surely of limited value in helping us to move beyond the shock of last week’s atrocity, we ignore the wider context at our peril. And that’s not just the responsibility of the politicians. It’s down to you and me.

The third reality is the questionable value of being lured into discussing the minutiae of religion to the exclusion of all other factors.

The scriptural justifications that ISIS and Al Qaeda use to underpin their actions are of course important to understand. I’ve read a few books on the origins of Islam and its holy books, yet I still wouldn’t presume to call myself an expert. But what I do know through years living in Muslim countries is that the vast majority of Muslims are no more extreme in their thoughts and deeds than those who show up to church on Sunday in my country. They choose to ignore the messages the jihadis seize upon, just as we refuse to exact an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

You might then ask why it is that so many more Muslims seem to carry out acts of terror than Christians who sit quietly in their pews on a Sunday listening to a sermon from a priest.

I would reply that the churchgoers of England have never in recent times been oppressed, tortured, executed, invaded, deprived of their homes and their liberty. Nor of course have British Muslims who were born and grew up in this country, but the sense of belonging to a wider religious community is perhaps stronger among them than it is among Christians, and their number has been swelled by refugees from conflict zones. Small wonder that violence, and stories of violence, beget violence. And those looking for a justification for for their acts will find it – whether or not they do so through the scriptures.

I will end with a story from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, the US blockade of Cuba was in place and the world was on the knife-edge of a nuclear conflagration. President Kennedy received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev. The first was conciliatory. The second was aggressive and uncompromising. Kennedy and his advisors had to decide how to respond. Which message represented Khrushchev’s real attitude? Had there been a coup, which resulted in the second message?

Kennedy chose to respond to the first message and ignore the second. The result was the deal that wound down the crisis.

The parallels with our response to the jihadis are not exact. But we do have a choice. Do we respond with an assumption of their humanity or of their inhumanity? If we accept, as the security services tell us, that there are 23,000 radicalised jihadis in the UK, do we treat them as the inhumane enemy? Do we round them up, intern them or isolate them in some other way?  Do we regard every Muslim in the country as potentially suspect – capable of being radicalised and capable of carrying out acts of inhumanity?

Or do we seek to appeal to the humanity of the jihadis-in-waiting? Do we ask each and every person who knows someone who is contemplating such an act to think of the pain they would suffer if they lost loved ones – father, mother, son or daughter. And if they are motivated by a sense of revenge, would we ask them to think whether an endless cycle of violence was what God wanted? And in our dealings with the wider Muslim community, do we work on the assumption that three million fellow citizens are Muslims first and British second? That they are a special case – the enemy within?

I don’t doubt that we should make every effort to track down and identify the people whom we suspect are capable of carrying out mass killings. But just as those who have been radicalised presumably once held different views, we shouldn’t assume that their minds can’t be changed once again. That thought is at the heart of the Prevent campaign. We should support those efforts, and if they have shortcomings, we should aim to fix them.

And once again, we as individuals have a part to play in our attitudes and deeds. We are not crusaders, and we should not think and act as crusaders. We should assume the best of our fellow citizens, not the worst.

Like the people of Manchester over the past week, we should rise above hatred and focus on what brings us together rather than what drives us apart.

Fine words come cheap, you might say. But do we really have any other choice if we are to close down, or at least mitigate, the cycle of resentment and violence?

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