The senseless murder on British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London reignited a discussion about the alleged threat of terrorism and the danger of ideological radicalisation of young Muslims towards c in the UK.
The British PM David Cameron chose his words carefully when he described the murder as “[both] an attack on British way of life and a betrayal of Islam”. Others showed less restraint, seizing the moment to promote their particular ideological projects - against Muslim communities and Islam, against immigrants, against the freedom of the internet, against human rights and the most fundamental values of a liberal, open, and plural society.
What happened at Woolwich in the afternoon of Wednesday 22 May 2013 has a deeply tragic personal human dimension. A young man, a promising military officer, a husband and father of a young boy, was viciously attacked in broad daylight, stabbed with appalling brutality in front of unsuspecting passers-by, and was left to die from his horrific knife wounds on the tarmac while his attacker, Michael Adebolajo, was recording a rambling video message, his hands covered in the fresh blood of his victim. But the Woolwich attack was almost immediately politicised; it was instantly ‘read’ by many as a sign of something far bigger, far deeper, far more insidious. We now know that the attacker, the son of an African immigrant family, converted to Islam nearly a decade ago; and that he became ideologically radicalised by international jihadist groups, through personal contact and the internet. For him, the murder of Lee Rigby was “a [justified] eye for an eye” revenge for the alleged crimes committed by British soldiers against Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. It was also a warning to British society, arbitrarily and arrogantly pronounced on behalf of all Muslims, that contained a naked message of terror - “you people will never be safe”, as Adebolajo concluded in his grotesque video message.
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the Woolwich attack right-wing extremist groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and the British National Party (BNP) seized the opportunity to attack yet again Islam and Muslims indiscriminately, immigration as a whole, and the very idea of a ‘multicultural’ Britain. They paraded in Woolwich and elsewhere, filling the streets with hate-infested screams, intimidating Muslim communities, and vandalising cultural and religious Islamic sites. They also blamed the ‘liberal left’ and the media for allegedly tolerating what they consider as a purposeful destruction of ‘British’ society, values, and ‘way of life’. For the likes of the EDL and the BNP, Adebolajo is yet another stark warning of an alleged impending catastrophe, inflicted by a ‘violent’ Islam, by ‘uncontrolled’ immigration, and by a liberal mainstream elite that has failed to tackle either.
All this is painfully predictable. What the EDL and the BNP say about Islam and immigration has echoes in many other European countries, not least Greece with its own, at least equally extreme iteration of the Golden Dawn
All this is painfully predictable. What the EDL and the BNP say about Islam and immigration has echoes in many other European countries, not least Greece with its own, at least equally extreme iteration of the Golden Dawn. But the attitude of the British ‘mainstream’ is hardening too, just as it is elsewhere in Europe. In a poll conducted in the aftermath of the Woolwich attack, nearly two-thirds of the respondents believe now that there is a fundamental cultural - and potentially violent - showdown between ‘British values’ and Islam. The senseless act of a single person who shouted “Allahu akbar” just before inflicting a horrific death on his victim has been enough of a justification (or excuse) for many - not necessarily ‘extremists’ - to talk about Islam, Muslims, and immigrants indiscriminately as lethal threats. In addition, more than six in ten people polled in another survey supported the reintroduction of the death penalty for the Woolwich killers - forty-eight years after its landmark abolition in the UK. Meanwhile, the British government is planning new emergency legislation that would enable it to ‘shut down’ or pre-emptively censor ‘extremist’ internet sites, restrict the operation of suspect groups in universities, gather intelligence through widespread internet surveillance, and strengthen further its already formidable powers under the Terrorism Act at a huge cost to civil liberties and human rights.
Extreme moments like this inevitably generate an outpouring of raw emotions - shock, grief, fear, indignation. It is perhaps easy to allow them to cloud our collective judgement. But it is in the wake of moments of crisis like this that the values of tolerance, openness, justice, respect for difference and for basic human rights are put to the ultimate test - the only test that measures our collective humanity. These are the moments when mainstream society must resist the temptation to confound the individual with the stereotype (‘us’, ‘the Muslims’, ‘the immigrants’), anguish with blind fear, anger at the perpetrators with demonisation of ‘the other’. The dignity with which Norwegian society responded to the 2011 Oslo mass murderer, Anders Breivik, reminds us that, even when hit by tragedy and seized by rightful anger, a mature society is capable of a calm, reasoned, proportionate response which upholds unreservedly the same values that the attackers deny to their victims.