Monday, November 23, 2015

How not to help community relations and the fight against terrorism ...

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with terrorist threats like Al Qaeda and DA'ESH (the so-called "Islamic State") is to effectively get over the message that because these murderous extremists are our enemy does not make ordinary decent Muslims our enemy.

One way to think of this, though the gulf is even wider, is to point out the parallel with the communal violence in Northern Ireland in our recent history. That conflict had a religious element and a political element although it was really a struggle between two communities. But one side was normally identified as Catholic and the other as Protestant.

Just as a few days ago at the Radison Blu in Mali, the Jihadi killers selected some of their potential victims on religions grounds - they asked them to recite the Shahada, a statement of Islamic beliefs, and spared those who could - there were instances during the troubles when gunmen asked people they were holding questions like "Are any of you Catholics?" and it could be fatal to give the wrong answer.

What is truly tragic about both those instances is that in both cases if the killers had tried to understand the religious statements concerned instead of checking whether people could give the right answer, they would not have been killing anybody.

I doubt if any Christians reading this blog would agree that the violence carried out by the IRA, or by so-called "loyalist" terrorists was supported in any way, shape or form in the bible or in the teaching of either the Roman Catholic Church or the protestant churches (whose priests and ministers in both cases regularly and unequivocally begged them to stop their campaigns of violence.)

Similarly, none of my Muslim friends and colleagues, none of the community leaders I have ever met, and none if the Imams, support the Jihadis. The Islamic Community in the West is much vigorous than they are often given credit for in disavowing Jihadi atrocities like the Paris attacks.

I'm afraid the media have a lot to answer for in not giving enough prominence to statements by Islamic citizens and representatives of the Muslim community and churches disavowing the crimes of the so-called "Islamic State" and other Jihadi murderers, and sometimes they are guilty of stoking problems not just by omission but by commission. "The Sun" front page this morning was an example.

Where you often get a contentious headline over a reasonable article, this one was the other way round. The headline reads

"1 in 5 Brit Muslim's sympathy for Jihadis"

which is more than a little inflammatory but the first line of the article was worse: it said

"Nearly one in five British Muslims has some sympathy for those who have fled the UK to fight for IS in Syria."

The reason this was a highly irresponsible things to write is that the opinion poll question which this allegation is based on did not mention IS - under that name or any other.

It asked respondents whether they had any sympathy for Brits who went to fight in Syria but did not specify whether they were talking about people who went to fight for the so-called "Islamic State" or any of the other groups in Syria such as our allies in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

To avoid any confusion, the British government strongly advises all UK citizens not to go to Syria to join any of the factions there, even our allies, and I share that opinion, and even on the basis of the poll in the Sun this morning, so do more than 80% of British Muslims.

And it is really misleading to write a headline and an article starting with a first line which appears to suggest that a significant proportion of British Muslims sympathise with "IS" Jihadis when the polling question asked could equally have indicated sympathy for people who had gone to fight for one of the non-Jihadi factions in Syria such as the FSA.

The situation in Syria is extremely confused and complex, and there are more than two sides. Both the UK government and most non-Muslim Brits strongly disapprove of Bashir Assad's Syrian government who have used barrel bombs and poison gas against his own citizens.

I am grateful to Mike Smithson for sharing this graphic from Number Cruncher Politics which shows that the opinions of British Muslims quoted in the opinion poll on the front page of this morning's Sun are not very different at all from those of British non-Muslims when asked a similar question:

It's a difficult challenge to fight Jihadi extremism while maintaining good community cohesion. A responsible press should be trying to help, not making the problem harder.

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