Renaming the beast
by Inayat Bunglawala
In a speech last Thursday to mark the launch of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, outlined a couple of interesting and very welcome amendments to the government’s strategy for countering violent extremism.
Firstly, out goes the counterproductive reference to “Islamist terrorists”. Indeed, in another speech earlier this week, the education minister, Bill Rammell, pointedly referred to “al-Qaida-influenced terrorists”. I had argued for precisely this change at a Polis seminar last summer. (Well, all right, almost precisely. I actually said it was better to describe them as being “al-Qaida inspired terrorists”).
This linguistic adaptation carries an implicit recognition that the previous terminology was alienating many ordinary Muslims, who believed that their faith was being associated with criminal acts of mass murder. In practice, this language played into the hands of al-Qaida by furthering the false perception that the anti-terror effort was somehow a struggle between Muslims and western governments, when it was in reality a struggle between criminals and the rest of us, including British Muslims.
As Jacqui Smith noted:
“... there is nothing Islamic about plotting murder, pain and grief. Indeed, if anything, these actions are ‘anti-Islamic’.”
This important change of tone has, predictably, met with some criticism from those who wished to use the anti-terror effort to further their own Islamophobic agendas.
Writing on her Spectator blog, Melanie Phillips complained:
“But what we are facing is not merely criminal activity. It is terrorism, the attempt to murder large numbers of innocent people in the pursuit of a political aim - namely, the Islamisation of Britain.”
In the same piece also goes on to bemoan “the fact that half the Stock Exchange is now owned by Islamist financiers” and the “steady Islamisation of Oxford university”. Do have a read of it to see Melanie Phillips’s paranoia in full flow.
Here on Cif, the author of The Islamist was naturally a bit put out, and he criticised what he saw as:
“... the patronising attitude that somehow naming Islamism will result in loss of Muslim support ... We are not stupid. We can distinguish between Islam the religion, and Islamism the political ideology ... Like most non-Muslims, Muslims are unaware of the difference between Islam and Islamism.”
Just try parsing those remarks again and see if it makes any more sense. No? It didn’t to me, either.
Many of us do take our cue, in terms of the language we use and the attitudes we adopt towards others, from senior politicians. So it is vital that the government does get this right.
Just have a look at the front page of today’s Daily Express if you want to get an idea of how inciting widespread anti-Muslim prejudice appears to have now become an unspoken mission statement for some of our national papers in the UK.
The second major change Jacqui Smith announced was a recognition that some of our foreign policies may well have contributed to the scale of the terror threat that we are now facing, and that the government must be prepared to listen to criticism of some of its actions:
“‘... where grievances are not only legitimately expressed but well founded, we must be prepared to respond. That a cause has been misappropriated by violent extremism does not make it a wrong one. Rather, putting a grievance beyond the reach of a democratic solution, beyond the understanding of state and society, is a goal of those who wish to harm us. We should do them no favours.”
This far more thoughtful response is worlds away from what we were hearing from the Blair-led government just less than a year ago.
Indeed, compare what Jacqui Smith says above with what our former prime minister was saying just last week at a $400-a-ticket event in Canada entitled An Afternoon with Tony Blair:
“The truth is that they have no sense of grievance against us ... This is a fight that we’re in - we didn’t choose it - and we’ve got to take it on and keep at it until we win.”
Never mind. I am sure that the British soldiers who are on the frontlines and are having to “fight” and “keep at it” in the calamitous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that our Tony so kindly sent them to will be only too delighted for the former PM, with his new life and fabulous, newfound wealth.
Source: Originally printed in The Guardian, Comment is Free on January 24, 2008