On the afternoon of 22 May 2013, in the southwest London district of Woolwich, Drummer (Private) Lee Rigby, of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was hacked to death with knives and a meat cleaver by two Muslims, civically British but of Nigerian descent, who previously ran down their victim with a car.
The killers, Michael Olumide Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale, 22, remained in the scene, where the elder of the two justified their actions on video:
The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers, and this British soldier is one, is a eye for a eye [sic] and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands. Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists and kill us? Rather you are extreme. You are the ones. When you drop a bomb, do you think it hits one person or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family. This is the reality. By Allah, if I saw your mother today with a buggy I would help her up the stairs. This is my nature. But we are forced by the Quran in Sura at-Tawba, through many, many ayah throughout the Quran that we must fight them as they fight us, a eye for a eye [sic] and a tooth for a tooth. I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your governments. They don't care about you. Do you think David Cameron is gonna get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? Do you think the politicians are going to die? No it's going to be the average guy, like you, and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so we can . . . so you can all live in peace. Leave our lands and you will live in peace. That's all I have to say. Allah's peace and blessings be upon Muhammad, as-salamu alaykum.
It later emerged that Adebolajo, who had a history of involvement in radical Islamism and arrests related to this activity, was radicalised by London-born Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, whose group, Islam4UK (successor to the forerunner group Al-Muhajiroun), was later proscribed by counter terrorism laws.
Soon after the killing, BBC New rounded up ten experts to air their views on how to tackle the radicalisation of the Muslim youth in Britain. A clear effort was made to include Muslim voices—40% of the respondents. The resulting viewpoints provide us with a sample of what we must take is the best, most original, and most cutting-edge thinking the liberal mind can offer on the problem at hand.
The first viewpoint comes from Dr. Brooke Rogers, senior lecturer at King’s College London. In her opinion, tackling radicalisation is a matter of better education:
People can engage in volunteering and mentoring schemes, get employment in a non-governmental organisation. They can help make vulnerable individuals become part of a group.
But we do not do enough to encourage critical thinking in young people. Many undergraduate students are very good at regurgitating information, but in terms of challenging an argument, or knowing where to look for information to make a challenge, we are lacking.
So if you give young people the critical thinking skills in the first place, they will be less vulnerable to extreme views - whether that is Islam, gangs or drugs.
The problem in the UK is with the way that children are being educated.
Ironically, there is very little to disagree with here. Dr. Rogers has correctly identified alienation as a source of problem, and the need for belonging to a group as a desired-for solution. Dr. Rogers has also correctly identified some of the deficiencies in our system of education, particularly the lack of critical thinking skills.
She is wrong, however, in thinking that Rigby’s killers came to their current views due to a lack of critical thinking skills. On the contrary, Adebolajo’s remarks show that he has thought about British foreign policy critically, or at least been open to critical perspectives. Firstly, his are not the views of the political or media establishment in Britain, who, like the United States government and corporate media, think that bombing the Muslim world in order to install a secular system of liberal democracy is good for humanity. Secondly, and complicating things somewhat, Adebolajo’s views have a lot in common with the kind of critical, Left-wing views held by professors in the humanities in British universities—that is, that the West is engaging in a form of imperialism and Western government anti-terrorist measures are a form of oppression. In other words, Adebolajo’s views are quite compatible with what constitutes the mainstream within higher education.
It is worth noting that both the killers and Anjem Choudary are university educated, and that they were all born in the United Kingdom, a liberal, tolerant, and multicultural society. Even more interestingly, Adebolajo began life as a Christian and Choudary was once a party-mad medical student known as ‘Andy’, who, because of his partying, failed his first-year exams.
It would seem, therefore, that alienation, not lack of education, or lack of critical thinking skills, is the really important factor.
This takes us to what is, to my mind, is the most interesting of all the viewpoints expressed. Unsurprisingly, it comes from a Muslim born in Pakistan: Khalid Mahmood, who settled in the United Kingdom as a child, and is now a Labour MP.
Intolerance and hatred have been brewing in this country since the 1980s when we tacitly accepted the presence of extremist preachers such as Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Muhammad.
Our own belief in freedom of speech, and the government’s preoccupation with the Cold War, gave them space to preach and recruit. At dozens of colleges and universities they targeted young men and women who had become alienated from their own communities.
Often second-generation immigrants, these individuals were easy targets as they struggled to reconcile their faith and life in a secular society.
They were rich pickings for these preachers with their message of moral absolutism and radical anti-imperialism. Organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir became fashionable in the 1990s and, while not as extremist as some, acted as a bridge towards more radical elements.
We need grassroots change in the community. The lesson we must learn is that if we tolerate extremist preaching on issues such as women's rights and homosexuality then it very quickly turns to extremist preaching directed at the West in general.
Mahmood points to the difficulty in reconciling Islam with life in the West. He also correctly identifies the perceived moral dissolution resulting from the West’s secular liberal model, and the policy of ‘bringing democracy’ to the Muslim world, as causes of, not cures to, radical Islamism.
Standing on the common ground between Islam with the Left, Mahmood’s solution is anti-liberal and authoritarian:
While this problem has to be addressed by the Muslim community, government has a role to play and occasionally this has to be done by the security services - meaning that we should pass the Data Communications Bill into law.
The Data Communications Bill, proposed by Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, is draft legislation that would require Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records (but not the content) of each user's internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services and store the records for 12 months.
In other words, the way to tackle radicalism is more laws, more restrictions, and more policing.
As if to highlight the degree to which the mainstream political parties are—to repurpose George Galloway’s elegant phrase—‘two cheeks of the same backside’, Labour MP Mahmood’s prescription is well in line with that of Conservative MP Bob Stewart, who advises:
- ‘accept that . . . [Islamic fundamentalists] are at war [with us]’;
- ‘send them out of the country’;
- Fast-track the Data Communications Bill, ‘to give the security services the tools they need to deal with this threat’;
- And have ‘universities ban meetings that don’t allow women to attend, don’t allow certain races or types of person, or advertise as being anti our society’ (i.e., David Camerno’s ‘muscular liberalism’)
Stewart then ends with a suggestion, which provides a fascinating insight into the conservative (i.e., liberal) mind:
Why don’t [Muslims] have a rally against terrorism in Trafalgar Square, which would also help ease some of the tensions against them and may stop the hate crimes like the ridiculous attacks on mosques?
There should be a mass Muslim rally and they should stand up and say these terrorist acts are “not in my name”.
Huffington Post journalist Reyhana Patel blames the media of which she is a part, calling it ‘Islamophobic’ (this has become a meme since 9/11). Her solution is more multiculturalism:
There . . . needs to be a lot more interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities through more education and awareness.
Still, though this sounds like a vapid regurgitation of liberal clichés, there is a serious point here. We know that the killers, and their mentor, were all educated and aware, and Patel underlines this when she says
There are children being killed by Western soldiers in Afghanistan and there is little or no coverage about that. It makes people feel angry. There's no avenue for them to act in a democratic way, because the government doesn't listen to Muslim communities.
Therefore, the education and awareness she prescribes is one aimed at non-Muslims (a code-word for indigenous White Britons), who need to become educated and aware of the sources of Muslim anger. Adebolajo implied the same in his declarations. And with this one completely agrees.
Like Bob Stewart, Ross Frenett, of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, wants to focus on extremists and on putting an anti-extremist message out there:
the government should . . . focus its attention on assisting credible messengers in creating content to counter the extremist messages.
A focus needs to be placed on locating and increase the skills of those messengers who are most credible: former extremists, community leaders and survivors of violent extremism.
Government should aim to work with credible messengers such as our network, together with private sector expertise, and provide training and support for the creation of compelling counter-narratives that can be carefully targeted to ensure these messages reach the right audience: those reading and interacting on extremist forums, websites and social media sites.
Unless we see an increased focus on the creation of positive counter-messages to engage directly with extremist narratives online, the government will find itself in a largely fruitless game of extremist Whack-a-mole, expending a lot of effort with little to show.
In other words, bearing in mind that “the messenger is the message”, Frenett proposes to convince and train what one imagines would be Muslim spokespeople to promote a liberal worldview within their communities, thus offering an alternative to extremism. I imagine this would be popular among Muslim women, who have much to gain from liberation, but this approach fails to recognise that radical Islamism is caused by the liberal conception of Westernism, not by its absence. Put another way, this approach targets symptoms while ignoring causes.
Farooq Murad, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), recites the establishment’s party line. Though an advocacy group, the MCB represents that ‘moderate Islam’ we often hear about from liberal media commentators, but which is just as often eclipsed by events like 9/11, the Madrid bombing, the Danish cartoon protests, 7/7, the shoe bomber, and the underwear bomber, to name a few. The MCB has received government funding on two occasions, totalling £450,000, which went to a variety of projects, including a British citizenship programme, the British Muslim Equality Programme, and teaching materials for Muslim schools (madrasahs). The first part of Murad’s viewpoint epitomises complacent liberalism, ending with a touching story:
The reaction to Drummer Lee Rigby's murder gives us an indication of how we combat extremism in this country.
We have seen reprisals: mosques attacked, people abused and hateful messages in our mailboxes and on social media walls. But we have also seen examples of partnership and solidarity.
The biggest repudiation of extremism came in the expression of solidarity across all parts of our society: this was symbolised so poignantly when the Archbishop of Canterbury stood in solidarity with Muslims to condemn the murder. It was also seen when the York Mosque defused tensions by inviting protesters from the English Defence League inside for tea.
This is followed by a by-the-numbers plea for more multiculturalism:
Engagement and participation are key, not isolation and exclusion. Muslim communities and institutions have examples here to encourage young people away from the allure of extremism.
We must be vigilant and ensure we do not inadvertently give into the demands of all extremists: making our society less free, divided and suspicious of each other.
In fact, Murad sounds like a classical liberal:
We do not need policies based on dogma and ideology rather than evidence and analysis.
So he asks for Muslims not to be painted with the same brush:
For example, terms such as Islamism, radicalisation and extremism all have been used in a confusing manner, serving agendas other than countering terror.
Sometimes they have been conflated with conservatism, orthodox practices or even opposing political views on foreign policy.
And deploys the fear-driven tactic of dismissing the views of radical Islamists as marginal and unrepresentative of general Muslim views; the multicultural project must go on:
This means targeting the wrong people, creating unnecessary fear, suspicion and further disengagement. The net result is that more people are marginalised from the mainstream and pushed into dark alleys to become easy prey for extremism, crimes and gang culture.
No doubt our mosques and religious institutions have a role to play. So have our community leaders and organisations.
But they have to be credited for the wonderful work they do, and engaged as equal partners. In brief, we need objective and evidence-based strategies involving all stakeholders.
Raffaelo Pantucci, senior research fellow at the RUSI security and defence think tank, and author of a forthcoming history of jihadism in the United Kingdom, argues that the path to radicalisation is unique to every person, and that
[s]imply shutting down websites and arresting individuals do not necessarily eliminate the problem.
On the contrary, such moves can drive people underground, making them potentially more appealing and attractive, or they will simply adapt to be on the right side of any ban.
This is not just a law enforcement issue. . . .
This is quite correct: law enforcement is merely reactive, and in the case of Islamism is not in any way preventive, since the Islamists have no fear of consequences, provided they can achieve their goals; worse still, law enforcement addresses symptoms, not causes.
Pantucci’s prescription, however, is emblematic of the kind of attitudes that make enemies of liberalism feel contempt for liberals:
As a society we need to counter the all-encompassing narrative that states that the West is at war with Islam. This is a message that should be repeatedly rejected at every level: politician, community worker, citizen.
Coupled with this, our societies should engage in practices that highlight how open and free we are, and hold power to account when mistakes are made.
Put plainly, radical Islamism will be neutralised by putting on a friendly face, being ostentatiously liberal, and demanding apologies from politicians. Is not this exactly the approach favoured by the liberal establishment? If this is what we must expect from a security think tank, we can be forgiven for not feeling very safe. Indeed, we can be forgiven for turning away from liberalism, opting for a line of thinking capable of providing root-and-branch solutions.
Dilwar Hussain, president of the Islamic Society of Britain, amalgamates elements from some of the earlier viewpoints, acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling Islam with the secular Western society, the need to find ways to integrate, and the need for security services to do their job.
People may often say that extremism and radical Muslim views are there because of a number of reasons, including conflicts that our country is involved in abroad and the discrimination that Muslims face at home.
. . .
Muslim leaders, preachers and teachers cannot become police or intelligence officers. The relevant agencies have to do their job in the way that they know best. But Muslim communities can play an important role.
They can give a clear signal of what Muslims actually stand for - peace - and what they will not have any time for - violence and terror.
But Muslims also need to think hard, as many are doing, about what our faith means to us today and how we can live that best in the context of modern Britain.
Pete Mercer, vice-president (welfare) at the National Union of Students, effectively tells us his main worry is that far Right groups will use the Woolwich killing to incite hatred against Muslims:
. . . universities are acutely conscious of their responsibilities and the institution concerned is carrying out a full investigation.
The higher education sector has a difficult balancing act. Universities are required by the Education Act 1986 to promote freedom of speech, but there are also duties to protect students from harm, including speakers who incite violence and extremism.
Identifying those speakers is rarely as clear-cut as some critics like to pretend: messages may be subtle, backgrounds unclear.
The NUS and students' unions play their part, working with detailed guidance to assess risks and, if necessary, stop events.
Both NUS and many unions have “no platform” policies that specifically ban certain extremist organisations from speaking at official union events— including, let's not forget, right-wing extremists such as the BNP.
There is a clear need for all in society to respond in the right way. The sharp rise in alleged hate crimes against Muslims and mosques since last week is deeply worrying. Politicians, the media and commentators must be responsible in their public pronouncements.
A panicked crackdown would be counter-productive, fuelling exactly the disaffection that makes some so vulnerable to messages of hate. A considered approach is critical.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, author of books and articles on equality and the law, recites a familiar line:
While universities have a duty to be places where difficult and controversial areas are discussed, there are limits, and they draw the line at speakers who break, or are likely to break, the law.
This is hardly worth our time, given that laws have been passed in Britain and in various countries in Europe that limit or stifle debate on the type of issues that would normally come under vigorous re-examination following events such as the one in Woolwich.
If this is the best establishment minds can offer, we can take it as yet further confirmation—as if any had been needed—of the establishment’s intellectual bankruptcy, and its inability effectively to deal with the world in which we live today. Since this is the world ‘they’ created, and their solutions follow liberal principles, we can, therefore, speak not only of the intellectual bankruptcy of liberals, but also of liberalism itself. Hence, the recurrent theme in all the viewpoints above that the solution to the problems caused by liberal policies is more liberal policies.
This is symptomatic of the irrelevance of liberalism as a political philosophy today. The world we live in is much different from the world of the 18th and 19th centuries.
A radical rethink is needed.