Maajid Nawaz

20 July 2012

Follow Maajid on twitter here @maajidnawaz

If a Muslim man emerged from an extremist sub-culture with a worldview, and went on to murder hundreds of innocents in order to further his worldview, you would rightly call him a terrorist.

You would also probably ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions – and you would deserve answers – about whether there is a culture that incites hatred and bigotry within Muslim communities, and what could be done to create more harmony if this was so. You would champion those voices that stood up to bigotry within their own communities, even as they were criticised by their co-religionists. And you would slam as ‘appeasement’ those voices that sought to excuse terrorism, instead blaming only ‘Western policy’.

What you certainly would not expect is for Muslim community voices to shun all responsibility by merely dismissing the terrorist as a lone madman, who acted in isolation and was not part of a wider and worrying trend. This would feel to you like a deft sidestep, a measure taken to avoid responsibility by those who have built their very careers upon furthering such divisions.

Yet, when Anders Breivik did exactly the above, he was instantly labelled a lone madman. Just as society, its Muslims included, was duty-bound to scrutinise the wider Islamist milieu from which Muslim terrorists emerged, it is duty bound to explore the wider anti-Muslim milieu from which anti-Muslim terrorists such as Breivik emerge. To immediately and prematurely categorise Breivik as ‘insane’, implies no real societal implications beyond his need for medical help.

It is not for me to comment specifically on Breivik’s state of mind, I leave that to far better qualified commentators. Rather, my point was about social attitudes, about media narratives and about public policy. The fact that Breivik was instantly classed as insane by large sections of the media, to then be professionally deemed insane by ‘experts’, only to then have that decision reversed by other ‘experts’, is what concerns me.

Let us not forget the Beslan school tragedy, instigated by Chechen terrorists, where many school children lost their lives. I do not recall such confusion over labels then. In fact, I do not recall such confusion emerging in any incident when a Muslim has committed an act of terror. Of course, the danger of a selective use in labelling should be clear to all. If Muslims begin to suspect that the word ‘terrorist’ is selectively used to describe only ‘their own’, they will inevitably be less keen to come forward and challenge potential terrorists among their ranks.

In fact, to selectively use this label will only further the terrorist narrative that the world is not engaged in a fight against terrorists, but a fight against Islam itself. Rather than isolate terrorists from their communities this will only aid their shelter even more.

People find it easy to categorise the “other” with labels, yet we try to “understand” our own. Consistency in such a sensitive area, applied to both Islamist and far-right anti-Muslim extremism, is crucial.

Either we accept that reprehensible ideas need to be met with a robust policy and civic response across the board, and that society has a role in this, or we allow for such bigoted dogma to spread across the board and just label those who take this logic to the next level as ‘merely’ insane. But then, perhaps we would be the insane ones by shedding all responsibility in this way.