On the politics of fear

With the Paris attacks, the San Bernadino shootings, and the stabbing in the London underground, terror has taken to the streets of Western cities. The European response is an intensified bombing campaign in Syria. In the US Donald Trump has dominated reaction, with remarkable interventions by prominent dynastic Christian leaders Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. The very nature of ‘terrorism’ is to create fear, and so it seems that the terrorists have succeeded. Must we live in fear?

With this post we wish to offer some measured observations with which to consider the events of the immediate past.

A main premise of action for us at MCSCI, if not the main premise, is that Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour’, and that includes Muslims. For those who think of Muslims as the enemy, Jesus also said ‘Love your enemy’, so that fairly well covers everyone. This is the Christian starting point for evaluation of the events that face us, and the conflicting narratives that are offered in explanation. How does this play out amidst the politics and media of fear? By Jesus’ command we may judge the comments of such so-called Christian leaders as Falwell and Graham, who counsel Christians to arm themselves and call for the deportation of Muslims from the US.

I have four observations:

Firstly, the rise of Daesh is a development of a crisis within Islam. This is an intra-Muslim war, and there are hundreds of thousands more Muslims being killed by Daesh, Al Qaida, and the Syrian government, than non-Muslims. Ultimately, this is a crisis that the world of Islam has to resolve. Western military intervention serves only to complicate matters for the worse.

Secondly, Muslims who live in the West have almost unanimously come as a result of colonial links. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were invited to the UK for their skills in textiles. Algerians arrived in France under their particular arrangements of colonial rights. Turks were invited to Germany because of a shortage of workers following the Second World War. The colonialists drew the lines of the current Arab states, now being redrawn by Daesh. As for America, a large number consist of those displaced by US military action since 9/11. In all these cases people choose to come to the West for the very peace, security, and freedom of worship that we value. Many of them could not remain in their own countries because of their association with the West.

And here is an important component of this migration: they all think they are coming to the Christian West. How do we greet them?

Sadly, usually with prejudice and racism and fear.

It is helpful to consider some simple statistics regarding Muslims in the West. France has the highest percentage of Muslims of European countries at nearly 10% (more on this later). In the UK the figure is 4%. In the US, no more than 2%, but possibly less. This makes the rhetoric of floods of refugees and the impending imposition of sharia law rather overblown. How can such a small population be viewed with such fear?

This leads, thirdly, to the new phenomenon of radicalisation of young Muslims. Again, this takes different forms in different countries. Direct comparisons are difficult to make, and not particularly helpful for discerning the American situation. The French problem is particularly deep-seated, with the relationship to Arab Muslims fraught by a lengthy and bloody war of independence in the 1960s, which echoes down to this day. The social and economic situation of Muslims in France is pronouncedly dire, with ghettoised communities, high youth unemployment (a consequence of the global financial crisis created by Western institutions), and a national doctrine of secularism that outlaws public expressions of religion. These factors, among others to be sure, have combined into a cocktail of disaffection, providing breeding ground for radicalisation. The British situation is less pronounced. A recent academic study (in distinction to a poll) indicated that only 0.03% of the Muslim population was sympathetic to the use of violence to promote their religion. That is a small percentage, even allowing for statistical margins of error, yet it could mean a couple thousand potential militants within the UK borders. This number is what worries the state security people. But it is irresponsible to suspect or accuse every Muslim, and the whole of Islam, of terrorism on the potential attitude of such a small number.

The study also identifies factors that may contribute to the readiness of a young person towards radicalisation: a major life crisis; mental health problems; previously aggressive behaviour; minor criminality. That is to say, religion is not necessarily the root cause, but the recruiters for Daesh look out for such people and offer a religious solution to life’s problems. Additionally, those who are radicalised tend to be young people who have not previously been religious, did not attend mosque, and thus had little religious education. They are ripe for fundamentalist and literalist interpretations of the Qur’an because they do not know what orthodox belief would say.

These young people, born in the UK, even third generation British, thinking of themselves as British, have experienced a crisis of identity in the post-9/11 years, for society at large insists that they are Pakistani, or Bangladeshi; ‘Other’. What Daesh has to offer is an identity—a strong Muslim identity. Islam is, indeed, about power and strength.

The San Bernadino attack introduces the phenomenon of radicalised American-born Muslims to the scene. The task ahead is to learn to what extent the young couple represent a wider tendency in the US. My suspicion is that the sources will be similar to the UK, and the motivation rising out of the consistent policy of bombing the countries they come from. Pakistan has borne the brunt of drone bombings and the high cost in citizen casualties. (This is not to condone or excuse, but to seek to understand the others’ point of view).

Which brings me, fourthly, to the question of how to view the San Bernadino massacre. The combination of mass-shootings and an Islamic motive is a uniquely American combination, in which the Islamic component should not silence discussion of the similarity with other multiple killings with assault weapons. I note that the discussion of the shooting followed the now-normal pattern in the media and politics—shock, calls for gun-control, calls for more guns, calls for prayer—but the discussion only turned to hysteria when it was determined that this was an Islamist attack.

There are two points to make here. The first is that the Trump/Falwell response, and the rising chorus of demands for registration or deportation, is a total collapse in the face of terror. The terrorists win.

The second point is to ask in what way this is to be defined as terrorism as distinct from the shooting in Colorado the week before, or Sandy Hook a year ago. We become more afraid when it is labelled as terrorism. Why are Americans not more afraid of white extremist right-wing men?

 

How shall we respond to those who seek to spread this terror? Let me close with a story. When I arrived in Manchester 34 years ago, I discovered that the community around the church I had come to serve included a significant South Asian minority. As I sought to learn how to minister in this community, it was explained to me that many had come to the UK from Uganda in the early 70s, having been expelled from there by Idi Amin. These people came to what they thought was a Christian country, and were interested to learn what that meant. They were met by racism and exclusion, even from the churches. The Church lost an opportunity to show these newcomers what it means to be Christian. By the time I arrived they had found ways of supporting each other in their own communities, parallel to and apart from interaction with the indigenous community around them. We, Christians, share responsibility for the atmosphere which leads to the circumstances we now face.

The Church in the US is not only replicating the mistake of the British Church, but is compounding it with the reaction of the past weeks.

There is an alternative way. For Christians who wish to show the love of Christ to those around them, who believe that Christ gave himself for the whole world, the alternative is to reach out in friendship, and in hospitality.

(I do believe the British Church has begun increasingly to put this in to practice.)

For those who wonder what you can do, I would encourage you to find out who the Muslims are in your community, to reach out to them, and to offer affirmation and safety by friendship and the love of Christ.

[Sources for statistics can be provided upon request.]

 

D D Swanson