Europeans have been deflating the language of anti-fascism ahead of a time when they might need it. Warnings of fascism should be used exceptionally carefully in Europe. In recent years they have been worn down and become so commonplace as to be rendered almost meaningless.
The Strange Death of Europe
It appears that an opaque layer of complexity has been added to our discussions of terrorism, and onto many of the topics upon which I have spent much time pondering. Shortly after midnight on Monday 19th June, a man drove a van into pedestrians outside the Muslim Welfare House at Finsbury Park. Worshippers from the Finsbury Park Mosque had been leaving their evening prayers and the area was therefore densely crowded with pedestrians. Due in part to the obvious absence of the ideology upon which the spotlight of my articles invariably falls, and this attack being of a starkly different flavour to that which we are now accustomed, a man, Darren Osborne from Cardiff, is alive following the incident, and has been charged with terror offences accordingly. As such, while I was able to make some explorations and comments as to the antagonists of other recent atrocities, such as in my article following the Westminster Bridge attack, my freedom to do so was not affected in any way by the prospect of a trial concerning an accused individual. This is not the case here, and my lens’ focus will therefore be calibrated so as to capture more general observations and make accordingly broad arguments.
I feel it necessary at the outset to describe what I have experienced as a palpable diminishment of my hope for eradicating Jihadism as a result of the events at Finsbury Park Mosque. It is a cliché, but no less true for being so, that the first step of solving any problem must be to identify it, and as with the addict’s twelve-step programme, the first achievement comes with admitting the problem’s existence. It has been almost sixteen years since Osama Bin Laden’s orchestrated assault on New York City, when the brutal manifestations of specific religious doctrines were demonstrated so purposefully and within plain view. And yet, in all the time that has passed since, and with all the subsequent bombings, blade frenzies and beheadings, we as a society are still struggling to accomplish our first step in solving the problem of this despicable meme’s existence. Those of us who have been respectful enough of our fellow sapiens to treat them as adults and speak honestly about the causality between beliefs and actions, have found this to be an uphill and arduous struggle – one befitting a Tartarian punishment of a Greek king – a struggle against dishonesty, fallacy and obscurantism. And now, as it began to appear that the summit of our fist mountain might have been discernible through the mist, an event has occurred to send our stone rolling back to its source, changing the terrain along the way so as to make gaining a foothold all the more difficult.
On the morning following the attack, LBC’s James O’Brien offered his own definition of “radicalisation”, which on its face appeared thoughtful and incisive, positing that “radicalisation” amounted to the persuasion of an individual or group that the innocent were not so. He offered the example of the Manchester Arena suicide-bombing, wherein he argued that the key variable was that Salman Abedi had been persuaded that young girls attending a pop concert were not innocent at all, but were engaging in Haram acts of indecency. He then made the link to the events of the previous night, arguing that similar “radicalisation” had been insidiously taking place against an entire group (citing the headline of Douglas Murray’s article in The Sun, arguing that “If we want peace then we need one thing – less Islam”), and the antagonist had been consequently persuaded that no Muslims were innocent, thus leading to the physical attack against the lives of the Mosque attendees.
As with many of O’Brien’s premises and arising syllogisms on this topic, one need only examine it critically for a short period before the logical failures become clear. First, there is a subtle equivocation in the term “persuading that they are not innocent”. What isn’t mentioned is that in the context of Jihadism, a specific punishment is decreed for those who are not innocent. It does not simply persuade its followers that infidels are not innocent, it persuades them unambiguously that those infidels are guilty of a crime that is deserving of death. The Quran explicitly advocates violence against the unbelievers. If the tabloids or anyone else were actually advocating violence against Muslims, O’Brien’s argument would not fail here, but they aren’t, and it does. It is this failure to acknowledge the specific doctrines within Islam, and their predictable manifestations, which leaves such commentators having to play such obscurantist games with our discourse. There is also a tiresome conflation being advanced between ideas and people, between Islam and (all) Muslims, as though the terms are synonymous and interchangeable. This conflation and arising straw man was epitomised by Sally Kohn, writing: “The next time right wingers try to tell you that all Muslims condone terrorism…” whilst invoking an Islamic advert condemning a would-be suicide bomber.
Murray’s headline, “… less Islam” means only that: less of an idea. It can mean fewer Muslims, but only insofar as it would axiomatically imply more apostates. What it does not convey, is an implication that a justifiable means by which to achieve less Islam would be to kill Muslims. I find it somewhat embarrassing to have dwell on this point, but due to the contributions of O’Brien and others, I am afraid it is necessary. If I was to argue, for instance, that what we needed to make our lives better was less capitalism, I wonder if anybody would be able to keep a straight face in claiming that what I’m actually talking about is reducing capitalism by killing capitalists, though I suspect not. Furthermore, when one considers the consequent end of adopting O’Brien’s implicit position – that those who are critical of ideas bear some responsibility for those who decide to murder the believers of those ideas – one finds that it becomes impossible to criticise anything. Arguing that Muslims could and should do more to prevent Islamic terrorism does not ascribe collective blame. It is an argument based on the means available to those communities due to their proximity and connection to the perpetrators. To claim that such arguments are tantamount to “radicalising” populations against all Muslims, epitomises the dishonesty pervading our discourse. And what is more, if any “radicalisation” has taken place to convince someone that killing Muslims is justified, some of this blame must also be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who espouse the conflation that ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ mean the same thing, and are reliant upon it.
Such fallacious arguments were also advanced unsurprisingly by J.K. Rowling, saying on Twitter, “Let’s talk about how the [Finsbury Park] terrorist was radicalised.” Whilst citing tweets from Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage. The former’s read “Western men. These are your wives. Your daughters. Your sons. Stand Up. Rise up. Demand action. Do not carry on as normal. Cowed.” And the latter’s read (accurately) “This awful attack on Finsbury Park could only make matters worse.” Though the text was imposed next to the notorious image of the politician in front of the “Breaking Point” poster. Again, the implication is that Hopkins and Farage are somehow responsible for the violent actions of an individual, despite not having called for any violence. As with O’Brien’s, Rowling’s condescending argument can be boiled down to the following: don’t criticise Islam, or people will be violent towards Muslims. I will extend the intellectual courtesy of assuming that neither O’Brien nor Rowling contend that the criticism of Islam is a direct cause of anti-Muslim violence, and rather they hold it to be an indirect one. Even if I accept this premise, and the objective which we seek to achieve is one of less anti-Muslim violence, the greater indirect cause must still be Islamic violence as opposed to criticism of Islam. If this is the built-up and long-anticipated “backlash”, then the term itself denotes a reaction. Therefore the arguments are also self-defeating as in forsaking the rightful ascription of blame, neither the broadcaster nor the writer have chosen for their ire the compelling variable which prompts the reaction: Jihadism.
I will not argue, however, that an anti-Muslim attack should not have been anticipated. Another point relevant here was put eloquently by Douglas Murray in the book from which my opening quote was lifted: that concerning the incessant dishonesty on one side breeding fertile ground for that on the other. He writes: “Street movements began to talk of all arrivals into Europe as ‘rapefugees’. In Paris I met an elected official who referred to all migrants as ‘refu-jihadists’. These were unamusing as well as insulting terms for anybody who knew first hand that some at least of the people who had come were fleeing rape or escaping jihad. But such deterioration in the language seems inevitable after a period of dishonesty from the other direction. If you pretend for long enough, in the face of clear evidence, that all the arrivals into the continent are asylum seekers, you will eventually spawn a movement that believes none of them are.”
In my piece following the Manchester Arena bombing, I asked “By failing to engage in sincere dialogue on Islam, we are creating effervescent tumours within our society, which will eventually bubble to the surface and erupt in violence and true bigotry. And what will we say then, having been almost homeopathic in our emphatic dilution of our language and words such as ‘bigot’, ‘racist’ and ‘Nazi’?” The time may well have come when we finally realise the great disservice we have done ourselves in cheapening the plights of the real Nazis’ victims for the sake of a few points on the virtue-signalling game of one-upmanship that we’ve insisted on playing. As Steven Pinker wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature (whilst invoking the title of Charles MacKay’s 19th Century masterpiece which I happen to be currently enjoying), “Moralistic accusations can sometimes escalate into denunciations of those who fail to make moralistic accusations, snowballing into extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.”
Contrary to the positions and fallacious arguments advanced by those mentioned, the only answer available for society which has a hope of combating both Jihadism and anti-Muslim violence, is more criticism and more debate, not less. Pinker also wrote: “Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition. A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don’t mind being raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain. The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire’s quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”