Currently we are in one of our interim periods of denial. The care being taken to change the name by which we call IS is just one demonstration of this. Such attempts to decouple the activities of IS from the beliefs of Islam as a whole are principally being done for a domestic audience, not to woo away the hordes of IS fighters already in Syria and Iraq. But why might we think the domestic audience needs such placating?
One reason is the facts. In a poll carried out by the BBC after the Charlie Hebdo attack last January, 27 per cent of British Muslims polled said they had “some sympathy” for the motives behind the Paris attacks. In the wake of the November attacks in Paris, the Sun carried out a poll whose findings claimed that one in five British Muslims has “sympathy for ISIS”. This poll was subjected to justified scrutiny, for not least among the poll’s flaws was that the questions related to attitudes towards those who go out to fight in Syria. A proportion of those who expressed support for these may well have been thinking of those who go out to fight with other factions in Syria and even those who go out to fight against IS with Kurdish groups among others.
But the response to the Sun poll was in fact the same response that now comes after any and all such negative stories. Far more energy is expended refuting the story than in addressing a legitimate problem. Because, although one in five British Muslims don’t sympathise with IS, quite a number clearly do. But this is a pattern. After last January’s terror attacks the attention of European publics and governments turned for a week by a claim about “no-go zones” made by a Fox News guest expert. So much time was spent ridiculing Fox News that nobody had much time to consider whether Europe did have no-go zones. We learned again in November that it did — in France, Belgium, Sweden and elsewhere across Europe. But these are not the stories we want to hear. And so we find new ones.
So after every terrorist attack now we learn of a “good news” story. After the attack on a café in Sydney a year ago the hashtag #illridewithyou became the good news story — the result of a story of a Muslim Australian woman on public transport allegedly removing her headscarf in fear after the attack. Australians tweeted “I’ll ride with you” to show that they would protect all of Australia’s Muslims from the other Australians who would otherwise brutalise them. The story of the woman taking off her headscarf turned out to be made up. Nevertheless, thousands of Australians tweeted “I’ll ride with you” and so the murder of, among others, café owner Tori Johnson (made to kneel on the floor and then shot in the back of the head) had a happy ending.
Three nights after the Commons managed to approve air strikes in Syria by the RAF, a man reportedly wielding a knife at Leytonstone Tube station in London and screaming that his actions were revenge for Syria allegedly stabbed a musician. Fortunately for the media worldwide and for social media in particular, one of the less traumatised passers-by was caught on camera shouting “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” at the man, who has now been charged with attempted murder. This immediately “trended” on Twitter and became a top story on most news sites and a front-page headline in the next day’s newspapers around the world, said to epitomise the wisdom and stoicism of Londoners. While the victim was recovering in hospital everybody else got to move on to the joy of Muslims condemning this now allegedly “non-Muslim” attacker.
Worst was in the wake of November’s atrocity in Paris when the story went around from the Wall Street Journal to the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail that one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France football stadium had been stopped and turned away by a Muslim security guard called Zouheir. The story was reported around the world and heralded across social media. Amid a night of bloodshed which allegedly had nothing to do with Islam here was a security guard who had everything to do with Islam saving hundreds of lives. This seemed such a good meme that it became one of the most popular “stories” of the night on Twitter. Except that it turned out — as the BBC was unusual in being good enough to concede — that the tale was fabricated. There was a guard in the stadium of unknown religion called Zouheir but he had been elsewhere on the night and had not seen any bombers. He had relayed part of a colleague’s story to a reporter. Why had this all become about him? For the simple reason that people wanted it to be.
The point is that all these things are varieties of self-distraction. They are things we have set up to stop us coming to the conclusions based on the evidence before us. Parliament discusses sending a few planes to bomb IS, but is aware that this minimal action could cause maximal pain at home. The media reports the terrorist attacks while scouring to find a news story that will show Muslims in a good light.
Many worthy sentiments may be mixed up in all this. But at the root of them, living through them and watching this doubt from the top to the bottom, it is hard not to reflect that we are living in the in-between years. At some point the atrocities will come here again and only then will we again be able to see that these years were largely wasted.
- Catherine ‘slothful induction’ Burn’s statement that she didn’t really know what was motivating the siege was a consequence of knowing bloody well that the siege was an instance of islamic terrorism, knowing also that to say so would be career suicide, and therefore responding to both pieces of knowledge by pretending that it wasn’t the case;
- The young woman who made up the story about the scarf-adorned woman on the train being harassed as the reason for the ‘I’ll
lieride with you’ Twitter hashtag did so because she immediately recognised that Mad Man’s actions were an instance of islamic terrorism, and her response was to do what she could to draw people’s attention away from ‘mad homicidal muslims once again terrorising innocents’ and towards ‘nice, cuddly muslims once again being victims of bogan Australians’.
The recognition of the awful reality is the motivation for the unhinged and disproportionate response in the other direction.
Reality really is too much for some people. The mind-set is a much more comfortable place in which to live. And if reality needs to be bent or re-made in order to ensure the comfortable life – so be it.