“We cannot, and must not, pretend that things can continue as they are,” said the Prime Minister in her speech in response to the London Bridge Attack. In what I can only describe as a moment of deliberate amnesia, Ms May seemingly brushed aside the fact that as the Home Secretary for six years, she proposed the invasive Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015 and her government oversaw the passage of the most intrusive surveillance laws in the entire Western world. Her proposal yesterday for combating terrorism is to ask for more surveillance powers.
Standing behind the podium, with the sun’s rays illuminating her solemn face, the Prime Minister paid tribute to those who lost their lives in this senseless act of violence. She commended the swift response and bravery of the police and emergency services. As our nation is grieving and processing how this could happen again, when we had not even had the chance to fully mourn the losses of the victims of the Manchester attack just two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was supposed to unite the country. The Prime Minister was supposed to assuage our fears. The Prime Minister was supposed to call for us to come together. Instead, Ms May’s speech was an attempt to divide us.
Reviving the worst aspects of former President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 rhetoric, May evoked the “clash of the civilisations” and “us vs them” binaries, that the Obama administration disavowed as they proved unhelpful in countering extremism. May identified a “single, evil ideology of Islamist extremism” as the connecting thread between the recent terror attacks. Reminiscent of Bush’s infamous “they hate our freedoms” line, the Prime Minister took a similar but slightly less incendiary approach; “It is an ideology that claims our Western values of freedom, democracy and human rights are incompatible with the religion of Islam”, thus falsely claiming the West has a monopoly on such values.
In a forecast of what’s to come, Ms May argued that the continuation of a “permanent defensive counter-terrorism operation” is not enough, and that the government’s response will include more proactive measures. But what exactly do these measures entail? Ms May proposed increased sentences for terror-related offenses “even apparently less serious offences”, failing to mention that prisons have also been spaces for recruitment and radicalisation by exploitative extremists, as the incarcerated are some of the most troubled and isolated people in our society. The Prime Minister advocates working harder to win the battle of ideas by making extremists “understand that our values, pluralistic British values, are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.” Yet she violates these values by scapegoating Muslim communities, implying that we are an enemy within.
“There is, to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”, said the Prime Minister, launching a not so veiled attack against Muslim communities. The statement is repeated endlessly in the news coverage blazing in the background as I write this article. The statement implies that Muslims are guilty, sympathetic and complicit in these terrorist attacks, by allowing extremism to fester in their communities.
Muslims have consistently and tirelessly condemned terrorist attacks, and have cooperated with police and security services to tip off the authorities about potential extremists. The Manchester bomber was known to the security services, as the community reported him to the police two years prior to the attack. Ms May argued that “we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one, truly, United Kingdom”, inferring that Muslims self-segregate, which is woefully misleading. Most Muslims are active members of their local communities, which are wonderfully diverse and multicultural. In areas in which there are segregated communities, the Prime Minister neglects to provide any context: segregated communities were/are formed due to systemic racism.
Without singling out Muslims communities, Ms May stated discussions about extremism “will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations”, yet it is obvious this comment was directed at them. And accompanying these difficult conversations, the Prime Minister called for stronger counter-terror operations which will identify extremism “across the public sector and across society”. This promotes the notion that extremism is far more widespread than evidence suggests, rather than it being a minority of individuals, thus fostering ever more fear and panic.
I spent yesterday morning upset, checking in on friends and family in London, distressed at the images being shared on our TVs and social media. As we mourn the innocent lives lost to terrorism and pray for the recovery of the injured, I wanted our Prime Minister to articulate our fears and come up with tangible solutions – like putting more resources into researching why people turn to extremism, how to better identify signs of radicalisation, and into holding foreign governments that fund groups that spread extremism to account. I wanted our Prime Minister to help us mourn collectively as a nation with words of hope. As my fellow Muslims grieve, just as we are as a nation all grieve, the Prime Minister has put our lives at risk by blaming our communities.
There has been a spike in the number of reported hate crimes, in the aftermath of the Manchester attack, doubling according to Greater Manchester Police. We do need to root out violent extremism and protect our country. We do need a review of counterterrorism policy, but scapegoating Muslim communities will not make us safer. This was an attack against us all. My heart goes out to the victims of terror and their families. Despite the Prime Minister’s divisive rhetoric, we will stand together.