Members of the police walk as they take part in exercise Strong Tower, a counter-terror exercise held in and around the disused London Underground station at Aldwych in central London on 30 June 2015. (Photo credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The identity politics of terrorism

When will the government tackle its own deniers of Jihadi terrorism?

The prime minister recently warned about “the terrorist threat we all face” at the annual international conference on security in Munich. But he didn’t say more about it. We should be thankful that terrorism was less risky in 2020 than preceding years. But we should be alert to the identitarians pretending that terrorism is a right-wing myth.

Theresa May’s address in 2018, the year after the car-knife rampage on Westminster Brigade, the suicide bombing at Manchester Arena, and a car-knife rampage on London Bridge, referred to terrorism repeatedly, but made no reference to anything Jihadi, Islamic, or Muslim.

David Cameron’s address in 2014 did refer to “Muslims” and “Islamism,” as part of a long overdue argument against using identity politics to deny or excuse Islamism. “Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing”, he said. Indeed: that’s why we call it Islamism.

Unfortunately, terminology became yet more contested. When the Islamic State (ISIL; ISIS) took over most of Iraq in 2014, Western elites wasted effort campaigning for its Arabic acronym (Da’ish), which was supposed to sound derogatory in Arabic. ISIL welcomed the term’s notoriety.

Subsequently, Western elites adopted the imprecise terms “radical” and “violent extremist”. Some institutions, such as the World Bank, chose to be inclusive by using all terms interchangeably. Inclusivity lacks specificity. Murderers kill, but not necessarily to terrorise. Terrorism is meant to terrorise.

In 2017, Donald Trump, as he had promised on the campaign trail, reversed Barack Obama’s ban on the terms “Jihadi” and “Islamism”. By contrast, Britain’s politicians received briefings highlighting right-wing terrorism but ignoring Jihadi terrorism.

Let’s just clarify the relative risks. Self-identified Muslim terrorists are the most frequent and deadliest attackers, even in countries where Muslims make up a minority. Tellingly, no British official cares to identify the religion of terrorists. However, unofficial analysis shows that 82 per cent of the 117 people killed by terrorism within the United Kingdom from 2005 through 2017 were killed by Jihadis. None was killed by a member of a right-wing group, although 2.5 per cent were killed by unaffiliated white extremists. Similarly, US official statistics (managed by the FBI) indicate that American Muslims account for a minority of American terrorists, but tend to kill more people per attack and to cause more material costs.

The counter-realists became more confident in 2020, with the explosion of Black Lives Matter and its corollaries: anti-white racism masquerading as anti-racism, anti-Westernism masquerading as diversity, Islamism masquerading as anti-Islamophobia.

The proposal to rename Islamist terrorism as ‘faith-based terrorism’ would conflate any religion with all religions

Respectable social scientists jumped on the bandwagon to offer supposed evidence that right-wing terrorism accounts for most terrorism and is rising. The trick relies on categorising almost everything as right-wing, including both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crimes, irrespective of the politics. White supremacism is right-wing, but black supremacism is not, say the categories. White protesters are terrorists even when they’re non-violent, but Black Lives Matter is non-violent even when it’s rioting, goes the narrative. Jihadis are not conservative, even though they want to take us back to the Middle Ages and repress homosexuals, women, and outsiders in general.

In June 2020, the head of Britain’s counterterrorism policing (Neil Basu) led an online discussion with more than 70 people about what to call terrorism. We heard about it a month later because of investigative reporting, not because of any official or academic discourse, which tells you something about the level of the so-called “experts” who attended. These unnamed “experts” claimed that the terms “Islamism” and “Jihadism” are stoking Islamophobia. They proposed to rename Islamist and Jihadi terrorism as “faith-based terrorism”.

Oh dear. The problems with this proposal are obvious: it would conflate any religion with all religions. By the same logic used to justify it, the new term would stoke “faith-phobia”, including Islamophobia. It would also pretend that all faiths are equally prone to terrorism. In fact, Sufi terrorism doesn’t exist (although some Sufis join Sunni and Shia terrorism).

Another term proposed during Basu’s online meeting was the Arabic word “irhabi,” which can mean both “terrorist” and “reverent fear”. Since “reverent fear” is regarded as a virtue by believers that still regard terrorism as a vice, this word solves nothing.

Indeed, the proposal for “irhabi” repeats one of the problems with the term “Jihadi”, which can be used to mean “one who struggles with the sword”, as commonly phrased in Islamic texts, or someone engaged in non-violent struggles, such as one’s internal struggle for faith.

Muslim terrorists refer to themselves as Jihadi, interchangeably with Mujihadi (“holy warrior”). Virtuous Muslims naturally resent terrorist appropriation of a term with virtuous synonyms, but that doesn’t mean we should deny what terrorists call themselves. Otherwise we would deny knowledge.

Another term proposed at Basu’s meeting was something like “followers of Usama bin Laden’s ideology”, which again betrays ignorance. Bin Laden founded al-Qa’ida (“the base”), which is at war with other self-identified Muslim terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State. Think about the literal implications for counter-terrorism. Should we counter al-Qa’ida, but not the Islamic State? Should we counter one in the same way as the other, even though al-Qa’ida and ISIL have different styles of terrorism?

Despite lowering the threat level, Jihadi terrorism hasn’t gone away

Jihadi terrorism hasn’t gone away. A year ago, Sudesh Amman was shot dead by police in London while attacking strangers with a knife, soon after release from imprisonment for a terrorist offence. In July, unrepentant Safiyya Shaikh was jailed for plotting a suicide bombing in St. Paul’s Cathedral on behalf of the Islamic State. In November, the terrorism threat level was raised from “substantial” to “severe”. Although it was lowered in early February, one expert warns of increased Jihadi terrorism in 2021.

Johnson’s failure to mention Jihadi terrorism is “accidental”, according to unnamed government insiders on the ConservativeHome website. I doubt this spin. Boris Johnson’s administration is making an issue of identity politics in schools, museums, and policing (following the Reclaim, Reform UK, and other populist parties, ahead of the local elections in May).

Why isn’t the government tackling the identitarians in its own counter-terrorist community? Why not start with Basu, the head of counter-terrorist policing?

My understanding is that the Home Secretary Priti Patel is alone within the Johnson’s administration in pushing back against woke counter-terrorism. This helps to explain why, earlier this month, Basu felt bold enough to urge her to permit positive discrimination in favour of non-whites.

The fashion for denying the Islamist category of terrorism denies the riskiest category of terrorism

Boris Johnson’s lack of clarity also helps to explain (though does not excuse) Penny Mordaunt’s meeting on 19 February with the Muslim Council of Britain. Successive prime ministers since Gordon Brown in 2009 have banned their ministers from engaging the MCB, after one of its executives signed a call for violence against Israel. Mordaunt Tweeted: “Great to have met with [its new leader Zara Mohammed] today, to wish her success and hear more about her plans, look forward to working with her.”

“Working with her”? How? Why? Penny Mordaunt is Paymaster General, a minister without portfolio. She added a hashtag for International Women’s Day, as if she were meeting with a feminist. The MCB is an extremist organisation. It has been criticised (by Muslims) for allocating no discussion to extremism while exaggerating Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, the normative discourse is about right-wing terrorism. Earlier in February 2021, a British court convicted a 16-year-old boy for terrorism offences, the youngest ever convicted. The prosecutors and journalists described him hyperbolically as a “terrorist mastermind” running “a Neo-Nazi cell.” In fact, he had posted hate online, downloaded a document on making bombs, and recruited (online) an undercover police officer posing as a fellow radical. His criminal offences are to “encourage” terrorism and “possess” materials potentially useful to terrorism.

The fashion for denying the Islamist/Jihadi category of terrorism denies the riskiest category of terrorism. That would be bad risk management. It would be immoral too, particularly for Muslims, who make up most of the victims.

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