The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby has raised a lot of uncomfortable questions over the past week or so. The perennial issue that always rears its head is the apparent failure of a significant minority of British Muslims to ‘integrate’, whatever that might mean. The trouble is that we are faced with an apparently unresolvable dichotomy. I despise the EDL. Britain has always been adept at integration; we have a long and proud history of being a nation of immigrants. The EDL message that Islam is intrinsically a threat to the United Kingdom is anathema to our dearest liberal values. Yet at the same time, it is impossible to deny that the barbarians that murdered Rigby were devout Muslims. The understandable method in which the government and Muslim communities have attempted to defuse the situation is by claiming that these men were not ‘true’ Muslims. Understandable, but wrong.
Islam, like all faiths, has the potential to inspire violence. I am not a theologian so I am only vaguely aware that the passages of the Hadith and the Qur’an that appear belligerent have been misconstrued. However, that interpretation is not clear to all, and certainly in the hands of a radical imam with an absence of scruples the Holy Book has the potential to be misused for some quite unholy purposes. The problem with saying that this attack had nothing to do with Islam is that it feeds the EDL’s victim complex. It encourages them to believe that the Establishment really is engaged in a conspiracy to destroy ‘Englishness’ for vague nefarious reasons.
British Muslims are not murdering British soldiers on the streets. None of them are contributing to Britain’s already burgeoning arms trade by manufacturing car bombs and suicide vests in their garage à la Walter White. The Muslims of York Mosque adopted the most perfectly British attitude to an inflammatory EDL rally by inviting them in for tea and biscuits so they could have a chat and sort the whole thing out. This is what is so disgusting about the EDL message. The vast majority of Muslims are integrated, and certainly more British in outlook than the despicably intolerant extremist groups who want to force them to leave the country. A vast majority, however large, is not the same as all. How do we avoid the dichotomy which I set out earlier? How do we explain that the EDL is wrong in the context of how peaceful most of Britain’s Muslims are, whilst still accepting that there are some individuals who are inspired to violence, actual or attempted, by the same ideology that drives others to peace?
An imam in Oxford has caused controversy by suggesting that it was British foreign policy that led to the atrocity in Woolwich. We shall leave aside all the problematic implications that this has for now. We can grudgingly accept that some people are motivated to terrorism because of the Iraq War. It is, after all, the explanation that the extremists themselves gave. However, to focus on the Iraq war as the imam did is a very dangerous move to make, even if it is a motivating factor, without further qualification. These men were Nigerian in origin, and had nothing in common with the Iraqis save their faith. If we are to argue that a Muslim from a country hundreds of miles away from Iraq can be motivated to murder based on what he perceives as an injustice done to people similar in faith only, then we basically imply that Islam is a “fifth column” — that we can never be quite sure to trust Muslims because they will always put matters of faith before their local community. The Muslims who invited the EDL for tea were certainly interested in the fate of their communities. To suspect that at any time they might be working surreptitiously to establish a universal Caliphate is reprehensible.
This allows us to resolve the dilemma. Islam was a banner for these attacks, not a cause. These men fundamentally lacked an identity. Whatever preacher latched on to them, for all his moral odiousness, gave them an identity. This is really no different from the KKK in the United States preying on the socially dispossessed, and persuading them that their problems can all be blamed on the blacks and the Jews. The difference between the Muslims that invited the EDL in for tea and the extremists who invited an increase in EDL membership is that the British Muslims have communal ties, and to be a British Muslim is meaningful. For the extremist, all they have to define them is an idea. If we all take steps towards reducing social exclusion, this would not just reduce the threat of Islamic extremism. It would also reduce the numbers of otherwise socially excluded people who actually make up the ranks of the EDL.