Terrorism, Security And British State Identity: Why Words Matter
Nat discusses how the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist is fuelling animosity towards Islam and where it’s come from.
I was also worried that reporting on this attack would follow the same deeply divisive pattern of many others.
I was in a meeting a couple of weeks ago when my phone buzzed with a news alert. After the horrorshow that was 2016, I became mentally attuned to fear the BBC news icon. I clicked, thinking ‘what now?’ It was so much worse than I imagined, as a man had run several people over on Westminster Bridge and stabbed a police officer. As the news progressed throughout the day, I found it hard to focus on my work and pry myself away from the news reporting that more and more people had been injured or killed. I was also worried that reporting on this attack would follow the same deeply divisive pattern of many others.
We all know what I’m talking about here, don’t we? Inevitably, as soon as it looks like a terrorist attack (itself a complicated idea, but that’s a discussion for another day) has happened, someone, somewhere will start the Muslim-blaming. This is a prime example of conclusion-jumping: Buzzfeed UK Political Editor Jim Waterson posted a video on the day of the attack, featuring a journalist who butted in to their interview absolutely desperate to speak to an eyewitness, you could almost hear the excitement in his voice as he edges closer and closer to his real question: did the attacker ‘look’ Muslim (read: was he a person of colour?)? In their own desperation to prove the Muslim-ness of the perpetrator, Channel 4 was also forced to make a statement when it came out that they had misidentified the attacker as a hate preacher who was actually in jail at the time of the attack. Inevitably, this has also lead to demands for all Muslims everywhere to condemn this attack, a ridiculous request given that they had precisely zero to do with it and are also likely horrified by it (this hilarious post makes the point beautifully). This Muslim-blaming happens so often, in fact, that the Muslim Council of Britain is usually one of the first to condemn violence like this even when no one knows if the perpetrator is a Muslim.
Inevitably, this has also lead to demands for all Muslims everywhere to condemn this attack, a ridiculous request…
So what is this? What is going on here? What is the process that links the ideas of ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’, and what effect might that have? Why do words matter? I’d like to briefly explain this from an academic perspective, as a member of the University of Bristol Global Insecurities Centre. So strap yourselves in: it’s time for a bit of theory. These ideas might seem fancy, but hopefully I can show you that they’re actually pretty simple. If you’ve got any questions, feel free to get in touch and I’ll answer them as best I can.
Professor David Campbell (in his excellent book ‘Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity’) argued that state identity is defined against threats. Muslims are located on a continuum of badness, ranging from a bit weird and ‘not like us’ to ‘murdering terrorist’. This article about a man who refuses to rent houses to ‘coloured’ people due to the ‘curry smell’ (no, I’ve no idea what he’s on about either) is a good example of the former. In the UK at the moment Muslims are considered both a threat to traditional security and a threat to identity. ‘Britain’ becomes the ‘opposite’ of Muslim, because no group sees themselves as a threat, and this makes Muslims ‘not really British’. This othering can be subtle sometimes, but let’s think back to our previous example about how people demand that Muslims publicly condemn every single terror attack. In asking Muslims to publicly condemn this stuff, you’re saying that they don’t naturally and obviously think it’s bad already: you’re singling them out, making them prove it, and they shouldn’t have to. The result of this is that Muslims get ‘securitised’…
‘Britain’ becomes the ‘opposite’ of Muslim, because no group sees themselves as a threat, and this makes Muslims ‘not really British’.
The idea of ‘securitisation’ gained fame through the work of Professor Ole Wæver and, basically, is the process through which something becomes a security issue. In this case, reporting on terrorist attacks clearly makes Muslims in general a security issue. A key aspect of this is making a threat seem ‘common-sense’. If you think that some things ‘just are’ a security issue, ask yourself why. Is it a security issue if foreign tanks cross your country’s border but don’t kill anyone? A guy with a beard writing a language you don’t recognise while sitting on your plane? Is it a security issue if men kill 900 women in six years in domestic violence incidents? If not, why not? Security isn’t just used to refer to military stuff, but can be applied to all sorts of things from the war on drugs (remember that one?), to the environment, to tanks crossing a border. The reason we think of some things as security issues and not others is because they have been made to appear ‘naturally’ security issues, and this is what has happened to Muslims. This is a Very Bad Thing, and here’s why.
My work is located within the constructivist school of thought which means that (to generalise a bit – well, a lot) although real things happen in the world, the way we represent stuff and respond to it is super important. I’m not saying that if you ask Muslims to apologise for terrorist attacks, you’ve directly caused some bloke to shout Islamophobic insults in the street (or worse). What I am saying is that linking the concept of ‘Muslims’ to the concept of ‘bad in some way’ enables actions that weren’t possible before. To put it another way: anti-Muslim discourses are necessary for Islamophobia. A good (and very depressing) example of this is the fact that there is always a rise in hate crime against people who ‘look’ Muslim following terrorist incidents. Indeed, two weeks after the London attacks a seventeen year old asylum seeker was severely beaten by people who first wanted to know if he was a refugee, a concept that has recently been attached to ‘Muslim’. This is really divisive and completely unhelpful literally every way you look at it: Muslims are against terrorism (Muslims are actually killed in terrorist attacks in far higher numbers), non-Muslims are against terrorism. Isn’t it better that we stand against it together?
To put it another way: anti-Muslim discourses are necessary for Islamophobia.
Basically, othering Muslims by turning them into threats has serious negative consequences: consequences for the way ‘Britain’ is defined, consequences for the safety of people of colour, and consequences for foreign policy, too, but that’s a story for another day.
Postscript: As I sit here now, editing this article, news has broken that a lorry has driven into a busy shopping area in Stockholm, and Swedish police are treating it as a terrorist incident. Unfortunately, I can’t see such attacks stopping any time soon. It is up to us to respond to these appropriately, and to always be aware of how our words might hurt those who are on the same side, because hatred can only ever be beaten with unity.
This article is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the London attack: Kurt Cochran, Andreea Cristea, Aysha Frade, Leslie Rhodes, and PC Keith Palmer.
Natalie Jester is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Bristol. Her PhD is tentatively titled ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen: securitized representations of British state identity in online news reporting of the 2011 Libyan conflict’ and this article is based on her theoretical framework chapter.