The recent barbaric murder of a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich by Islamic extremists has been met with universal condemnation. And rightly so: yes, a great deal many more British soldiers have been killed oversees and yes, fatal knife attacks on the streets of the capital are sadly not rare either. However, the medieval nature of the attack on Lee Rigby, combined with the killers’ ‘political’ ranting and complete disinterest in being observed by the public set this particular crime apart.
The three main party leaders, along with Boris Johnston, all reacted admirably (and it’s not often you will see Boris referred to in a positive light on this blog). Cameron, in particular, has been careful to avoid stirring up anti-Islamic sentiment, describing the attack as a ‘betrayal of Islam’. With depressing predictability, the usual suspects of the EDL and the remnants of the BNP tried to exploit the events to further their own anti-immigrant, anti-multiculturalism agenda. But overall, the world of politics has remained impressively calm at the news. Awful as the attack was, the reaction to it was refreshingly measured and uncontroversial. In fact, the only reason I’m writing about it on here is to respond to one troubling point mentioned in passing on the BBC’s live news feed by one commentator about the implication for ‘the left’.
Usama Hasan, a researcher at anti-extremism think-tank the Quillim Foundation, was reported as saying: "The real problem here is the decisive hatred preached by a very small minority of clerics in this country in a small number of our mosques and universities. They know who they are and there are Muslim groups and other groups - left wing groups may I say - who defend that kind of grievance and victimhood mentality. That's what must change and has to stop.”
Ah yes, that old chestnut, ‘the left’. I’m not exactly sure which left-wing groups Hasan is referring to here, nor why a ‘victimhood mentality’ should automatically lead to violent killings, but I find any idea that the left is somehow partially responsible for this murder or Islamic extremism in general completely abhorrent. For a start, the notion that the left does, or even can, have one unified opinion about Islam makes little sense.
Admittedly, the relationship between the broad left and Islam is of course a complicated and confusing one. After 9/11, Islam drew excessive negative attention in the press, and the Left were the strongest critics of this. On the other hand, the Left has always criticised the socially conservative aspects of any religion. Trying to defend Muslims from prejudice can lead the left, some would argue, into justification of extremist violence, especially when combined with a dislike of Western cultural hegenomy and militarism. Hasan’s implication is that the left finds it difficult to condemn outright Islamic extremism because of Islam’s association in the UK with racist prejudice against Muslims.
Some, such as author Nick Cohen, have tried to coin the term ‘Islamic fascism’ to make it more comfortable for left wingers to criticise Islamic extremism whilst maintaining a distance from right-wing anti-Muslim rhetoric. In his (mostly awful) book, What’s Left, Cohen argues against the left’s opposition to the Iraq War, claiming it had been hoodwinked into supporting repressive regimes as a result of cultural relativism. The left, he argues, should look past its distrust of US military might, and see Muslim fundamentalism for what it really is: a form of fascism.
I disagree with both Hasan and Cohen. The Left has condemned the Woolwich attack as vociferously as anyone else: Billy Bragg, as close to an emissary of the Left as I could imagine, took to Facebook to describe it as “...shocking. What he did for a living cannot be used to justify what happened to him.” Not exactly the words of someone who is afraid of stepping on anyone’s sensitive toes. And anyway, the left does not see Islam as immune from criticism any more than it sees Christianity as immune from criticism. It’s a thorny issue, certainly, because left wingers also want to be seen to respect other peoples’ cultures and values. But, on issues including ranging from the position of women in strict Islamic communities, to the lack of willingness to integrate into a healthy multicultural society in some areas, the left have a strong track record of raising concerns.
As for Cohen’s ‘Islamic Fascism’ idea, I reject this as a way of framing the debate, purely because the right-wing, political fascism of the EDL variety is an ideology based on hatred and prejudice, regardless of whether this leads to actual violence or not. Islam is not. There is no inevitable link between ‘Islam’, ‘Fascism’, and the events of Woolwich. To suggest otherwise would be to say that there is something inherent in the Islamic faith which can lead to these sorts of attacks, which theologians and others insist there isn’t.
Perhaps the reason certain people are blaming ‘the Left’ is because some lefties seek to link events like the Woolwich murder with US and UK foreign policy. To be clear, in my opinion, the idea that illegal, unjustified military invasions such as the Iraq war would throw petrol onto the fire of extremism was self evident: in fact, the Blair government was warned of this at the time, and ignored it. But I must emphasize: seeking to explain the motivation behind Islamic extremist violence is NOT the same as justifying the violence. The Left seek macro explanations, in contrast to the reaction of the far right who prefer to just demonise all Muslims. Perhaps it is this nuance that the knee-jerk- reaction loving, easy-answer-seeking elements of the right-wing media fail to grasp about the relationship between the Left and Islam.
So blame the individual attackers, obviously. Nothing can absolve them from that responsibility. Or blame the radical clerics if you like. Or blame the idiotic wars that have made Britain a target for terrorism. Or blame the EDL nutters and extremist Islamic groups, who both provide each other the fuel they need. But the Left? Honestly, I don’t think so.