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New Statesman: The absurd hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists” exposes the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice

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Muslim children are being watched closely for signs of radicalisation. Anything from not celebrating Christmas to shunning art and drama is now grounds for suspicion, and reason enough to invade the “private space” of British Muslims. Nurseries are duty-bound to inform on toddlers they suspect of being at risk of becoming “terrorists”, in a sick reworking of genetic justifications for black criminality that somehow presuppose an inherent dispositions towards terrorism in Muslim kids. Just this month, primary schools – key centres of trust and care in the community – were turned into centres of racial profiling in which nine- and ten-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire devised “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age” (the BRIT project, which was behind the questionnaire, has since removed any references to radicalisation and violent extremism from its website).

It is hard to comprehend how calls for children to be racially profiled, for mass and intrusive surveillance and a criminalisation of some of the most basic elements of religious practice – such as a “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol” – could seemingly come to pass with so little uproar.

As a parent I spoke to from Buxton School, one of the institutions targeted by the recent questionnaire scandal, put it: “If these children were adults going for a job, this sort of information about their ethnicity, religious identity and views, etc, would not be disclosed and would be protected – why is such data now being collected about young children who might not even know what they’re saying and yet, who may now be profiled based on information collected when they were in primary school? Who is monitoring how this information is being used?” (Buxton School has since disassociated itself from the scheme.)

Even universities, traditionally bastions of free speech, are now expected to refer students “at risk”, with notions of what constitutes “risk” expanding to include “non-violent extremism”, a term so nebulous universities themselves have voiced concern over what exactly it is they are supposed to be monitoring.

The conclusion many Muslims are reaching is that the perception of a tacit complicity of the Muslim community in terrorist activity has gained such traction that the sorts of measures that might see Orwell turn in his grave – formal as well as more tacit restrictions on the basic freedoms of over 2.71 million Muslim citizens – now pass largely unobstructed. Dehumanisation has reached such depths that society is increasing willing to accept a two-tier system in which Muslims simply do not benefit from the same levels of freedom as everyone else.

In a leaked document in March, the Home Office made clear its focus is no longer violence, but has now expanded to include viewpoints – in other words mere ideas – it considers unacceptable.

As the space for dissent shrinks, the arts take on a critical role in vocalising increasingly unacceptable ideas and challenging the status quo, a vital space to humanise those overwhelmingly depicted in terms of a societal threat – Trojan horse, fifth column, potential radicals. Even the language employed to describe vulnerable young people ensnared by violent cults betrays a sense of complicity in their own exploitation – the use of the term “Jihadi brides” in reference to young women groomed for a life of sexual slavery, a term about as sensitive as referring to the victims of the recent child sex grooming scandals, as “loose women”.

A recent double play in particular, Hurling Rubble at the Sun/Hurling Rubble at the Moon by the British Pakistani poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad, explores the far right and Muslim extremism, laying out the complex and intertwined ingredients which come together to produce violent ebullition. More than anything, Mohammad’s play allows the audience to explore the motivations for violence, without dehumanising its perpetrators, and in so doing, the space to acknowledge the centrality of psychological and human factors, so often ignored. It also highlights the absurdity of a hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists”, recentering factors common to all those vulnerable to messages of violent empowerment, be it through gangs, cults or religious supremacy.

Given the seemingly inescapable lens of “Muslim terrorism”, which Muslim artists themselves struggle to escape, the simple fact of producing a story about Muslim experience which isn’t about terrorism appears a form of resistance in Ambreen Razia’s debut drama, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl at the Ovalhouse Theatre.

Razia’s play isn’t about extremism. Nor should a young Muslim playwright have to explain why young girls join extremist groups, as Razia was called upon to do in a recent BBC interview. What Razia’s monologue does present, however, are the limitations of life through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.

Her character, Shaheda, doesn’t end up heading for Syria. Instead, after being filled with no less evocative lies, she ends up pregnant and stuck in her Hounslow bedroom. Her vulnerability to the suave ways of a local reprobate is less about the strictures of her heritage and more about her inability to understand what her expectations of love can or should be. In other words, in transcending the particularities of her Muslim-ness, the audience finds universally recognisable challenges faced by young people today. Like Shaheda, long before they’re “jihadi brides”, these girls are lost schoolgirls, desperate for affirmation, love and recognition.

And so while Razia’s play isn’t about young girls drawn to IS fighters, it does offer insight into the kind of apathy which may lead young, ambitious girls to be drawn in by narratives of cosmic love. Whether running away with the local bad boy or the IS pin up, thwarted aspirations, counter-cultural teenage notions of love and heroism and a desire for more than the limited paths perceived ahead are powerful human motivations, often lost in stale political debates.

As the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used to narrow the space for dissenting voices, be they opposition to foreign policy or anti-systemic views more broadly, art feels – as it has so often been – like the last, shrinking space in which increasingly unacceptable ideas can be truly be aired and possibly heard.

You can read the original piece here, on the NS site.


Written by Myriam Francois

June 11, 2015 at 09:50

Sky news: Should Charlie Hebdo Satirical Cartoons Be Published?

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Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a writer and journalist, Noman Hosni, a French Muslim comedian, and Kevin Kallaugher, a cartoonist for the Economist, debate the publication of satirical Charlie Hebdo cartoons

Written by Myriam Francois

January 11, 2015 at 14:56

Middle East Eye: The language of ‘evil’ doesn’t help us defeat IS

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You can read the full article here, on the MEE website

The horrifying beheading of British aid worker David Haines by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militants, and the spectre of future executions following the release of a video featuring journalist John Cantlie has once again shone the spotlight on IS’s violent tactics. Although the latest video seems to reflect a shift in strategy with Cantlie appearing alone, without the presence of an IS figure threatening him, his fate may ultimately prove no less brutal. Indeed the group has come to be associated with extreme acts of violence against both local populations and foreign nationals living in the region.

In a tweet, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Haynes’ murder “an act of pure evil” and described IS as “monsters”. But how helpful to our understanding of IS is it to label their actions using cosmic references to wickedness, and how effective can our response be if we fail to assess violence as a deliberate strategy?

IS’s staged approach to its executions – set, scripted, filmed and edited – suggests the group revel in their brutal image. They feed off the shock which their carefully choreographed actions engender and the horror they elicit only fuels their sense of power. After all, the way they like to depict their captives, dressed in the sort of orange jumpsuits we’re more used to seeing on Guantanamo detainees, reflects precisely the sort of power relations they are seeking to present – the tables are turned they are saying, we are the super-power now, it is your citizens whom we will do with as we please.

But it is precisely because of the group’s efforts to manage its image as a seemingly well organised, fully functioning state, with PR machine to boot, that we must be attentive not to readily accept their crafted appearance. In fact, according to French security specialist Alain Chouet, IS could well struggle to manage the territory it has conquered due to a lack of both manpower and funds, a much needed depiction of the group’s real, rather than overstated capabilities, which redresses some of the often unwitting hype created around the group. Just because IS controls territory the size of the UK, doesn’t mean the group can or should be regarded as a state or even entity of any equivalence. To quote the Arab academic Nazih Ayubi, referring to the region’s actual, existing states, “the real power, efficacy and significance of this state might have been overestimated.” The same is true but to a far greater extent concerning IS. A state suggests elements of legitimacy and consent wholly absent from this group’s engagement with local populations. To accept their self-declared status as a state is to implicitly accept their claim to representation, yet again favouring unrepresentative political pretenders over the drowned out voice of the people.

IS want to be perceived as a threat significant enough to be treated as an “equal” by Western states, and this is precisely why using the language of state actors, such as when both the White House and the Pentagon described the United States as “at war” with the group, only serves to reinforce the group’s mystique. In not adequately challenging IS’s narrative as an equal interlocutor, a rival “state”, we risk allowing the videos of these beheadings to become what the images of the fall of the Twin towers were for Al Qaeda, a victory totem and a rallying call to a group which seeks to build its support on an image of an ‘alternative utopia’ resisting Western might.

France recently announced it would no longer refer to the group by its chosen name, but by the derogatory term “Daesh”, partly to challenge precisely this narrative. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. (…) The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

In so doing, the French have actively rejected the group’s rebranding as “the Islamic State” and the concomitant attempt to lay claim to grandeur of Muslim empires by a guerrilla group who as Professor Fawaz Gerges from the LSE points outs, “actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base.” In fact, violence is central to the group’s strategy. Fawaz describes the violence as a rational choice, arguing that it represents a “conscious decision to terrorise enemies and impress and co-opt new recruits.” That is to say there is a logic behind the use of extreme violence. A logic which belies notions of an ahistorical “evil”.

When we refuse to see the perpetrators of violence as anything more than moral renegades, we risk overlooking the ways in which violence has in fact been not only key to the construction of the modern state, but central in fact to the very narrative of progress. Clearly, not all violence is equal. We accept the necessity of violence when we attribute it to a higher moral cause, but deem it senseless if the violence doesn’t fit our own narrative of progress. In the case of IS, understanding what motivates their belief in “violence as progress” is central to defeating them.

The violence meted out by IS today is itself happening in a region which has experienced the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last decade: over 200, 000 in Syria in the last three years alone, and hundreds of thousands more in Iraq before that. In both cases, extreme violence has been justified in order to either midwife or ‘protect’ the modern state, and to advance given ideals, of nationalism or democracy-promotion.

Understanding that IS’s violence has emerged from the overlap of two of the deadliest conflicts in the region is to realise that the group represents a continuation of local aspirations for self-governance in a context where violence has been the language of power and rule. While modern democracies evolve non-violent methods for ensuring public acquiescence, linking participatory initiatives to political success, in the region IS currently occupies, despite attempts a democratic process, brute violence has been the mark of the successful ruler. What’s more, their methods – crucifixions, beheadings and other forms of cruelty have become increasingly common among other, less high profile groups, whose exclusively Arab and Muslim targets make for less prominent headlines.

Despite the temptation to view IS as Al-Qaeda 4.0, a more accurate representation would be the apogee of the guerrilla groups which have come to over-run the failed states in the region. Unlike Al-Qaeda’s ‘transnational Jihad’, IS’s focus is state building in Syria and Iraq. While for Al-Qaeda, the main impediment to Muslim autonomy was Western meddling, rendering the West a target, IS’s main focus has been local targets they deem as “enemies”.

The focus on “evil Islamists” might be a useful bogeyman against which to rally public support, but it fails to understand IS’s violence either as a strategy to intimidate its opponents and inflate its weight, or as part of its internalised repertoire of state building.

Defeating them can’t possibly come through inflicting yet more violence on a battered region, nor in the form of Obama’s coalition of Western military interventionism teamed with notoriously repressive autocracies. The tried and hardly successful recipe, is unlikely to provide the necessary elements for a counter to the narrative of violence which has gained strength in the wake of the demise of the Arab uprisings, a narrative which claims political routes are ineffective and violence alone can build an independent Arab state. Ultimately, there is only one long term solution – a genuine process of inclusive state-building. Without it, the trumped up claims of impostor groups like IS seem far more convincing than they truly are.

Written by Myriam Francois

September 22, 2014 at 10:58

BBC Sunday Morning Live: How does Britain deal with home grown extremism

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you can watch the discussion here, featuring myself, Shiraz Maher, Lord Robert Winston, Douglas Murray and Dame Ann Leslie.

Huff Post: “The Woolwich attack: Should we feel terrorised?‎”

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You can read the original of this piece on the Huffington Post site, here

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich yesterday, questions have ‎surfaced on how best to describe the events – are labels such as “terrorism” either warranted or ‎even accurate? While the facts are still emerging, it is now clear the attackers were both British of ‎Nigerian heritage, with one named as 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo who, prior to adopting radical ‎Islamic views, is alleged to have dabbled in petty crime. The men attacked Lee Rigby in South East ‎London with a range of knives before being shot by police officers, as they attempted to turn on ‎them.‎

Many have questioned why the murder has received such unprecedented coverage, with some ‎pointing out that the equally brutal murder of 75 year old Mohammed Saleem, stabbed to death as ‎he returned home from his local mosque in Birmingham earlier this month, received comparatively ‎little attention. In both cases, a violent minority may be implicated in a murder with political ‎dimensions, in one case politically radicalised Muslims, in the other, the Far-Right. Both could be ‎dubbed a form of ‘terrorism’ and yet, only one has been.‎

It is a rather trite observation to state that the term ‘terrorism’ has become eminently politicised, ‎used much more readily and easily to refer to violence by certain types of political dissidents, such ‎as those whose violence targets the majority, than to refer, as it was originally devised, to states, ‎or groups targeting minorities. ‎

And yet, there are significant aspects of this case which appear to fit the ‘terrorism’ label. Amongst ‎these, the nature of the target – A British soldier – and the identity of the perpetrators – radical ‎young Muslims – as well as the stated motivation. When asked about his motive by an eyewitness, ‎one of the men responded, “because he has killed Muslim people in Muslim countries”, “I killed ‎him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan”. He ‎added: “You will never be safe. Remove your government”. What’s more the style of the attack, ‎undertaken and filmed in full public view with the objective of publicising the actions to a wider ‎audience, is reminiscent of a strategy employed by the media savvy loose network, often referred ‎to as Al Qaida. While there is evidence to suggest Michael Adebolajo became radicalised through ‎the now-banned al-Muhijaroun, the group is well known to security services who monitor it closely ‎and it treads a fine line between espousing hate and undertaking violent actions. Though the ‎group may have laid the foundations for a binary and simplistic worldview, it is likely other ‎inspiration was involved in the move to action.‎

‎ “We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight them as they fight us. ‎An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” one of the attackers told onlookers. To those familiar with ‎Al Qaida’s discourse, this is all too familiar. A veneer of Islamic rhetoric dressing up opposition to ‎the presence of Western troops in Muslim majority countries. The perpetrators need never have ‎met anyone vaguely even affiliated to Al Qaida, they may have simply imbibed the rhetoric, easily ‎accessible online and in the pamphlets and clips of extremists distributed in a murky underground ‎network. ‎

In a posting on a jihadist website in January this year, Al Qaida said ‘coming strikes’ would target the ‎‎’heart of the land of non-belief’ and that attacks would be ‘group, lone-wolf operations and booby-‎trapped vehicles’. If indeed the men turn out to be self radicalised Al Qaida groupies, the attack ‎would seem to suggest that the security services have become much efficient in countering more ‎elaborate plots and that extremists are now left with the “last resort” tactic advocated by Al Qaida ‎and its satellites – rogue attacks by individual foot soldiers – basic and simple to undertake, ‎requiring little planning or logistics and hence less likely to be foiled. The most recent “lone wolf”, ‎self-radicalising extremist was Frenchman Mohamed Merah, who killed three soldiers as well as ‎three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in March 2012. If this indeed the trend of the latest Al ‎Qaida attacks, they indicate just how weakened the network’s reach in Europe as become.‎

So should the Woolwich attack be dubbed terrorism? Yes, it appears to fit into the evolving pattern ‎of Al Qaida inspired attacks. But should we be worried? Not really. If Al Qaida style terrorism in ‎Europe peaked with the coordinated attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London on 7/7, the most recent ‎plots, from a foiled crude bomb plot at Glasgow airport in 2007, to yesterday’s knife attack on a ‎soldier, are an indication of just how limited their scope has become in Europe. ‎

The fact is the perpetrators want this to be perceived as an act of terrorism. Doing so would put ‎them in a league with the Al Qaida aficionados they have idealised and ultimately, vindicates their ‎sense of purpose, having “succeeded” in etching their names on the wall of terror, alongside the ‎Bin Ladens and Mohammad Sidique Khans of this world. That’s precisely why they requested the ‎public film their actions and why they appeared to relish a dramatic confrontation with the police. ‎Like all Al Qaida attacks, the force of the attack lies in the ripples of fear and division created as a ‎consequence. A successful attack against European targets is measured not in victims but in the ‎pandemonium and fear fostered. ‎
Thankfully, the British “keep calm and carry on” attitude has largely prevailed. Despite a worrying ‎spike in attacks on Muslims centres in the immediate aftermath, the message from the political ‎class has been broadly reassuring. Cameron was right not to return too promptly from Paris and to ‎advise soldiers to keep wearing their uniform in public. Muslim organisations have vocally ‎condemned the attack and stood united with their fellow citizens, a blow to the intended wedge al ‎Qaida seeks to place in order to attract its recruits.‎

Terrorism it might be, but the critical concern now should be to avoid the politicisation of public ‎fear, to further unnecessarily impinge on our civil liberties. In 2009, former head of MI5 Dame Stella ‎Rimington denounced the exploitation of public fear of terrorism to restrict civil liberties, while ‎campaign group Liberty have repeatedly warned that “the risk of terrorism has been used as the ‎basis for eroding our human rights and civil liberties”. Several peers have already pushed for the ‎government to resurrect the communications data bill, rebranding it a tool to fight terrorism and ‎John Reid has called for the total observation of all our data communications. Although Cameron ‎has said he wants to avoid “kneejerk responses”, we must remain vigilant. For our security, yes, ‎but also even more crucially, for our freedoms.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

May 24, 2013 at 18:01

European Islam or Islamic Europe

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A talk I delivered at Northampton University in February 2011, in light of David Cameron’s Munich speech on Multiculturalism: