The days that followed the Woolwich murder, an event likely burned onto the public conscience for some time to come, have been full of intrigue and confrontational standpoints. On one extreme there have been harrowing commentaries full of racism, xenophobia and ignorance and on the other, a desperate movement to mitigate some of the negative sentiment through calls for reflection and compassion. Both are flawed positions, although the former hugely more so, and this is a case that warrants further analysis.
As the story developed it became clear that the assailants of Drummer Lee Rigby were possessed of a very fundamental interpretation of Islam and seemed to have a very political message. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale spoke of British military actions abroad, the killing of Muslims and the apathy of Western governments towards their own people. There can be no excusing the brutality of their actions, truly diabolical as they were, but there is an underlying dimension that British people and many Westerners are very uncomfortable in addressing.
The UK and USA have been engaged in a prolonged series of military actions in the Middle-East, during which innumerable damages have been done to civilian infrastructures and innocent populations. We are very quick indeed to write off the deaths of a family of Muslims in some misfired air strike as the inevitable collateral damages of war, a war which some would try and point out that extremist Muslims began. This is would be an inaccurate understanding of the historical narrative that led to the larger terrorist attacks of the early 2000’s.
Western powers, historically British, French and Russian, contemporarily American, British and international, have been manipulating and controlling power dynamics in North Africa and the Middle-East for over two hundred years. This isn’t a legacy many Westerners are familiar with but you can guarantee it lingers strongly in the cultural memories of those places where we made incursions. Recent history, the last twenty or thirty years, are merely further points of antagonism between these regions and the West. There can be no legitimising terrorism, ever, but 9/11 and 7/7 didn’t happen for reasons purely internal to Islam.
Just like the murder of Lee Rigby wasn’t accountable to similarly reductive reasoning. This incident is laden with a complexity that frankly many observers are struggling to appreciate, or are jingoistically unwilling to try. In reaction to my previous article, I was told that it’s actually easy to take the pan-egalitarian position, “It’s no one’s fault, don’t blame anyone, be nice,” and much harder to take the critical stance. Quite the opposite I argue, not that I was at any point holding no one to account in my mind. Rather, I was holding all the appropriate considerations to account, or as many as I could consider.
The outcome of this makes it hard to provide decisive critique of something which to many is so visceral, that they are looking for the quickest route to an easy logic. Oh, if we had less immigration this wouldn’t have happened because these young men were of immigrant descent. Oh, bloody Islam, it’s such a violent, evil religion, we should expunge it from the human record. Oh, law and order, if we lived in a police state with overbearing internal security this could have been prevented. And, of course, the ever present generic hate for politicians, “What are they doing about this, if they had done something this wouldn’t have happened?!?”
None of these are solutions, just scapegoats for underlying factors that fewer are willing or able to look at. The probable truth of this story is that the manner in which our nation interacts with a part of the world is coming home to visit. This does not make the murder of Lee Rigby our fault, and Muslim communities have a stern impetus to address extremism within their own ranks, but we are not totally without complicity. I take the middle position from those I referenced at the start. Now is the time for hard reflection, genuine understanding and effective, proactive, action for resolution.