We’ve become desensitised to terror

22 October 2020

8:05 PM

22 October 2020

8:05 PM

Samuel Paty, a teacher at a school in a sedate suburb of Paris, was beheaded in the street last Friday by an 18-year old Chechen former asylum-seeker. The reason for this act of savagery was that Paty had shown cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to a school class, to illuminate a discussion about civic freedoms and the boundaries of debate.

In order to avoid unnecessary offence, he had allowed anyone who wished to avoid viewing the cartoons to leave the classroom. Afterwards, one Muslim pupil is reported to have told her father. He complained to the school and then is alleged to have launched a sustained and inflammatory online campaign against Paty and the school, aided and abetted by at least one well-known Islamist preacher and, according to France’s interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, activist organisations like the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (who deny their involvement).

The news took me back with a jolt to an evening in Riyadh in late May 2013, during my time as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. I was dining with a group of Saudi friends when news appeared on my phone about a terror attack in Woolwich. It soon became clear that this was an attack on an unarmed, unsuspecting and off-duty British soldier by two violent British Islamists. Poor Lee Rigby had been savagely stabbed and almost decapitated. I felt sick, made my excuses and left.

We risk becoming desensitised to the sheer horror of all this. Equally importantly, we risk becoming confused about how we should react – indeed whether we should even do so. There are always those who argue that it’s all our fault. In the wake of the attack on Samuel Paty, there have been some extraordinary posts on social media which come close to justifying his murder because of the perceived insult to the prophet of Islam represented by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

The editor of the online magazine, 5pillars, for example, wrote,

‘Charlie Hebdo must now be shut down. This racist, Islamophobic rag is causing community relations to completely break down with its repeated provocations. They are literally crying fire in a crowded theatre. Freedom of speech isn’t worth civil war.’

He added ‘Western civilisation is in crisis and in dire need of reform. It has completely lost its moral compass and now only exists to worship materialism and to oppress others.’ Dana Nawzar Jaf, a Kurdish writer who received a British government scholarship to study at Durham University and has written for the New Statesman, in a tweet that has now been deleted, thought the most important point was to condemn the ‘French police’s brutal senseless murder of the Muslim suspect last night’.

The advocacy group CAGE drew a forced contrast between the French government’s entirely understandable reaffirmation that free speech is not an excuse for murder and a small fine it imposed on a man for insulting the national flag. There is more of this sort of garbage if you have the patience and the stomach to search for it.

Reporting of the crime in France has, of course, been massive and commentary agonised. Yet coverage in the British press has been low key in contrast. Why should this be so? It may be that such events have simply been normalised, made banal – and that we have collectively become desensitised. Another reason may be that the press in this country at least has been successfully intimidated by those who constantly complain about the alleged media misrepresentation of Muslims. For example, there has been pressure on editors not to give prominence to claims that Islamists use the takbir – the phrase ‘Allahu akbar’ – before or during an attack (as Samuel Paty’s murderer seems to have done).

Those who want to bury their heads in the sand could always take comfort from Neil Basu, the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police with responsibility for Counter-Terrorism, who frequently warns about right-wing and white-supremacist extremism, even while admitting that the vast majority of terror threats in the UK continue to emanate from violent Islamists within and outside the country. He thinks journalists need to be more ‘responsible’ in their reporting. Some of his colleagues seem also to think that the use of terms like ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamist’ in connection with terror attacks is provocative. But if we can’t name something, we can’t report it properly.

It is precisely this failure of nerve that President Macron was trying to get at in his recent speech about Islamism, Islamist separatism and the weaponization of Islamophobia in France. This was prefigured earlier this summer by an excellent report issued by the French Senate on Islamist radicalisation, separatism, the weaponisation of Islamophobia, and the struggle over education. That report in turn had been foreshadowed by the equally excellent and disturbing report on attacks on secularism in schools written in 2004 for the Minister of Education.

Macron promises new legislation. There are demands for harsh action against known Islamists who seek to undermine republican values by their words or actions. Already the police are raiding addresses and making arrests. But we’ve seen this before: a flurry of action, and then a gradual relapse into apathy and defeatism as politicians realise that moving the levers of government, especially on an issue as contested as this, requires iron resolve, the patience of a saint and the hide of an elephant.

It is also difficult because the real issue is not the expulsion of a bunch of hate-preachers or would-be jihadis. It is about how we define and stand up for what politicians are fond of describing as ‘western values’. That means knowing what they are and then communicating them with subtlety, empathy but also pride. And at the heart of this is the question of history. We have allowed a penitential version of our history to prevail in much public discourse which sees it as uniformly oppressive, racist and deeply damaging to the rest of humanity. This is ignorant nonsense. All history is light and shade. Yet this gets lost these days in the mass hysteria on social media, in our universities and other national institutions about race, gender and other bogus Foucauldian constructs of power and oppression beloved of the western academy.

Both here and in France – and across Europe and the US (where the New York Times’ bizarre 1619 Project has at least provoked a proper backlash) – we need to confront and challenge those who promote such hucksterism. That’s not a job simply for central government. Without reversing the capture of vice-chancellorships, headships of colleges, university departmental chairs or the boards of quangos, no government will have sufficient allies. Without constantly challenging the online provocations of Islamists and their allies and subjecting their substantial and often-concealed funding to tracing, scrutiny and control, they will continue to set the tone of the debate about community cohesion and the limits of religious tolerance. Without backing and protecting teachers who want to promote proper educational standards, we shall continue to encourage a culture of slovenly reasoning. And without fundamental reform of the machinery of government, civil servants will continue to tell ministers that it’s all too difficult.

I’d add one other thing. When I was asked by David Cameron to lead the so-called Muslim Brotherhood review in 2014, once I’d avoided being knocked over by my FCO colleagues in their rush for cover, I concluded that if you were going to talk about British values, you really needed to articulate what they were. We have new enemies now. It’s about time we recognised that.

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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