Britain has voted for Brexit, and my facebook page is once again filled with vitriol. Those who wished to Remain are saying that Leavers are ignorant, racist nationalists, or in the words of one Remainer on my timeline, Leave ‘are a bunch of narcissistic xenophobic anti-intellectual nihilistic single-issue flagrant liars’. After wide reading and careful reflection I chose to vote Remain, but this kind of statement makes me embarrassed to be counted among this vociferously hostile group. However, I have other friends who say they are getting similar abuse from Leavers, so it seems that civility has been lost on both sides.
To make matters worse, the Americans are making our referendum into a party political issue, with Democrats supporting the Remain camp and joining in with the argument that Leavers are all racists, without any understanding of the class system in the UK and the way that it has divided the Leave and Remain camps. Donald Trump has made things a zillion times worse by supporting Leavers, most of whom don’t want his support; he is a figure who is widely loathed in this country. A few weeks ago one British Leftist extremist (with a history of mental illness) tried unsuccessfully to shoot him.
Tribal politics has its own manifestations in America, and I have heard dreadful things about Trump supporters and their hatred and violence– but I have heard similar stories about Sanders supporters. Each side is denigrating the candidates of the other by pointing out the hateful behaviour of their supporters. The accusations against both groups seem verifiable, but shouldn’t we be looking at the ideas and issues proposed by each candidate, rather than judging them by their supporters?
One terrible event that occurred during the Brexit campaign was the murder of MP Jo Cox by a right-wing extremist who may be mentally ill. Following the murder we were exhorted to ‘fight the hate’, but it was never clear whose hate we were supposed to be fighting. Our own? The hatred harboured by the mentally ill? The hatred of the Far Right? Except that the British Left is now lumping the whole spectrum of non-Leftist opinion into the ‘Far Right’, so that it even includes the Conservatives, although it was the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who led the campaign to Remain. The Left is very fond of exhorting us to fight some unspecified hate. A friend of a friend nobly asserted about 9/11 that ‘It was a terrible experience for thousands of us.. and some will use it as an excuse to spread hate. I choose not to.’ I am not sure who is exhorting her to ‘spread hate’, but I personally would not blame her if she were angry at the terrorists who murdered her partner in that attack, and if she felt hatred towards the perpetrators. Perhaps I am lacking in Christian charity.
The recent terrorist attack in Orlando is one of those events that has really highlighted the tribal thinking that is now prevalent. The attack itself was an appalling hate crime which targeted gay people in a nightclub on Latino night. In the wake of that atrocity, there were journalists declaiming that ‘this was an attack on all of us’. This was not an attack on ‘all of us’, any more than the attack at the Hypercacher was an attack on ‘a bunch of folks in a deli’. Gay people were targeted at the Pulse in Orlando, just as Jews were targeted in the Hypercacher. Let’s afford people the dignity of affirming that they were singled out because of who they were.
In the wake of the shooting, some of my friends were saying that the shooting was entirely to do with the lack of gun control in America and nothing to do with Islamic extremism; the prevailing orthodoxy on the Left is that Islam is a religion of peace, and many chose to ignore the IS connection. My right-wing friends said that the shooting in Orlando had nothing to do with a lack of gun control legislation and everything to do with Islamic extremism. There are two opposing ideologies being espoused, but the problem with ideologies is that they entail a whole amalgam of premises, and you are expected to believe every single premise or you are a heretic. The Right regard heretics as fools, and the Left regard heretics as bigots. Neither view is helpful.
My thinking is, as always, heretical. I think radical Islam is a problem, AND I think the absence of gun control is a problem, and so I find myself unable to march in political lockstep with the analyses of either the American Left or the Right.
In the UK we have both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crime, with the statistics pointing to a greater number of attacks on Jews despite the fact that we make up c. 270,000 compared to the 10x greater Muslim population of c. 2,700,000. However, we have very little problem with gun crime and mass murder, because we have strict legislation around gun ownership. You can have a gun if you are not crazy, but you can’t have automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Those are illegal, because they serve no other purpose than to carry out mass shootings. Sooner or later we will have another tragedy like 7/7, but our gun legislation and our excellent intelligence services have so far kept us pretty safe.
My left-leaning friends are absolutely right that hatred of Muslims is a serious problem, and it is to be deplored, but actually the statistics show that most hate crime perpetrated against religious minorities in America is also against Jews. The issue of Islamic extremism is clouded in America, because you have mass shootings carried out by a range of people with different ideologies– right wing bigots who hate blacks, gays, Jews and Muslims– and Muslim extremists who hate gays, Jews, atheists and liberal democracy– and disgruntled people with other grievances, largely to do with feeling powerless. There are also left-wing extremists with causes related to animal rights or environmental issues. According to summaries of FBI statistics dating from 1980-2005, Islamic extremists are responsible for just 6% of terrorist attacks in America– but this includes attacks on property. If you look at the terrorist attacks that resulted in fatalities, then Islamic extremists were responsible for 24%. Population statistics tell us that Muslims make up just 0.9% of the population of America, so they are punching well above their weight in terms of terrorist attacks. However, it also seems logical to argue that fewer people would have died in those attacks if gun control measures were exercised.
If you look at Islamist extremism on a global scale, then my Right-wing friends are seeing the threats more clearly. According to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI), most mass shootings and suicide bombings in the world are carried out by Islamist extremists murdering Muslims of a different sect, or murdering Jews, Christians, or other minorities, or murdering the general public. In 2015, 78% of global terrorism occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. Boko Haram has now overtaken IS as the biggest killer, and 51% of terrorist deaths worldwide are due to the combined efforts of Boko Haram and IS. Islamic extremists were responsible for 20% of the terrorism fatalities in the West between 2006-2015, with ‘the West’ being made up of 38 countries which do not seem to be listed in any of the GTI reports, but which do not include Israel. The issue of why Islamic extremism has flourished to such a degree in recent times is too big an issue to discuss here, but part of the problem seems to be the collapse of a number of dictatorships in which the structures of democratic government were absent.
The latest ADL poll showed that 54% of Muslims in the UK hold anti-Semitic views, but if we flip that figure, it means that 46% do NOT hate us. I think sometimes of Abraham arguing with God about destroying the city of Sodom: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?’ And then Abraham argues God down to 45 and so on down to 10 good people. Surely if there are 1,242,000 Muslims in the UK who do not hate Jews, then we shouldn’t slate the whole group? Which leads me to my next consideration.
Liberal Muslims are being let down by both Left and Right. They are completely besieged, and are suffering attacks from every direction. In Bangladesh we are seeing gay Muslims, intellectuals and liberals being hacked to death by extremists and (last night) blown up in a restaurant. Muslims who become atheists are also in grave danger. The Western Liberals who should be supporting the gays, liberals, free thinkers and intellectuals in the Muslim world are instead undermining and frequently castigating them with a shocking lack of sympathy and understanding. My Egyptian Muslim friend Ahmed is a journalist who is tirelessly writing and speaking out for peace and understanding around the world, with an emphasis on Holocaust education and kind words for Israel, but he is deeply hurt by the hostility and suspicions from other Muslims, coupled with blanket hatred from the Far Right, but on top of this there is a lack of support from the Left, who are busy showing sympathy for the more backwards elements of Islam. Another of my Muslim friends– also a supporter of Israel– recently posted in hurt bewilderment that he had been unfriended by a large number of people because he professed to be a proud Muslim. Why shouldn’t he take pride in who he is, just as Jews take pride, and gay people take pride, and everyone of every nationality and religion should take pride in who they are?
It seems to me that Leftist thinking tends to assume that people are all alike underneath a thin veneer of cultural difference. The problem with this thinking is that culture is not a veneer– it is a whole set of beliefs and ideas that make up a coherent world-view, which often needs a distinct language to describe it. Nothing can prepare you for living in a foreign country where the thinking is fundamentally different to your own; my anthropology professor used to say ‘there are many different ways of being human’, and the only way to truly understand how different we are is to go and live abroad. I’ve done it many times now, and it is a deeply uncomfortable experience– it is confusing, frustrating and often infuriating, but it is also an eye-opener, and we all need our eyes– and our minds– open.
Refusing to identify and define a problem because the conclusion or perceived consequences make you uncomfortable– e.g. refusing to say the word ‘Islamist’– is not a good way forward. It’s important to entertain a range of ideas, even just briefly, just in case one of them turns out to be sustainable. Look at the evidence. Think broadly. Discard pet theories when the evidence is stacked against them. Thinking through uncomfortable views on terrorism won’t make you ‘hateful’, as the left would have it, or stupid, as the right would have it– thinking things through is what rational people do.