x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

British Muslims start winning the war on terrorism hyperbole

Efforts by Britain's Muslim community to counter a narrative that suggests religious devotion is the first step to radicalisation and eventual violence may be showing results. Omar Karmi reports from London

Police forensic officers cover a car on a loader in Birmingham, following the arrest of six men as part of a counter-terrorism operation.
Police forensic officers cover a car on a loader in Birmingham, following the arrest of six men as part of a counter-terrorism operation.

LONDON // Not long ago, it would have prompted an avalanche of commentary - angry, worried or exculpatory.

But the conviction last month of three Muslims from Birmingham for plotting a terrorist attack the prosecution said would have been more devastating than the 2005 London bombings that killed 56 people was notable instead for a distinct lack of outrage in the British media.

Even Britain's ever-lively tabloid press was generally subdued about a story that, though reported across the board, prompted less navel-gazing of the what's-wrong-with-our-Muslims variety than might have been expected.

Why? Some observers suggest a growing sophistication - by British authorities, in particular - in the handling of stories of Islamic radicalism.

Others point to a depressed economy, a different political context and public fatigue with such stories.

Moreover, there was a certain ineptitude about the would-be suicide bombers that, for all the best efforts of the Crown Prosecution to paint them in a sinister light, was plainly obvious.

Ringleader Irfan Nasser, 31, may have been a chemistry graduate whom the presiding judge described as a "skilled bomb maker" and "explosives expert", but his plan to extract explosives material from cold packs marketed for sore and stiff athletes was unworkable from the start, with the material in question, ammonium nitrate, no longer used in such pain-relief kits.

Not only were the three not in possession of any explosives or any weapons of any kind, they had not decided on targets.

Nevertheless, the prosecution insisted a successful attack would have been "bigger than 7/7" and could have led to "death and injury on a massive scale".

It all created a tendency, wrote Stephen Pollard in the Daily Express a day after the judgement in one of the few commentaries on the case, to treat it as "a bit of a joke".

Yet Muhammad Abdul Bari, chairman of the East London Mosque and a former secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, suggested there was another reason for the muted response to the February 22 convictions.

Years of efforts by Britain's Muslim community to counter a narrative that suggests religious devotion is the first step to radicalisation and eventual violence was also beginning to show results, he said.

"We have been saying for years that criminals are criminals, and they don't have any religion," Mr Abdul Bari said.

The Birmingham case could easily have been sensationalised, he suggested, citing the fact that one of the convicted men volunteered with the charity, Muslim Aid, and it was money raised through this work that funded the group.

But the trial was not the subject of lurid headlines, in part because the police and prosecution did not resort to melodrama, he said.

The media takes its cues from the authorities, Mr Abdul Bari argued, and the handling of the case may signal a more sophisticated approach by officials, as well as a growing realisation among the British establishment and "sensible people, mainstream organisations, human rights groups and some politicians that the way things have been reported in the past didn't help."

"There are still a lot of challenges," Mr Abdul Bari said. "But they don't come from the mainstream media now."

Phil Ress, a media analyst and documentary filmmaker, agreed that British authorities are handling such cases in a different way.

But in part that is because the public is now less susceptible to "hyperbole" about terrorist plots, he said.

"I think there've been several cases that have been described as worse than 7/7. To some extent the prosecution has talked these up and I think people have slightly seen through it," Mr Rees said in a recent interview. "This kind of hyperbole only washes so far."

Also, Mr Rees argued, times have changed. The "sense of constant threat" of a few years back has disappeared, he said, while Muslim anger in Britain at the country's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has subsided as those wars wind down.

Security services are also no longer briefing the media in the same way.

"The politics of fear is obviously needed for any country to launch wars. And clearly, that isn't being encouraged by the security services in the same way it was."

The entire political context has changed the narrative, he said, not least with the Arab Spring turning from black-and-white to shades of grey.

"It's become harder to define who is a terrorist." Mr Rees said. "Look at the government's policy in Libya and now Syria. You have people who left Manchester to go to Tripoli popping up on the news who are called 'freedom fighters'. If they had gone to Pakistan, they would have been called 'terrorists'."

Unlike most of his colleagues in the media, Mr Pollard was not so sanguine about the involvement of Muslim Aid.

Some Muslim charities are banned elsewhere, he noted, lamenting British legislation that "allow them to operate" in the UK. The Birmingham case, he concluded, even as he was careful to draw a distinction with the majority "law abiding" Muslims in the country, should be a "wake-up call".

"It is critical that we do not bury our head in the sand and pretend that the threat does not exist".

But his was a lone voice. Mr Abdul Bari suggested that the "simplistic narrative" that divides Muslims into "moderates" and "extremists" was gradually giving way to a more "nuanced" counter-narrative.

Mr Rees said new political priorities now meant Britain was "creeping into" a post-war on terror stage, one in which old narratives no longer persuaded a wiser public.

"The ridiculous simplicity that emerged just after 9/11 ... that whole language has proved to be full of holes, ill-defined and meaningless. To simply bandy it about helter-skelter these days to anybody with half a brain doesn't quite feel as reassuring."