Yes, I am going to post something about Charlie Hebdo. If you’re sick of the whole thing, look away now.
But I am bewildered. Almost everything that can be said, has been said, however there is something being repeated – mainly by those on the liberal left – which seems to go unchallenged, and sends my little head spinning.
Ok, so I will paraphrase, and I hope that no one feels I am misrepresenting the thrust of this, but when there are calls for a more forthright response from the Muslim community, there’s a chorus of: ‘Why should ordinary Muslims be held accountable for the actions of a few nutters? Extremist Islam, Jihadism etc is a perversion of the true faith of Islam. This has nothing to do with Islam. To ask for this is to be Islamophobic. Why should ordinary Muslims even have to justify or dissociate themselves from these psychopaths? And as for apologising? That’s just a ridiculous offensive thing to expect… And, yeah, why do people keep going on about it? How many times to ordinary mainstream Muslims have to say this is nothing to do with them and condemn it?’
The comedian Mark Steel wrote a piece for The Independent about this last week. He wryly commented that Norwegian Christians weren’t expected to apologise for the massacre carried out by Anders Breivik; moderate Geordies weren’t expected to denounce the actions of Raoul Moat; and as for Americans, they can talk, he commented ironically, after all you can’t imagine someone going berserk with a gun in a public place there.
It was these comments – and similar that I heard elsewhere – that sparked my reaction, because, hang on a minute Mark Steel et al, the notion of a moderate community being asked to hold the actions of its transgressors to account applies in all three of those cases… and there are lots and lots and lots of other examples to add to it.
Ok, so Anders Breivik. The week after his terrible killing spree, there was endless soul searching. How could such a poisonous ideology be allowed to vent itself in our society? Was he psychotic or idealised, or both? Were there signs that should have been spotted? Were their things in his upbringing, in Norwegian society, that provoked his dangerous state of mind? What should Norwegian society do to prevent this from ever happening again? It would have been easy to simply write him off as a lone nutter and not even bother talking about it, but they, and we, did, because in western democracies we think collectively.
And then there’s Raoul Moat. I’ve read a lot about him because I wrote a play a year or two back based largely on his awful end story. Did Geordies feel accountable for him? You bet they bloody did. Acres was written on the subject, phone-ins on Radio 5 were jammed with calls, much of it similar to the Breivik debate, but with a slightly different spin: Was Moat a phenomenon rooted in white working class culture that needed to be addressed? And in Moat’s case all sorts of people are considered culpable for what happened for not doing enough to check his growing madness and paranoia. Again there is very strong evidence to say he was simply an extremely disturbed individual, but yes, still, the community from whence he originated engaged in some lengthy soul searching (and sadly, in another parallel there are still some people in that community who view him as a hero and a martyr to this day).
And lastly to spree killers in the US. What happens every time one of these awful atrocities occurs? Soul searching, that’s what. America is held to account collectively, condemned for its veneration of personal gun ownership. The NRA repeatedly protest; ‘It’s not guns that are at fault – it’s gun owners! How many times do we have to tell you?’ And anti gun lobbyists (many of them cut from the same lefty cloth as me and Mark Steel) come back and say: ‘That simply isn’t good enough. This keeps happening. You need to bloody well DO something about it. You need to take responsibility for your own community. Although these are a handful disturbed individuals in a country of 400m, you clearly have a cultural problem which must be addressed.’
Let’s spread the net a bit wider. Let’s look at another religion. Catholicism. As we all know it has recently been rocked to its core by hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse by male priests. Are all catholic priests child abusers? Of course they aren’t. Is Catholicism itself a source of evil? I would definitely say not (although I know people who would!). But should the Catholic church take responsibility for the crimes of child abuse committed under its cloak of authority? Of course it should (and finally it is – hurrah!). Should the Pope take responsibility for this, even though I imagine he has never abused a child in his life? Yes. And crucially, should ordinary Catholics bear this weight as well? Well of course they bloody should. And they have. How can I be so sure of this? Because for years, everyone tried to pretend that this wasn’t happening. It was only when it got into the public arena, and ordinary catholics were empowered so that they could collectively work together to make sure that the decency of the majority of believers prevailed over the exploitation of their church’s hierarchy that (hopefully) such systemic abuse started to become thing of the past.
How about a pop at the Jews. I’m half Jewish by the way, which informs this. Should Jews be held accountable for the actions of the state of Israel? Of course we bloody should. We can’t pretend that what’s going on with the Palestinians isn’t anything to do with being Jewish, or collective Jewish history. Of course it is, for reasons that should probably be the subject of another blog – and the relationship between being Jewish and the State of Israel is highly complex, and full of sensitivities, but to pretend that somehow the actions of right wing Zionists are divorced from Jewry as a whole is ridiculous. That doesn’t mean ‘all Jews are right wing nationalists’ but we all have a responsibility in some small way as to where the narrative goes. And the world won’t stop holding Israel and Jews to account until the problem is resolved. I’d go as far as to say that the constant refrain ‘this has nothing to do with being Jewish as such’ isn’t helpful at all! If we keep saying that then we’ll never solve anything.
And one last religion? Football. No one would deny that football has, in the past, been intermittently plagued with violence and racism. Of course it would be ridiculous to posit that all football supporters are racist and violent. But it would be equally ridiculous somehow to pretend that violence and racism weren’t endemic in the British game, and certainly it was the case in the 60s, 70s and early 80s that the whole of British Football was tarred with this brush (and outraged supporters would ring phone-ins proclaiming: ‘But these thugs aren’t real football supporters!’).
Sooo… here’s the question. Was it wrong for the general public to look at football as a whole and say: ‘We want you to clean up your act’? Whether the answer to that is yes or no (a different debate perhaps), in the end it has been up to the football worshipping community as a whole to make sure that these patterns of behaviour are banished from within their own ranks – and indeed that process is still ongoing.
I could go on and on and on – the British Empire (constant calls for reparations and apologies), apartheid, slavery, Bloody Sunday (many aspects of the war in Northern Ireland) etc etc etc – all aberrations of society which require people from the top and bottom of society to take collective responsibility, to apologise, to recognise the need for change, and to work collectively to effect that change. And they all start with a group of people saying – even if they are not the perpetrators themselves – it was us; it is our responsibility to put things right, it is through collective responsibility that society IS society and communities have the ability to change.
I don’t see the Muslim community as exempt from this. And as Mark Steel drew that comparison with American spree killers, let’s run with that. We keep chewing at America’s heels about their terrible gun laws because it keeps happening, because the problem seems to be getting worse not better. It’s not a direct equivalent, but there is a striking similarity with Jihadist violence. It’s not getting better. There is clearly something within the Muslim community that needs addressing.
But, runs the counter argument to that, it’s all of our problem. Why land it on the Muslim community? That’s Islamohpobic, that’s racist!
No, it’s not racist. It’s specific. I, as a white, British, half Jewish, non Muslim libertarian lefty intellectual can no more get to the heart of how to steer young Muslims away from violent Jihad than I can really lecture a Mid West NRA advocate on the merits of gun control. In the end both these groups, like many others, do have to sort this stuff out themselves.
After all, the non muslim west has tried to intervene on the behalf of moderate Islam for the last however many years… and I’m sure we’re all agreed that that has hardly been a success.
So, yes, as a raddled old leftie, I DO want the Muslim community to get its act together to fight extremism. A few spokespeople on Newsnight or Channel 4 is not enough. I am repeatedly assured that of course this internal dialogue is going on, but I reserve the right to keep asking until I see some change, just as we hold all sorts of bodies and communities to account until we see change. I will keep writing to the Israeli embassy about Gaza; and I will still view the Catholic church with wariness; and demand of myself and everyone I know that we take responsibility for the basics of human discourse. If I hear someone being racist, I challenge them about it, and see it as a personal failure, if I bottle out. And I feel particularly responsible for my own communities – British, Jewish, Middle Class, White, Male… I know I have added responsibility for the actions of my own and I expect to be called to account when those communities fail. I don’t expect a free pass because it’s one of my own letting the side down. Collective responsibility is at the heart of socialism – but it isn’t evenly spread – all of us have some people for whom we are more responsible than others.
Or as some people might put it satirically….