Sir David Amess, a long-serving UK Conservative Member of Parliament, was stabbed to death while hosting a surgery with his constituents in the English seaside town of Southend-on-Sea. Her Majesty the Queen has agreed that the town be re-classed a city, one of Amess’s many passions while in office, and tributes have poured in to the popular politician from across the UK political divide. The country is shocked: this is the second time a sitting MP has been murdered in 5 years.
Jo Cox, an opposition Labour MP, was shot dead by a far-right wing terrorist in 2016: Sir David Amess was also killed by a terrorist, although this time the attacker seems to have been a self-radicalised 25 year old British Somali man named Ali Harbi Ali who appeared to come from a stable background and whose father had been an advisor to the Somali Prime Minister.
The Somali Prime Minister and many others have condemned the attack: so to have the British Somali and Muslim community leaders. But why should they? 25 year old men don’t seem to feel obliged to make a statement: but they have just as much in common with a violent extremist as the average Somali or Muslim do (that is, nothing). Some British Somali’s heritage stretches back 100 years: some of their Muslim brethren have been in the UK even longer. But they now feel obliged to make such statements because they have been through the backlash that always follows in the aftermath of a terrorist attack where the attacker claims to be a follower of Islam. They are trying to head off the inevitable.
Media Apportion Guilt
It is unfortunate that some elements of the British news media and self-appointed ‘commentators’ demand that Muslims, Somali or otherwise, apologise every time there is a terrorist incident. Those same news organs and talking heads don’t feel obliged to condemn right wing terrorism, such as the murder of Jo Cox MP or the van ramming of worshippers outside a London mosque that killed one and injured nine, despite the fact that their xenophobic rhetoric might well have contributed to the attacks. There is a body of research that shows that extending blame to a whole community, ethnicity or religion often deters the best placed people who might be able identify and help those at risk of radicalisation within their community.
Labelling and villainisation are equally unhelpful: one UK newspaper used the term ‘Somalian’ with reference to the attacker multiple times on its front page, compounding the problem of highlighting Ali Harbi Ali’s ethnicity and religion by using the wrong term for people who come from Somalia (they are Somali). That is just insulting.
We used to think terrorism was about the numbers and the media splash: but it is increasingly apparent that what terrorists actually want is a disproportionate, draconian government response to drive the undecided towards them and away from voices of reason and calm. Blaming and villainising does the terrorist’s work for them, and that lesson is not unique to the UK but to every country that has experienced terrorism.