Pandaemonium

TRIBALISM AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

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This is the full version of the article I wrote for the New York Times last month reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London (I cannot publish my New York Times articles in full on Pandaemonium until a month later).


On July 7, 2005, 52 people were killed when four suicide bombers detonated explosive devices on subways and buses. There were commemorations across the nation to honor the victims, including a ceremony of remembrance at the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park and a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Ten years on, it may be hard to remember that what made the 7/7 bombings so shocking was not merely the death toll but the realization that the bombers were not foreigners but British citizens steeped in this country’s life and culture. In the decade since, the homegrown jihadi has become almost a fixture in British life.

There has been no repeat of the bombings, but the emergence of the so-called Islamic State has transformed the character of domestic jihadism. Some 700 British Muslims are believed to have joined the Islamic State — not just young men like those who carried out the 7/7 attacks, but mothers, grandfathers, schoolgirls and doctors.

Three days before the anniversary, 12 members of the Mannan family from Luton, a town about 30 miles north of London, put out a statement explaining why they had traveled to Islamic State territory in Syria. The family, of Bangladeshi origin, claimed to be happy to be living in ‘a land that is free from the corruption and oppression of man-made law and is governed by the shariah’.

This exodus to Syria has led non-Muslims to point an accusing finger at Muslim communities. In May, the prime minister, David Cameron, condemned those who, though not violent, ‘buy into’ the prejudices of Islamism and ‘quietly condone’ the actions of the Islamic State. A recent poll found that 56 percent of Britons thought that Islam posed a threat to Western liberal democracy, a figure 10 per cent higher than a decade ago. Fewer people today believe that most British Muslims are ‘peaceful, law-abiding citizens who deplore terror attacks’ than they did at the time of 7/7.

Surveys of Muslim opinion may seem to confirm such perceptions. A poll earlier this year showed that more than a quarter of British Muslims had some sympathy for the motives behind the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed by two gun-wielding Islamists. More than one in 10 thought the magazine deserved to be attacked for lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. A 2006 poll found that 40 percent of Muslims would welcome sharia law in Britain.

At the same time, many Muslim activists say that anti-Muslim attacks have skyrocketed in recent years. Figures from the Metropolitan Police in 2014 indicated that hate crimes against Muslims had risen by 65 per cent in the previous 12 months. Mehdi Hasan, a prominent Muslim commentator, wrote recently of the ‘relentless hostility towards Muslims’.

All this might suggest a nation polarized between alienated Muslims and non-Muslims hostile to Islam. The reality is different. What is striking about the past decade is not conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, but the relative ease with which different communities have got along.

Many polls have shown that Muslims identify with Britain to a greater degree than the population at large. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 77 percent said that they strongly identified with Britain, compared with 51 percent of the general population. Similarly, a Demos poll in 2011 found that 83 percent of Muslims were proud to be British, compared with 79 percent of Britons in general.

While anti-Muslim hatred is certainly present, there is by no means a climate of ‘relentless hostility’ toward Muslims. According to a poll from the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of Britons had an ‘unfavourable’ view of Muslims, while 72 percent looked upon Muslims ‘favourably’. Almost  twice as many of those surveyed had an unfavorable view of Roma people.

A generation ago, hate crimes like assaults, murders and firebombings were common. Today, such vicious racist violence is, thankfully, rare. Much of the rise in hate crimes has involved verbal and online abuse. That is still unacceptable, but we should not exaggerate the hostility.

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So, if in practice Muslims and non-Muslims coexist relatively peaceably, how do we explain the polarization in attitudes? Why do so many non-Muslim Britons regard Islam as a threat, while so many Muslims yearn for sharia law? In part, the seeming contradictions expose the difficulty of reading opinion polls; people’s answers often change significantly, depending on the wording and context of questions. But they also throw light on the character of British society today.

Politicians constantly call for a defence of ‘British values’ against ‘extremism’. But beyond platitudes about liberal democracy, they find it hard to articulate what those values are. At the same time, these leaders constantly undermine fundamental liberal values in the name of fighting terrorism, increasing state surveillance, by restricting free speech and banning organizations.

Meanwhile there has been, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, growing disaffection with mainstream politics. Such disaffection has increasingly been given shape by the politics of identity which has encouraged people to understand their problems, and discover meaning and identity, through ever-narrower lenses of culture and faith.

The result of all this is that people have come to understand values in terms less of ideals than of identity. For many non-Muslims, the idea of sharia conjures images of Islamic State beheadings or the oppression of women. For many Muslims, supporting sharia may mean no more than an affirmation of identity. For Muslims, the fact that half the British population view Islam as a threat is an expression of ‘relentless hostility’. For many non-Muslims it is often no more than an identity-based vision of values.

The real problem is neither Muslim disloyalty nor rampant Islamophobia. It is, rather, the emergence of a tribalized society in which people have an increasingly narrow sense of belonging. At the fringes, this can funnel disaffection into jihadism, on the one hand, and into anti-Muslim hatred on the other.

Britain is not divided into warring camps, as some would have it. But the consequences of tribalism can be devastating.

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The photos are of the 7/7 memorial in London’s Hyde Park. The cover image is from Rachel Gunn’s ‘Divided Ground’.

2 comments

  1. Judy Brown

    First, I do see your point about tribalism in our times. For me though, (and it’s wrenchingly personal for me, I have spent three years going further and further down this rabbit hole of “religion” and “culture” and is why I ended up a subscriber a few months ago to your excellent site): anyway…..for me, this whole topic is addressed more comprehensively by Orwell. “Tribalism” is related, but doesn’t get to the essence of the problem nearly as neatly as Orwell does. He wrote in the ‘thirties:

    “And from that they will proceed to argue that, after all, democracy is “just the same as” or “just as bad as” totalitarianism. There is not much freedom of speech in England; therefore there is no more than exists in Germany. To be on the dole is a horrible experience; therefore, it is no worse to be in the torture chambers of the gestapo. In general, two blacks make a white, half a loaf is the same as no bread.
    But in reality, whatever may be true about democracy and totalitarianism, it is not true that they are the same.”
    -George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

    To me, this is the bottom line we should all still be able to agree on. By “we” I am not sure who I mean. Perhaps I mean “most modern, educated people of character”, perhaps? Democracy, (if it really is democracy in practice, not in name only, and thus, as per Orwell, not democracy) is still considered our best hope, isn’t it, in the absence of any new ideas? The Theory of the Democratic Peace? Freedom plus responsibility? Please correct me if democracy is now in question. I am not talking about capitalism. I don’t see capitalism as tethered to democracy necessarily. They are seperate ideas.

    The historical foundation of any religion (as Kenan Malik often so interestingly explores) may constrain the forms a religion can take along it’s evolution and off-shoots. However, more to the point of the problem under consideration: how compatible are the current practices of any particular sub-group with the democratic model? There are wide variations among religious groups if an attempt is made to place them on a spectrum from totalitarian to democratic. Scientology? On a very troubling end of the spectrum. Unitarian Universalists? On the democratic end. This can be applied to not only religious and, obviously, political groups, but also business groups, “self-help” groups, and any other associations invented by humans. For example, we have a lot of problems with disturbing, culty, manipulative business rackets here in the United States that recruit vulnerable individuals with promises of “total financial freedom” and then proceed to pick their pockets as best they can. If you look closely at them, they operate in the same way as any unhealthy, exploitative religion or political system.
    One of the techniques used is the creation of an “us versus them” mentality, in other words, a tribalism planted and nurtured by the group leadership. There are many other common techniques and features though. Tribalism is just one of them.

    I don’t agree with absolutely everything Quilliam’s Maajid Nawaz says, but I do strongly agree with some of his commentary. I heard him say in a radio interview, part of his self-deradicalization process in prison was reading Orwell in the prison library, the novels and the essays. I paraphrase here but he said something to the effect that as he read Orwell, it began to occur to him that his fellow radical Islam elite were themselves characters right out of Animal Farm, and that were they to actually come to power it would end the same way as Orwell’s allegory. I very much agree with this by Nawaz:

    “A better approach, I feel, and this is the advice I have been giving the British Government and others across the World, is that the State should work within communities to reinforce the core values of the social contract. These would be secularism, respect for human rights and democratic process, a respect for individual autonomy and liberty. And those values, regardless of one’s religious affiliation, need to be reinforced and religious communities need to be aware that it is their responsibility to reconcile their respective sects and religious interpretations with the values of the social contract.

    It’s not the state’s problem that they are unable to do that, it’s the community’s responsibility to do that, and that is where we are very far behind, currently, in this debate, in that the communities across the spectrum, Muslim and non-Muslim, all need to step up to the plate and start reinforcing these core values which make our societies stable and peaceful.”

    “I think the world currently is divided between those who stand for liberty, democratic values, pluralism, tolerance, respect, and the rule of law; and those who stand for any form of fascism, whether clerical fascism, in the form of a theocratic state, or totalitarian states, such as North Korea.” -Maajid Nawaz

    I particularly agree with the last sentence.

  2. damon

    I’d be interested to hear Kenan’s take on this ”Statement of contemporary European anti-semitism”.
    http://inthesetimes15.wix.com/statement#!A-Statement-on-Contemporary-European-AntiSemitism/cmbz/55c0c3d40cf28e7a8e40c34c

    It sounds good at first reading, and is signed by a long list of people. But is it just tribalism dressed up as well-meaning propaganda and spin? I tried to have a go at picking bits of it off on a well known pro-Israeli website and was quickly accused of being an apologist for antisemitsm.
    My problem with it is that it just weaves too many things into its overall narrative.
    And is a bit dishonest for doing so.
    But that’s how all interest groups operate these days I think.

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