November 19, 2021 - 8:10am

Our responses to terrorist incidents have a ritual quality — they serve what sociologists call a “sense-making” purpose.

One ritualised way of responding to an atrocity is to blame and punish the terrorist’s family and the wider community to which he belongs. We wisely try to avoid this — as well as being counter to our belief in individual responsibility, punitive revenge is usually counterproductive.

Western societies still seem to go down this path if the perpetrator is a right wing white male. Thus when Brenton Tarrant, an Australian Right-wing extremist, murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, the dominant media narrative was that Tarrant was part of a deeper reservoir of hatred and toxicity that runs through the institutions and culture of his class. Omer Aziz, writing in The New York Times, even sought to suggest that Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson were somehow part of the causal story of the massacre.

In the case of Islamist terror attacks however, our official response is even more convoluted and morally unclear: we condemn the perpetrator and his actions, but we cower before the community from which he comes.

Emad al Swealmeen carried out his attack on Sunday at around 11am, and it didn’t take long for the ritual to commence. On Monday, Merseyside Police (South Liverpool) tweeted out the following message: “Our community policing team has been out today visiting local leaders and faith groups to reassure them of our presence on the streets following the incident outside @LiverpoolWomens. We’re looking forward to visiting other places of worship across the religious spectrum soon.” You could be forgiven for thinking that Swealmeen had attacked a place of worship instead of detonating an explosive device outside a woman’s hospital.

A day later, The Guardian published a story in which Malcom Hitchcott, who, with his wife, had taken in Swealmeen after his conversion to Christianity, was quoted as saying that Swealmeen was “a quiet fellow”, who “impressed” him with the “depth of his prayers” and “knowledge of the bible”. In the same report, Cyril Ashton, a Church of England bishop who held confirmation for Swealmeen in 2017, lamented that despite his grounding in the Christian faith, “the bomber chose a different path for his life”, as though he was some lost soul who ended up in bad company with a drug habit, instead of someone who had spent months coldly planning to murder people in a vehicular bombing attack. This isn’t quite like saying he was a “beautiful young man” (as Cage’s Asim Qureshi evocatively described Mohammed Emwazi, who cut off people’s heads on camera for the greater glory of the Islamic State), but it’s not far off. 

You wouldn’t have caught anyone of any importance saying that Brenton Tarrant took “the wrong path”. I do remember lots of anguished articles saying, in effect, that he was so toxic that we shouldn’t even utter his name, as if by doing so we would contaminate ourselves, and a lot of talk about the global spread of white supremacy and how legions of young white men were at risk of being radicalised by Pepe the frog memes. Also absent were official visits to poor and marginalised white communities by police officers on a mission to reassure them that they’ve got their backs, and that they know that white supremacy is a perversion of mainstream white identity. 

Our response to Islamist terrorism has become so fearful that the police can’t even bring themselves to name the ideology of the terrorists. Senior members of the Metropolitan police last year considered abstaining from using the term “Islamist” when describing terror attacks carried out by self-proclaimed jihadists acting in the name of Islam. (Proposed alternatives included “faith-claimed terrorism” and the less catchy “terrorists abusing religious motivations”.)

Of course the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, but to deny that a tiny number among them who commit terrorist atrocities are not Muslims or were not motivated by their Islamic beliefs as they interpreted them, is delusion. It is also the height of hypocrisy to try to normalise some terrorists and not others, according to their ethnic identity or faith.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.