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Hellyer: What we say about Muslims matters

Story highlights
  • H.A. Hellyer: Nativistic extremism can be as deadly as its Islamist counterpart
  • Far-right activists might not be breaking the law, but they do bear some responsibility for violence that results, writes Hellyer

Editor's Note: (Dr. H.A. Hellyer (@hahellyer), senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council (DC) and the Royal United Services Institute (London), is author of "Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans" and "A Revolution Undone: Egypt's Road Beyond Revolt." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.)

(CNN) As the UK and the world process what happened in London's Finsbury Park, it's important we learn the right lessons. How did we get to this place, where a man literally runs down Muslim worshippers leaving prayer?

This tragic event is instructive -- in how we as a society relate to it, how we deal with the aftermath and in how we can avoid denial.

H.A. Hellyer

The number of people who want to mow down Muslims as they come home from prayer are very few in our country. But those who want to engage in a cultural war against Muslims and Islam are far more numerous. The latter doesn't necessarily lead to the former -- but we are dishonest and kidding ourselves if we insist there is nothing in common between them.

We tend to forget history far too quickly. The attacker today didn't come out of nowhere. Only a few years ago, one of the most devastating attacks on European soil took place at the hands of a white supremacist, Anders Breivik, in Norway.

Individual assaults on Muslims and mosques take place, alas, on a very regular basis -- the "Tell MAMA" organization that tracks such attacks reports this with great detail. The anti-Jewish rhetoric that so infested our continent in the 1920s and 1930s bears dangerously close similarities to the anti-Muslim bombast that is common today. We're not talking a new Holocaust, even though we should remember that it wasn't that long ago that the genocide of Bosnian Muslims took place.

We should all appreciate that security services acted so quickly to respond to the attack. According to reports, they were there within one minute of the attack taking place, and they confirmed it was a terrorist attack within eight minutes.

We should all take stock of that. This was a terrorist attack, apparently perpetrated by an anti-Muslim bigot, who openly declared himself to be as such when he reportedly started shouting, "I want to kill all Muslims," at those people he tried to kill. We shouldn't call this event anything other than an anti-Muslim, Islamophobic, terrorist attack.

The suspect, named in media as Darren Osborne, survived the attack but in his survival, he brought to light the dignity of many of those he allegedly sought to kill at that very mosque. After literally running down many of their fellow Muslims, the suspect found protection -- not wanton vigilantism -- at the hands of a group of congregants and an imam at the mosque, who stood guard over him as the police came to retrieve him.

So many times in recent years, different populist figures have argued that "Muslims don't respect our laws." People should remember the image of an imam guarding the man who had just attacked his community the next time yet another piece is written condemning Islam and Muslims.

What we say about Muslims matters. We must not pretend that the discourse of anti-Muslim bigotry is not directly related to the effects it produces. When far-right activists say things like "we need less Islam," they are not driving the van that killed anyone. But it would be facetious to insist there's no correlation. Those who agitate against Muslims en masse may not be breaking the law, but they do bear some responsibility for what happens next.

The populists will cry foul, and insist they are just being critical, which is their right in an open society. That's a red herring argument. As an academic, I engage in critique of all sorts of ideas all the time; and when I engage in religious studies, I see all kinds of harsh criticism, about religion in general and Islam in particular. There's a massive difference between that sort of critique, and the critique that vilifies and borders on hate speech or worse.

The former official reviewer of terrorism laws, David Anderson, has already noted that a quarter of those who are referred to the government anti-radicalization program are far-right radicals, and that kind of extremism can be as deadly as its Islamist counterpart. In some parts of the country, far-right radicals exceed the numbers of Islamist extremists -- that's according to the security minister, Ben Wallace.

These far-right radicals are not all being primarily motivated by the ideological factors exploited by far-right wing propagandists -- any more than other types of terrorists are always being primarily motivated by ideology. The nature of radicalization is that it is not a single process -- it is a multiple set of processes, different with different people, with a variety of factors at play.

But just as we rightly point out the debilitating nature of Islamist extremism in combating terrorism, we must be clear and forthright about the effects of this kind of nativistic extremism that leads to death as well. And we should insist that our institutions remain accountable as they pursue any kind of anti-extremism strategy, to ensure they also include this kind of deadly extremism.

This attack warrants one response -- a complete and total denunciation and a recognition that radical populist extremism feeds off a much more common populist bigotry against Muslims. Unlike the radical Islamism that we seem so fearful about, this type of populist anti-Muslim bigotry finds its way easily into the most mainstream of our media and our institutions. If we fail to recognize that today, we ought not to be surprised when the next attack takes place -- and if it is far more deadly.