Disobedience to Condemnation: The Science
In the first of my essays around my forthcoming book ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’, I highlight one of the ideas that I raise in the book, namely the expectation on Muslims to condemn acts of political violence perpetrated by their co-religionists.
It is my view that an expectation has been created for Muslims to condemn, and when they do not, they are accused of complicity. As then chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz said to one of my colleagues, during an evidence session for the committee's inquiry into Radicalisation, if you don’t condemn, then it could be said he condones. My colleagues and I at CAGE have always rejected this reductive binary, but as I hope to set out over the course of this article, it comes from a place where Muslims are required to establish their own humanity first, before they can be permitted into the conversation on citizenship and equal rights.
In the lead up to Christmas, the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims launched a report titled ‘A Very Merry Muslim Christmas’ as a way of humanising the contribution that Muslims in the UK make during the Christmas season. A noble endeavour by many accounts given the general absence of this narrative in the wider media with news articles about Muslim charities being largely negative and fixated on terrorism financing fears than their demonstrable contributions to the social good. This idea of presenting the 'softer side' of Muslims was replicated in other campaigns, such as an advertising campaign by the British Muslim charity Penny Appeal suggesting that Muslims in the UK, who originally come from the east, are ‘as British as a cup of tea’ (a product from the East that is now a British staple). Similarly Tesco featured a hijab-wearing Muslim family in their Christmas advert – resulting in a huge online backlash. Just one of the many thousands of derogatory comments in reaction to the TV commercial said:
“How dare you feature a Muslim family in your CHRISTMAS advert!!! They do not celebrate CHRISTIAN festival! #willnotshopintescoi
The backlash to this campaign (and to a lesser extent the others), suggested there was perhaps something counter-intuitive about the way in which they were being received. Surely the idea about representation and normalisation is that it is supposed to make people feel more included, rather than its reverse. In a carefully thought out piece for The Guardian, Shaista Aziz asked the most crucial question of the APPG report ‘A Very Merry Muslim Christmas’:
“Why as a society do we need to humanise Muslims? It is a cottage industry that has come into this own in the past few years. As Islamophobia continues to be mainstreamed, humanising Muslims becomes more of a thing. And to what end?”ii
Shaista Aziz is right…to what end?
A culture has developed where blame is easily assigned to Muslims for acts that are outside and beyond their control. They are expected to 'own' acts that are done in their name or in the name of their religion, but which they have no involvement in. This association, and the expectation that is raised by wider society in relation to it, inextricably links Muslims to those events, even when they condemn ad nauseam.
On 18 December 2017, the UK government cited the Home Affairs Committee Report on Radicalisation, specifically choosing to target my organisation for our refusal to condemn acts of terrorism:
“We are never going to combat terror effectively unless the communities themselves take on a leadership role. It is these communities that stand to lose the most when atrocities occur. We were deeply concerned to hear CAGE’s views on not condemning terrorist acts, which we believe simply increases the sense of isolation from society that some individuals within the community feel.”iii
It is difficult to know how the UK government has come to this conclusion. They present no studies or data that back the notion that raising expectation on the Muslim community to condemn terrorism, will result in lessening the extent of isolation. Taking this one step further, there is no lack of irony in her majesty’s government refusing to consider any role it might have played in the increasing feelings of isolation among various communities, not just Muslim. The government consistently reinforces isolation, by throwing back responsibility on Muslims, while evading any public scrutiny.
According to Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the government’s positions have very little to do with actual science, but rather stem from a politics of fear that has achieved the very opposite of what the government desires above:
“We are now twelve years onfrom 7/7, and yet I believe government's understanding today of what makes a jihadi is less sophisticated, less evidence-based and, sadly, less honest…Rather than doing counter-terrorism with British Muslims to defeat the menace of terrorism collectively, we have chosen to do counter-terrorism to Muslim communities. And through this approach we have both created an obstacle to confronting and defeating terrorism and alienated a large community of law-abiding citizens.”iv
How can we bring some parity back to this discussion? Well a good start might be to inject some science into the debate, in order to understand how we might change perceptions and increase social cohesion, and not alienate communities further.
The science of collective blame
In 2017, Emile Bruneau, Nour Kteily and Emily Falk published a draft of their paper ‘Interventions highlighting hypocrisy reduce collective blame of Muslims for individual acts of violence and assuage anti-Muslim hostility’ in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin. In summary, the purpose of their experiment, was to assess the extent to which Muslims were collectively blamed for acts of political violence, and examine how views supportive of collective blaming might be reduced. For the purposes of this article, collective blame can be understood as when a group is held socially responsible for the actions of a minority of its number.
The researchers started with a sample of 200 individuals of various religious backgrounds, of whom 80% were white and the rest from Asian, Hispanic, Black, Native American and other ethnic groups. The religious make up of the sample was: 49.7% Christian, 2.6% Jewish, 2.1% Buddhist, 0.5% Hindu, 33.2% Agnostic/Atheist, 3.6% other religious background and 8.3% not stated.
The participants were assessed for their positions on ‘collective blame’, ‘blatant dehumanization’ and ‘prejudice’ – all of which are described in the study itself. Participants were then assessed for their support for ‘Anti-Muslim Policy’ such as banning the veil, ‘Punitive Counter-Terrorism’ meaning increased surveillance, and whether they signed ‘Anti-Muslim Petitions’, such as denying entry of refugees to the US. In conclusion to the first part of the study, the researchers concluded from the results that a more than a third of the sample, 35%, collectively blame Muslims for acts of political violence:
“Thus, those who collectively blame Muslims were also more likely to feel prejudiced against Muslims, dehumanize them, support anti-Muslim policies, donate to surveillance over education in Muslim communities to prevent terrorism, and sign petitions targeting Muslims.”
What the first part of the experiment shows us, is that where individuals engage in the logic of collective blame, this increases the likelihood of them having further bigoted views towards Muslims, but also more likely to seek measures that would socially exclude Muslims and create discriminatory policies.
Can collective blame be reduced?
The second part of the experiment carried out by the American researchers, focused on how video interventions could potentially help to reduce notions around collective blame, and thus create a less negative outlook towards policies required to ‘deal’ with Muslims. They tested this by presenting eight short videos, that would be tested for efficacy in shifting those with bigoted views from their original position. The videos included:
Finally, it should be noted that the researchers also used a ‘negative’ control video, which showed a Muslim providing a criticism from within Islam itself, that the religion was inherently violent and that there was a clash.
Based on the results of the testing, the researchers concluded that the video that was most effective in reducing the levels of collective blaming was in fact the one that highlighted the hypocrisy of not treating other communities the same when it comes to collective blame – an exercise that is sometimes reduced to ‘whataboutery’. This goes against the received wisdom of government-speak, who still claim that condemnation is required in order to reduce levels of alienation.
The videos featuring Muslim women asserting themselves and non-Muslims coming to the aid of Muslims led to marginal reductions in collective blaming, but nothing to the levels of the video that highlighted hypocrisy – a third test among 605 participants confirmed this hypocrisy thesis further. What is more important, is that condemnation by a Muslim women, resulted in the very opposite effect, actually increasing levels of collective blame, rather than producing any reduction. It is worth replicating the concluding remarks of the research:
“In sum, we established causal relationships between revealing the hypocrisy of collectively blaming some groups more than others for the acts of individuals, and reducing collective blame of Muslims for individual terror attacks. In turn, we found across all studies that changes in collective blame mediated the relationship between intervention exposure and downstream policy support and behaviors associated with vicarious retribution, both directly and through collective blame’s link to anti-Muslim prejudice and dehumanization. Taken together, our results highlight the importance of collective blame in intergroup conflict, and show that making people aware of the hypocrisy inherent in blaming some groups more than others for the actions of individual out-group members can mitigate collective blame, and diminish downstream consequences associated with vicarious retribution.”v
In her book ‘The Enemy Within’, Sayeeda Warsi highlights this point specifically to great effect. She asks important questions about why some communities are treated differently to others:
“Why should I or anyone else be held responsible for the actions of my so-called co-religionists? Are Protestants in the UK accountable for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan? Are Christians accountable for the actions of terrorist Scott Roeder, for the Christian Right, for the killing of Dr George Tiller, who was shot in 2009, or for the US-based Army of God, who advocate violence? Did Nick Griffin, Tommy Robinson or for that matter Policy Exchange and the Henry Jackson Society do a tour of the TV studios repeating 'not in my name' after the carnage caused by Anders Breivik? Would we ever demand a statement from Britain's Jews to apologize for the daily acts of violence, even murder, by the settlers in the occupied territories, and would Tony Blair ever write an opinion piece on how as a Christian he is appalled by the ideology that stems from his faith and is the basis of the conduct of the Lord's Resistance Army?”vi
Warsi’s comments display a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. She wants to say these things, and clearly has done so, but cannot escape the trap of government speak, especially when later in the book she calls out my organisation, CAGE, for actively refusing to engage in collective blaming by not condemning acts of terrorism. In her view our stance is ‘destructive and dangerous’vii. She cannot have it both ways, either Warsi accepts that the narrative of collective blaming is wrong, or she can parrot its acceptance, but she cannot occupy both spaces.
To this very day, there has only ever been one video of mine that has gone viral, and that is of my refusal to condemn terrorism in an interview with Matt Frei on Channel 4 News. With over half a million views online and thousands of shares, it is worthwhile going through the comments section in order to gauge the views of Muslims from all over the world, who largely point out how they are sick of this culture of expectation that they must condemn, condemn, condemn. Let me be clear, Muslims do condemn, in their own spaces and at their own time and in the interests of their own communities. What I, my organisation and the wider communities take issue with is the expectation that our humanity can only be established once we have met the expectation to condemn.
In preparation for releasing my book, I commissioned the talented spoken word artist, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan to pen a poem based on the content of the book. I’m excited about sharing the final product with you all soon, but the reason why I requested Suhaiymah specifically, is because of a viral video. I saw this poem for the first time a couple of days after I finished the draft of my book and for me it captured so perfectly the anxieties that I am trying to respond to. Muslims must transcend the culture of collective blame, and it is only when we are disobedient to the expectation that has been created around us and imposed upon us that we can reassert ourselves back into our own narrative on equal terms. As Suhaiymah eloquently puts it:
“Tell them comedies as well as tragedies, how full of life we are, full of love. But no, I put my pen down, I will not let that poem force me to write it because it is not the poem I want to write…This will not be a ‘Muslims are like us’ poem. I refuse to be respectable. Instead love us when we’re lazy, love us when we’re poor…love us when we aren’t athletes, when we don’t bake cakes, when we don’t offer our homes or free taxi rides after the event when we’re wretched, suicidal, naked and contributing nothing. Love us then. Because if you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one that’s not human…”viii