Converts are [not] the problem

In the aftermath of last week’s Westminster attacks, questions are once again being asked about Muslim converts’ susceptibility to violent extremism.[1]

Fake or Flakey news: Poor alternatives

Unlike the current flood of paltry media reports, there are actually a few practitioners and academics that have thoroughly researched British Muslim converts.[2] In fact, my own PhD and subsequent publications have examined and discussed converts’ susceptibility to extremism on the one hand and/or their resistance and ability to counter it on the other.[3] The conclusion is not as black and white as existing journalistic discourse would have us believe. It is therefore better to err on the side of caution when attempting to digest recent discussions from the ‘usual suspects’ whose inherent bias permeates their analyses. [4]

Following the Westminster attacks, various unsubstantiated reports initially emerged regarding the identity of the culprit. Trevor Brooks aka Abu Izzedine – the former Al Muhajiroon and Anjem Choudhary associate – was named until a family member and solicitor confirmed that, to the contrary, he remains in prison, completing a 2 year sentence.[5] The most recent reports correctly identify Khalid Masood, (formerly Adrian Elms/Ajao). Earlier descriptions of him being a quiet, private individual have now been replaced with accounts of him as a drug-taking prostitute-frequenting individual.[6]

This article is not a defence of Khalid Masood or the atrocities committed on 22nd March. The enormity of his crime is unquestionable and no tongue-in-cheek rhetoric will be proffered to inadvertently describe him as being an‘…extremely kind, gentle, beautiful…man’ – far from it.[7] Instead, the article will attempt to highlight the underlying inconsistencies in legislative and journalistic approaches when addressing particular categories of criminality that adversely impact upon society as a whole.  Identity, ethnicity and disproportionately, religion, are factors that appear to increasingly influence how individuals are categorised and portrayed by government agencies and media respectively.

Criminal or Terrorist?

Former editor of the Times and The Evening Standard, Sir Simon Jenkins, caused furore when he criticised the BBC for the manner in which it covered the attacks. Among his primary concerns was that the attacks should – particularly at the initial stage of investigation while evidence was being gathered – be dealt with according to criminal law as opposed to terrorism legislation.[8]

Indeed, his observation is valid; particularly in light of the previous trial of the former MP Jo Cox’s killer – Thomas Mair – where, despite both the intent (mens rea) and action (actus reus) being unequivocally established, he was still charged according to criminal law and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was also charged with the lesser offence of Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) for stabbing Bernard Carter-Kenny who had tried to rescue Mrs. Cox:

‘Following the verdicts, Richard Whittam QC, prosecuting, told the court that Mair had committed a terrorism offence when he murdered Cox, although the jury had not been told that he was regarded as a terrorist.

There were two reasons for this. Mair was charged with murder, which is a crime under common law and not an offence under counter-terrorism legislation; and the jury was only to be asked to decide whether or not Mair had committed the crime of murder. It was not asked to consider his motivation.’[9]

The obvious questions raised at this juncture relate to why Mair was not prosecuted according to terrorism legislation when the prosecution clearly considered him a terrorist and, on what basis was common (criminal) law considered the correct avenue to pursue a conviction when indisputable evidence pointed to his far-right extremism and subsequent terrorism?

How different are Masood’s actions to those of Mair’s? Why is Masood’s case considered through the prism of terrorism legislation but Mair’s relegated to criminal law? The following summary incorporates the offences Masood is undeniably guilty of:

  • Most significantly and tragically, the serious offence of murdering PC Keith Palmer and death by dangerous driving of four pedestrians – the latter offences being in accordance to section 1 of the Road Traffic Act  (RTA) 1988,
  • causing either Actual and/or Grievous Bodily harm to more than 50 pedestrians,
  • also causing carnage by intentionally driving into unsuspecting innocent pedestrians – considered hit and run offences under UK law,
  • failing to comply with Section 170 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 by not reporting an accident in which injury, damage to another vehicle or property were caused.[10] [11]

The severity of these catastrophic events on 22nd March is, to reiterate, without question and further illustration of the above offences does not reduce or downplay the scale of the tragedy on that fateful day. However, neither does it eliminate or obscure the criminal law apparatus through which Jo Cox’s killer was brought to justice. Rephrasing the above question, one must also ask why the circumstances behind Masood’s actions are considered so different to those of Mair’s?

‘If a dog is born in a stable, it doesn’t make it a horse’[12] – Identity markers in post-Brexit Britain

The racist adaptation of the above quote was originally attributed to the Duke of Wellington when he rejected the idea that his Dublin birth precluded him from being ‘blessed with that great intangible abstraction, Britishness’.[13] Unfortunately, the present meaning is far removed from the original one. It is a phrase many non-white Britons have become familiar with. Post Brexit, this toxic sentiment has also extended to eastern Europeans as witnessed in the increase in racist attacks.[14] Alarmingly, this type of attitude appears to be gaining momentum with some media outlets. A few subtle changes in terminology are now being used in some circles to describe particular ethnicities, irrespective of their British identity, as ‘British born,’ Khalid Masood being the latest to be described with this language.[15] The inference behind such referencing of non-white Britons is that they are not quintessentially British due to their colour and/or origin. This type of identity marker is seldom used – if at all – for white Britons. Referring once again to Thomas Mair; when mentioned, his name is often prefaced with the term ‘far-right’ and occasionally, ‘terrorist’ but never British-born.[16]

Reports of Masood’s violent past portray the extent of racism he possibly faced during his upbringing. One eyewitness account actually attributes his trajectory towards violence to racism:

‘Masood may have eventually snapped because of racism in his village leading him to slash the face of a cafe owner.’[17]

Indicators relating to mental health issues and possible discomfort with his identity can perhaps be deduced from the multiple name changes and aliases he underwent.[18] However, after converting to Islam, these changes occurred less frequently, suggesting that he had finally found a sense of stability with his new found faith. In fact, his behaviour, post conversion, appeared to have reverted to some of his earlier, more favourable characteristics, previously described by some childhood friends and acquaintances.[19]  Indeed, a few of my colleagues who either met or worked with him, confirmed he was an effective and popular teacher, particularly among his students. However, he was a loner, rarely socialising with anyone. He was a fitness enthusiast who liked to attend the gym regularly after work.

The above-mentioned mental health or identity issues surfaced on a rare occasion according to one of these colleagues. This was witnessed when he apparently received sustained racist provocation for more than a week. His violent response caused a degree of alarm and, at the same time, concern about his mental health. A former relative’s experience of Masood appears to lend credence to this particular account:

‘He was a psychopath and I mean that in the very medical definition of the word. He came from a nice family, had everything, but there was something very wrong with him.’ [20]

Still waters run deep

The puzzle regarding Masood’s history continues to be pieced together. As this occurs, there is a growing realisation that beneath his calm demeanor there were psychological and behavioural issues that were not adequately addressed.

The reason behind the attacks may never be established – Was the motive related to extremism or was his behaviour due to psychological issues? Whatever conclusion may be reached, more must be done collectively to reduce the likelihood of such a devastating attack occurring again. The first step towards achieving this will be to avoid the disconcerting tendency of focusing even more closely on Muslim communities – and Muslim converts in particular – because this approach is counterproductive. I have previously highlighted the effective role of converts, in various areas, as conduits between wider society and Muslim communities due to the duality of our identities as British Muslims. I am not alone in this assertion:

‘Converts may have greater empathy with non-Muslims because of their non-Muslim past and ongoing relationships with their family of origin. They often have a heightened awareness, compared to other Muslims, of how Muslims are viewed by outsiders, so there can be a strongly reflexive element to their discourse.’[21]

Theresa May, in her former capacity as home secretary, deployed an ideologically driven strategy to target and marginalise particular convert entities that had previously been successful in addressing the type of challenges referred to in this article.[22] As prime Minister, her government would do well to abandon the current flawed strategy that failed to PREVENT violence visiting the very doors of power. An alternative and altogether joined-up societal approach that includes all communities is required if the government and its agencies are to build rather than burn bridges.
Aricle Written by Dr. A.H. Baker
Originally published on http://abdulhaqqbaker.com

[1] Deen, A: Why are converts to Islam specifically vulnerable to becoming extremists?’ Independent, 24th March 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/westminster-london-terror-attack-terrorist-khalid-masood-convert-muslim-islam-extremism-a7647626.html

[2] Zebiri, K: ‘British Muslim Converts: Choosing Alternative Lives,’ Oneworld, 2008; Kose, A: ‘Conversion to Islam: A Study of Native British Converts,’ Kegan Paul International, 1996

[3] Baker, AH: ‘Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror,’ Palgrave, 2011 & 16

[4] Deen, A: Why are converts to Islam specifically vulnerable to becoming extremists?’ Independent, 24th March 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/westminster-london-terror-attack-terrorist-khalid-masood-convert-muslim-islam-extremism-a7647626.html

[5] Harman, J: ‘Abu Izzadeen’s brother says he is still in prison and not London attacker’, Independent, 23rd March 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/abu-izzadeen-not-london-attacker-brother-mistaken-alive-still-in-prison-a7644626.html

[6] Taylor, R & Burke, D: ‘’Smelly’ Westminster killer ‘blew thousands on crack sessions with hookers while on benefits and went on mammoth drug benders because he was not a proper Muslim,’ Mailonline, 26th March 2017: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4349716/Westminster-killer-enjoyed-crack-sessions-hookers.html

[7] Qureshi, Asim: ‘’Jihadi John’: Mohammed Emwazi was ‘extremely kind, gentle, beautiful young man’, The Independent, 26th February 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/jihadi-john-mohammed-emwazi-was-an-extremely-kind-gentle-beautiful-young-man-says-cage-director-10073338.html

[8] Harper, P: ‘’Aiding Terrorism’, Simon Jenkins blasts BBC News for being ‘with the terrorist’ following London terror attack after wall-to-wall coverage from Westminster’, The Sun, 24th March 2017: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3174053/simon-jenkins-blasts-bbc-news-for-being-with-the-terrorist-after-wall-to-wall-coverage-of-westminster-attacks/

[9] Cobain, I & Taylor, M: ‘Far-right terrorist Thomas Mair jailed for life for Jo Cox murder’, The Guardian, 23rd November 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-found-guilty-of-jo-cox-murder

[10] Stephen Oldman Solicitors: ‘The Driving Solicitors’: https://thedrivingsolicitor.co.uk/frequently-asked-questions/failing-to-stop-or-report-an-accident-faqs/

[11] Reference is made to this contravention, as Masood was alive after departing from the scene of the initial crimes.

[12] The Student Room: https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1280031

[13] Clarke, S: ‘Am I a horse?’ The Guardian, 17th March 2008: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/mar/17/amiahorse

[14] Al Jazeera News: ‘Brexit: Increase in racist attacks after EU referendum,’ http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/brexit-increase-racist-attacks-eu-referendum-160628045317215.html

[15] The Guardian: ‘Top Story: Westminster attacker was homegrown terrorist,’ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/24/friday-briefing-the-other-crimes-of-khalid-masood

[16] Cobain, I & Taylor, M: ‘Far-right terrorist Thomas Mair jailed for life for Jo Cox murder’, The Guardian, 23rd November 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-found-guilty-of-jo-cox-murder

[17] Mendick, R & Evans, M: ‘First picture of Khalid Masood reveals how he went from football-loving teenager to London attacker,’ The Telegraph, 24th March 2017: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/23/violent-extremist-dropped-polices-radar/

[18] Hardy, J: ‘Masood: London attacker had a criminal past and numerous aliases’, The Independent 24th March 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk

[19] The Telegraph: ‘I’m upset that he died’: Khalid Masood’s neighbor remembers man behind terrorist attack’, 24th March 2017: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/24/upset-died-khalid-masoods-neighbour-remembers-normal-man-behind/

[20] Horton, H: ‘Relative of Westminster attacker’s ex-wife describe how she was ‘abused and controlled by psychopath she finally fled from,’ The Telegraph, 25th March 2017: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/25/relative-westminster-attackers-ex-wife-describes-abused-controlled/

[21] Zebiri, K: ‘British Muslim Converts: Choosing Alternative Lives’, Oneworld, Oxford, 2008, p.39

[22] Gardham, D: ‘Counter – terrorism projects worth £1.2 million face axe as part of end to multiculturalism,’ The Telegraph, 11th February 2011: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8319780/Counter-terrorism-projects-worth-1.2m-face-axe-as-part-of-end-to-multiculturalism.html

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