Dear Mr Burnham,
I’m writing this because I wish to acknowledge your remarkable achievement on BBC’s Question Time on 25th May 2017. Only two days prior to your appearance, I woke up to the news that a young man had strolled into a pop concert being held at the Manchester Arena and detonated a suicide bomb in a crowd of primarily teenaged girls and their parents. My initial reaction was to be overcome by a mixture of painful emotions. Outrage. Grief. Disgust. Devastation. Followed by a tidal wave of unbridled, unimaginable anger. Your achievement, Mr Mayor, is to have made me feel even more apoplectic than I did already. To increase the rage that I already felt upon finding out that children had been murdered en masse, should have been a truly impossible task. And yet you managed it. Effortlessly.
You’re probably wondering how you came to inadvertently accomplish this extraordinary feat. Well, allow me to explain.
We are currently at war with an ideology that is destabilising a large part of the Middle East and driving its adherents to commit largescale atrocities in scores of countries around the world. In the West, Europe in particular is suffering an onslaught of violent atrocities at the hands of subscribers to this ideology. This latest bloodbath, in the city you call home, was the deadliest we have been subjected to since 2005. You may remember that in 2005, four members of this same ideology massacred 52 commuters in our capital city, and wounded over 700 more. The attack in Manchester however, was somewhat unique in its savagery. It targeted young girls dancing and listening to music, and the location of this attack was almost certainly chosen for that precise reason. You see, the ideology I speak of is not too keen on girls, or females in general for that matter. But it particularly abhors girls who enjoy life, who love music, who are not slaves to retrograde theology, and who live carefree existences in countries that ostensibly reject the values of this poisonous ideology.
The ideology I speak of, Mr Mayor, has its roots in the religion of Islam. In fact it is Islam, or it at least has a reasonable enough claim to be Islam. It is a direct, literal, plausible interpretation of the scriptures of Islam, the example of its Prophet, and the rulings of its authorities. It may be an interpretation of Islam that is rejected by some sizable number of the worlds Muslims, but it is an interpretation of Islam nevertheless. And it is this interpretation of Islam that is the primary driving force behind the behaviour of the people who subscribe to it.
In my naivety, I had hoped that the viciousness and callousness of this most recent attack would have been a turning point in our reaction towards it. “We can’t possibly run interference for this ideology again” I thought. “Not this time. Our collective reaction can’t be the usual exasperating medley of denial and equivocation. We can’t use the brutal slaughter of children to focus on the imaginary Islamophobic backlash that never arrives. And we can’t possibly keep celebrating the fact that we get on with our day to day lives after every single one of these attacks upon us, can we?” Of course we get on with our lives. What the fuck else are we supposed to do? We get through our days by clenching our fists, gritting our teeth, and baring it. Because we have to. Because there are no other options. This is not a cause for celebration. There is no cause for celebration at a time like this. Not the coming together of communities. Not the so-called spirit of defiance. Not the British stiff upper lip. None of it. We’re crushed.
Yet, there you were, in front of the nation, expressing your desire to scrap the government’s Prevent program and replace it with some theoretical counter-extremism initiative that doesn’t make Muslims feel uncomfortable. Do you have a plan for how you would go about devising such a miraculous program? Is it even possible? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the list of things that don’t make some subsection of Muslims feel alienated, or in any way picked upon, could be written on a plate glass window with a pneumatic drill.
Your objection to Prevent seems to be that “Prevent works on the principle that the Muslim community in particular is under suspicion – under surveillance”. According to Sara Khan, your co-panellist, that’s simply not true. Prevent doesn’t deal with surveillance of anyone. Surveillance is covered under Pursue, a different strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. And maybe Pursue does indeed focus more on the Muslim community at present. Well, I for one would be extremely concerned if it didn’t. Because the Muslim community in particular is where the bulk of the threat is coming from currently, isn’t it? At the time of writing, there have been eleven arrests in relation to the Manchester atrocity. Are you able to divulge how many of those arrested, if any, were not from the Muslim community? Can you tell me how many deadly terror attacks in this country in the last 12 years have been committed by people from communities other than the Muslim community? Can you tell me how many fatalities they caused? Can you tell me if they’ve ever blown white-hot nails through schoolgirls faces? Our focus should be proportionate, based on who poses the greatest current threat, surely. If there were a global insurgency of Quakers attempting to transport the world back to the Bronze Age via the method of brutally murdering as many people as humanly possible, I would hope that counter-extremism strategy would adjust its focus accordingly.
“(Prevent) can actually become counter-productive and it can actually radicalise if people feel they are being picked upon” you say. You seem to think very little of moderate, liberal, secular Muslims if you believe that they could be so easily swayed to support indiscriminate terror attacks or even commit them themselves. Or perhaps you’re right, and we really are in the terrifying situation you describe with regards to the Muslim community. Are you aware of the American neuroscientist Sam Harris? He has addressed this argument:
“The idea I’m about to describe is almost unrivalled in its strangeness, and yet those hearing it for the first time, to say nothing of those who espouse it, never seem to notice that something out of the ordinary is being said. Now, you’ve heard this idea before and I will venture to guess that you did not notice how strange, and indeed terrifying a claim was being made. The idea is this; in fighting ISIS, or in resisting the spread of Islamic theocracy generally, we must at all costs avoid “confirming the narrative” of Islamic extremists. The fear is that any focus on the religion of Islam or its adherents…will drive many more Muslims to support the jihadists. Now think about what is actually being alleged here. Think about the underlying pessimism, if not paranoia, of this claim. Most people appear to believe that by honestly describing the link between the doctrine of Islam and jihadism, and therefore admitting that Islam is of special concern in a way that Anglicanism and Mormonism aren’t, that we will provoke otherwise peaceful Muslims to such a degree that they will become jihadists, or support them. They’re just like you and me now, but say the wrong thing about Islam on television and they’ll start supporting a group that decapitates journalists and aid workers, rapes women by the tens of thousands, and throws gays from rooftops. Now, this is either one of the most pessimistic and uncharitable things ever said about a community, or it’s true. And if it’s the former we should stop saying it. And if it’s the latter, we should be talking about nothing else, and obliging Muslims to talk about nothing else.”
You seem confused as to what motivates this behaviour. The fact of the matter, Andy, is that The Islamic State have been unusually vocal and explicit in explaining repeatedly, and in painstaking detail, exactly what motivates their behaviour. It is child’s play to track down justifications for their actions in their own words. Sara Khan attempted to quote you their own words from the magazine Dabiq which is written and published by the Islamic State. Do you read Dabiq? You should. It reads like a religious sermon. I’ve read it. In fact I’ve read, and written about exactly the same article that Khan was reading from. They are absolutely unequivocal in their proclamations that foreign policy is not their primary grievance with us. Their concerns are, first and foremost, religious. They justify their every action with meticulous reference to the Qu’ran and Ahadith. Yet you instinctively dismissed Khan, and by extension, ISIS’s explanations for their own behaviour, out of hand. I expressed my frustration at this attitude on Twitter. Interestingly enough, two people who registered their agreement with me stood out for rather significant reasons.
Do you know who these people are Mr Burnham? Both Usama Hasan and Manwar Ali are former jihadists. Ali was labelled the Godfather of the British Jihadi Movement. Since renouncing extremism and jihadism he admits that as well as fighting in Afghanistan, Burma, Kashmir and Bosnia “I inspired and recruited, I raised funds and bought weapons, not just a one-off but for 15 to 20 years. Why I have never been arrested I don’t know.”
These people know what motivates jihadists, and they know this through direct personal experience. And yet, your response is the following collection of strawmen arguments, logical fallacies, and maddening clichés:
“The individuals who commit these acts…do not live a devout Muslim lifestyle. They’re not true Muslims in any way shape or form and … they no more represent the Muslim community than the person who killed Jo Cox represents the white British community.”
You made this statement to a round of thunderous applause regardless of the fact that it is fatuous on every conceivable level. Ironically, your accusations that jihadists are not “true Muslims”, whatever the hell that means, is an exercise in Takfirism. This is something ISIS themselves are fond of doing as a justification for murdering other Muslims they deem impious. Even more ironically, you racialize and otherize Muslims by using them as an antonym for white and British. This is something racists like the murderer of your friend Jo Cox are fond of doing. Neither white nor British are ideologies, and as such are not responsible for the behaviour of people that fall into those arbitrary categories. Either way, nobody suggested that jihadists represent the Muslim community in the first place, so your entire monologue was irrelevant.
The gentleman to your left, Nazir Afzal, proceeded to tell a trite and tiresome anecdote about a wannabe jihadist, on Hijrah to the caliphate, packing a copy of the book Islam 4 Dummies in his luggage. I suspect that you would consider this incontrovertible proof that ISIS are not religious, or that the people drawn to them are attracted for reasons other than the what they believe to be theologically true. If that’s the case, you’re wrong. It proves nothing of the sort and in fact proves precisely the opposite. I’m not sure why you need this pointing out to you, but if Islam was unimportant there would be no need for this aspiring psychopath to make a point of bringing any book about it. Why didn’t he have a copy of Calculus for Dummies, for example? Or the collected works of L. Ron Hubbard? Or 50 Shades of Grey? This is the behaviour of a believer, swatting up on the technicalities, taking a refresher course on the small print, before the ‘final exam’. Because he won’t get to re-sit this test. Failure, with regards to saying the wrong thing or inadvertently contravening some obscure and archaic Islamic prohibition, would likely result in him having his head sawed off with a dull knife by people who consider that sort of thing a form of blasphemy or apostasy.
Most insultingly of all though, was the dismissal of the intrepid audience member (who I’ve since discovered is Baguley UKIP candidate Paul O’Donoghue) who had taken it upon himself to visit Didsbury Mosque, Mr Abedi’s mosque of choice, and discovered that among the literature that they distribute to their attendees, were clear examples of extremist propaganda. Were you aware that this mosque dispenses Salafist pamphlets decrying Western civilisation and liberal British values, Mr Mayor? If not, do you perhaps think that now may be an opportune moment to look into the kind of material being circulated by the Didsbury Mosque and Islamic Centre? Or does your insistence that Islamic terrorists have nothing to do with Islam render this fact irrelevant?
I’ve personally spent very little time in Manchester. I attended a football match at Old Trafford once and, on another occasion, spent a week in and around the pubs and bars of Deansgate Lock. You, however, are the Mayor of the entire county, Mr Burnham. With this in mind, can you honestly tell me with a straight face, that you’re proud of your performance on Question Time? Are you not ashamed in the slightest, that you sat in front of studio audience comprised of people that had just suffered the U.K’s deadliest terror attack in 12 years, and clearly prioritised the defence of the ideology that inspired it over the welfare of these people? And does it not concern you in any way that you did this whilst fumbling through a list of clichéd responses, all the while illustrating a painful lack of knowledge of the topic you were addressing?
The fact that we are this far down the line, 16 years since 9/11, and the debate still hasn’t moved on, makes me think it never will. We will be trapped in this debate, still discussing the motives of jihadists and how we can best avoid hurting the feelings of innocent Muslims, until we all lose decisively. Until we’re having to pick shrapnel out of our own children’s mangled bodies, or until they’re having to pick it out of ours. Until we’re all on our knees, modelling the latest line in orange jumpsuits. And it will be in large part due to people like yourself.
The people of Manchester have some pretty serious problems to overcome at the moment Andy. We all do. I now realise that we have one more.