Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Credential Problem?

As I was making pancakes on Sunday, I heard something on the radio that made my jaw drop.

I was listening to Weekend, the “breakfast” news program on the BBC World Service. The program’s format has the host, in between news reports, chatting with guests who have been invited, presumably, for their ability to provide interesting and insightful analysis of the news.

Toward the end of the program, Edward Lucas of The Economist was making a very good point that, during the Cold War, there were agencies and organizations that were actively engaged in countering Soviet propaganda and promoting Western values. The implication was that there is no similar effort to counter the messaging and recruiting that is winning over individuals like the ones who committed recent atrocities in Boston, London and Paris. The West has become complacent since 1991, he said, adding, “Standing back and being neutral is not working very well.”

The other guest was Chris Laidlaw, who hosts a similar radio program in New Zealand and is a former rugby player, diplomat and, briefly, Labour MP. His response: “The West has got to improve its credentials when it comes to Islam. It’s up to a society to be more tolerant and more open and more embracing.”

The part that made my jaw drop was when he added, “You look at that young Nigerian citizen—I think he’s a Nigerian—in London standing with a knife in his hand saying, I did this for this particular reason, I did this for a political reason, and it is aimed fairly and squarely at the Western mentality, and all you can do is kind of sympathize.”

He was referring to the man who used his knife to behead a British soldier on a London street. In fact, the man who committed the atrocity in London was born and raised in Britain. His family was from Nigeria, and he was raised as a Christian before he converted to Islam.

When Lucas said he was “astonished” to hear Laidlaw say he sympathized with the killer, Laidlaw backtracked by saying he meant he sympathized with the people watching the incident. Still, the New Zealander’s comments were clearly typical of the kind you hear from some after an incident like this and which are completely useless. Be more tolerant and more open and more embracing? Yes, we should all strive to be those things and to be self-critical when we fall short. (Maybe we could start by not ignorantly calling British-born people Nigerian citizens?) But, realistically, where can an emigrant, of any ethnicity or religious belief, go in the world and be more welcomed and tolerated than in Western Europe or North America?

What really bothered me most about Laidlaw’s fatuous comments, though, was that they were a huge insult to the large, heartfelt outpouring of the London Nigerian community on the streets of Woolwich, where the crime took place. UK television carried scenes of people marching in rejection of the bloody attack, and it was impossible not to be moved by the warm hugs between the marchers and residents watching from the footpaths.

Yes, there have also been anti-Islam marches by right-wing groups, as well as an increase in reported hate crimes. But does it undermine or build up those groups when commentators suggest that an atrocity might have been justified and that the fault really lies with the British people?

The insidious thing about groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party is that they suggest that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam are representative of all Moslems. But what is strange to me is that so many self-styled defenders of Islam seem to work from a similar premise. They treat any condemnation of so-called jihadists as an attack on all Moslems. Or they divert blame from the terrorists by asserting, as Chris Laidlaw did, that the real problem lies with the values of the West.

If Edward Lucas is right and we need to cop on to the fact that the West is a no-show in a propaganda war, then maybe the place to start is by strengthening and promoting Western values rather than agreeing with the forces of barbarianism that there is something fundamentally flawed about them.

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