‘Muslim Patrol’ as provocation strategy?

Many of our UK-based readers will be familiar with the so-called Muslim Patrol videos posted online earlier this month. The videos feature some young Londoners, presumably Muslim, approaching and intimidating passers-by for drinking alcohol or dressing the wrong way in what they claim are ‘Muslim areas’. The videos are filmed in Whitechapel, east London, whose population is 40% Bangladeshi, and have made an immediate splash not just in London but further afield. Understandably, many of those watching the videos have expressed outrage. Far more problematically, some also perceive this harassment campaign as the latest evidence of Europe’s gradual take-over by ‘non-Europeans’ and nasty foreigners.

This raises the question of what the producers of these videos were trying to achieve. Maybe the young men in the videos earnestly believed that they were helping to create ‘Muslim zones’ or maybe they just wanted to harass a few locals — but why videotape this effort and post it to Youtube? Now, many idiots post videos of their crimes online – why is something of an eternal mystery – but I suspect there may be something deeper at play here. There is little evidence to support this hypothesis, but is it possible that these videos were meant as the opening gambit of the age-old provocation strategy, a tried and tested insurgent method to polarize societies and gain popular support?

In its traditional context, the provocation strategy involves the use of violence by aspiring insurgents to goad state authorities into an overreaction. That overreaction adversely affects relevant populations (targeted because they are thought to sympathize with or shelter the likely perpetrators). Attacked by the state, this population becomes increasingly alienated and starts to look for alternate sources of protection, power and legitimacy. The insurgents then step in, with an empowering message whose anti-state tenor and call to action will now begin to resonate.

In this case, the violence is limited to harassment and intimidation, but the vied-for effect is still polarization and popular support. Most viewers of these videos will feel affronted and share with the victims the sense of being under attack. Among those already resentful of Islam, immigrants or integration, the videos will trigger a more pernicious reaction. The narrative here is of Western governments bending over backwards to appease those who – quite clearly (as the videos would seem to show) – want to subvert ‘our’ country and civilization. Within this narrative, the state cannot be relied upon to defend Western values: it is consumed by political correctness and cowardice. We are under attack and we – the people – must respond.

Returning to the provocation strategy, some of those who react this way play the role traditionally assumed by ‘the state’. They are affronted by the threat to their order, their values, and react. Much like a state has difficulties locating the perpetrators of an insurgent attack, the respondents in this case will also struggle to discriminate – to target only the individuals responsible. Instead, one can well imagine the larger community taking the brunt, due to preconceived opinions about its complicity and the problems it represents. The response might take the form of graffiti on a nearby mosque, racist abuse or intimidation. Under attack, some of the community will look for new sources of protection and strength, at which point the radicals step in with an appealing frame and narrative. Suddenly the need for ‘Muslim spaces’ may not seem so ridiculous after all. Polarization has been achieved.

If that was indeed the intent (and it very well may not have been), how did it play out in practice? It is really too early to tell, but it would seem as if the London authorities and the Islamic community reacted in exactly the correct manner. The authorities have taken steps to arrest the people featured in the videos, which acts as a deterrent and provides catharsis for those – victims and viewers – who felt threatened or affronted. The Muslim community immediately denounced the videos and made it clear there is no space for this type of behaviour in its midst.

But undoubtedly, there are also those who will eagerly use this as another anecdote of social disintegration and weaponize it to meet racist or xenophobic ends. Youtube has pulled the original videos, but they are still being circulated – now by users and accounts with anti-immigration, anti-Muslim agendas. Some right-wing rabble-rouser in the United States calls the Muslim Patrol video ‘the most important political video of the year’ and calls for ‘an end to all immigration from Muslim nations, including North Africa’ to save ‘our Western civilization’. One of the Youtube accounts with the most views for the video in question declares itself as  ‘opposed to the systemic genocide of our people through massive non-European immigration and integration.’ Les extrêmes se touchent, as they say, and in this case as in many others they even work in close symbiosis – much as they do in their mutual promotion of the Clash of Civilizations.

The whole episode points to the need to respond discriminately, appropriately and carefully to deliberate provocations by fringe elements. Caution does not equal accommodation, but allows for an assessment of the threat before blindly walking into the trap being set. Although this post may very give too much credit to those who spawned the Muslim Patrol videos, it is also necessary not to take this type of provocation at face value – to condemn it, yes, but also to ask why it is taking place and what it seeks to achieve.

Three interesting post-scripts to this tale:

  1. Whereas it may in fact be the white population of Whitehall that feels under threat by a growing Muslim population, the Bangladeshi population has declined over the last ten years from 51 to 40 per cent. That’s not to say that this trend is spread more widely.
  2. Anyone attempting to draw conclusions for the United States from this or other European episodes should first consider the recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Its findings, that Muslim terrorism in the U.S. was “practically nil” in 2012, provide sorely needed context to the US discussion of radicalization, Islam and homegrown terrorism. No doubt one can quibble with the methodology but really, no matter how you slice it, reports such as these should help defuse some of the ungrounded paranoia and fear that surrounds the discussion of Islam in America.
  3. Finally, in a sense, the above analysis resonates with a previous post of mine of the Muhammad cartoons. Again, who is provoking whom and what are the dangers of confusing our audiences?

Finding a raw nerve, striking it, and liking it

There is not much to be said about the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ trailer – and the reaction to it in several Muslim-majority countries – that has not already been said. More enlightened commentary has emphasised the right to free speech and expression and framed the violent response as a predominantly local competition for power, to determine the future politics of specific countries or, they hope, of an entire religion. Of course the nuanced analysis is almost by definition reserved to those who bother to think and read about the events of the past few weeks. Others are driven more by gut reaction and you can see the saddening results online, whether it is at Muslims or the West that the hatred and bile is directed.

This blog post is motivated less by the initial volley – the trailer and the embassy riots – and more by the decision this week by French paper Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. As most people are now abundantly aware, this is considered blasphemous by many Muslims. So the question again has to be why? Following the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the burning of American flags and the violence perpetrated in the name of outrage, it was relatively easy to uphold the freedom of speech and to point the finger at those responsible for the bloodletting. There is no moral equivalence between uttering nasty things and killing people, or even threatening violence.

Yet with these cartoons now released to stoke the fire, is there a point at which we must be more circumspect about what we say? The editors of Charlie Hebdo clearly disagree; as editor Stephane Charbonnier tells Al Jazeera English, ‘I’m not asking strict Muslims to read Charlie Hebdo, just like I wouldn’t go to a mosque to listen to speeches that go against everything I believe’. It is a smart defense and the publication of the cartoons is in almost all regards difficult to argue against. There are very good reasons for why the West has its freedom of expression and in a global marketplace of ideas and images, many of which will be insulting to someone, we all have to develop a thicker skin.

But at what point does exercising that freedom of expression become analogous to the obnoxious kid who hurls abuse at passers-by from the safety of his parents’ home? We don’t go around calling people fat, ugly or outright deformed, just because we can. We frown upon slurs, both racial and sexist, and hide all sorts of unpleasant realities with euphemisms. Why then should this same society actively seek out the nerve exposed by parts of the Muslim world and strike it again, and again?

Upon reflection, the only group of people who deliberately strikes raw nerves like that are kids engaged in bullying. You know the story: one kid has been designated as the victim and the others probe until they find the one insult that will cause the most harm – the quickest route to a reaction. Once identified, they pounce. The victim lashes out, violently, and the bullies can then claim outrage over the disproportionate reaction to what was after all ‘only playground taunts’.

There is a fairly good article on CNN.com by David Frum entitled ‘Don’t blame the video; defend free speech’. Nothing here should be read as going against that initial reaction and free speech is not the main problem here. But when free speech is used without any responsibility, or simply to provoke, are there not moral reasons for it to be circumscribed, not by the authorities as in totalitarian states, but by ourselves? Is there not a need for some measure of self-control on the part of outlets like Hebdo Charlie and a suitably adult rejection of hate-mongering by the rest of us? Yes, they are only cartoons and the likely violent reaction cannot be tolerated. But if these cartoons are printed precisely because they will be hurtful to others, we have to question not only the motive but also the righteousness of such action – the righteousness of exercising our beloved free speech.

In this case, it is not just a moral case of not engaging in what is in effect cross-border bullying but also a strategic question, as action such as Hebdo Charlie’s goes against exactly what the West is trying to do to alienate and render irrelevant the extremist forces of al-Qaeda and their ilk. When we through our actions validate their argument that ‘Islam is under attack’, we are contributing to their recruitment appeal and proving correct, in the eyes of many, their narrative. Well done…

One reason the provocation goes on is seemingly because we reject the violent reaction and want to prove a point, as if enough abuse will dull the sensitivity and help them ‘get over it’. I can think of few instances where such shock therapy has worked and the propaganda gift we don our enemies through such action outweigh any benefit accrued.

Another reason, more childish, is that ‘they started it’. Fingers are pointed at the violent sermons in mosques, the burning of flags, the rampant antisemitism and bigotry that one often finds in more extreme contexts. ‘Why should we exercise self-control and “respect the other” when we get so little in return?’ This points to the ultimate challenge of the war of ideas that we are currently in. There is a choice: become like the enemy whom you despise, emulate his tactics, or take a step back and show through your actions and words why such hate-mongering, whether it be by an extremist imam or the editor of Charlie-Hebdo, does not belong in our world and society. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: ‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee’. This is not a matter of rights or entitlements, but of  judgement and responsibility.