‘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?
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