LONDON—The anti-Muslim terrorist attack at two mosques in New Zealand marked perhaps the lowest point for Muslim communities in the West since the Bosnia genocide. It has left no doubt that far-right extremism is on the march once more.
But the sheer human tragedy of this attack against my Muslim communities has not deterred extremists from those other two ends of our political spectrum, the far left and the theocratic Islamists, from seeking to exploit it for their own nefarious purposes.
Just as a visibly pregnant Chelsea Clinton was accosted at an NYU vigil and faced unwarranted blame for the attack, others too have found themselves caught in the unforgiving crosshairs of ideologues seeking to settle scores. This was unsurprising. If the daughter of a Democratic president and a Democratic presidential candidate was fair game, what chance would those with lesser liberal bona fides have of being spared?
Last month I was racially attacked in the Soho area of London. I was punched in the face as my assailant shouted “f***ing Paki”, and my forehead was punctured with an unknown object. I will probably be scarred for life. So I know how tempting it can be to succumb to the forces of vengeance and division in times like these.
In my youth, as an angry 15-year-old Muslim witnessing the Bosnia genocide, I once succumbed to this temptation and promoted extreme Islamism myself for a few years. I know what giving in to hate feels like, and I know the lasting damage it can cause. But that is exactly the reaction that extremists want, and exactly why it must be resisted with all our might.
So it is with no surprise that I noticed, a mere day after 50 of my fellow Muslims were so publicly and tragically killed, while the blood was still wet and the bodies remained unburied, that the ideologues had circled like vultures. Opportunistic Islamist and far-left extremists began calling for a purge of people whose politics they disagree with, and started publishing McCarthyite lists of personae non grata to target. Few have come under fiercer assault than my friend and collaborator in dialogue, Sam Harris. The following spectacle has been incredibly unedifying.
After the multiple jihadist terror attacks Western cities have faced to date, it has been these same far-left and Islamist voices resisting the call to name the ideology behind these attacks as “Islamism”, and to distinguish it from the religion of Islam. They have taken the view that talking about the Islamist ideology unfairly stigmatises all Muslims. They have preferred to beseech us all to understand the grievances that fuel the anger of jihadists, and have encouraged instead ‘hug a Muslim’ campaigns. Yet, after New Zealand, these same voices paradoxically insist on directly addressing white nationalist ideology; they hounded a pregnant Chelsea Clinton; they have taken to compiling blacklists of individuals they do not like; and they are calling for the deplatforming of “right-wing” pundits and protests against “right-wing” media. Consistency has been sorely missing. This is dangerous, despicable and disingenuous. Only the extremist seeks to erase all opposition.
Already, ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir has broken six months' silence after the group’s recent humiliating series of defeats in Syria to encourage Muslims to take revenge for New Zealand. But this obviously does not mean that critics of right-wing extremism or the war in Syria are in league with ISIS.
So just as it would be wrong to blame critics of western foreign policy generally for jihadist terror in the West, it should be unacceptable to use this latest attack to to blame critics of Islam or immigration, or to seek to silence the political right generally.
Shutting down debate in this way will only make matters worse and is precisely what the New Zealand terrorist explicitly told us he wanted, in his diatribe commonly referred to as a manifesto.
In fact, there is an entire section in which Brenton Tarrant muses over pitting the American left against the American right in order to sow chaos. Falling for this trap is to allow ourselves to be trolled by a terrorist.
Lists are for fascists. And when the far left start seeking division and disagreement before seeking common ground and understanding, then there is little difference remaining between them and the far right. In particular, it is crucial to distinguish between those who peddle anti-Muslim hatred, and those like my friend Sam Harris who simply wish to scrutinise one of the world’s great religions, my religion: Islam. To confuse hating all Muslims with critiquing the doctrines of Islam, is akin to confusing anti-smoking campaigns with hating all smokers. It is to avoid precisely this confusion, and to steer clear of introducing blasphemy laws through the backdoor, that I reject the popular misnomer Islamophobia, for the more accurate phrase Muslimphobia, or anti-Muslim hate.
Of course, inflammatory anti-Muslim language must be condemned by us all, and many anti-Muslim provocateurs should take a hard look at themselves after New Zealand, just as we must condemn inflammatory Islamist and far-left language. That is different, though, from trying to silence an entire policy concern like Western foreign policy or opposing immigration and critiquing Islam respectively. Only the extremists wish to shut down debate. And so it is crucial that we do not respond to far-right extremism in such a way that we inadvertently empower extremists from other ends of the political spectrum. Terrorists prefer the bullet to the ballot. Let us not become pawns in their game.
Let us continue to debate all the hot issues in defiance. But in doing so there is one principle I would ask that we all remember: just as no idea should be above scrutiny, no person should be beneath dignity. If this line between critiquing ideas and seeking to humiliate people is not drawn clearly, any one of us could become the next Chelsea Clinton.