A Tale of Two Murders : On extremism, violence and calls for moderation in multicultural Britain

A Tale of Two Murders : On extremism, violence and calls for moderation in multicultural Britain

Alexander Smith, University of Warwick

As 2013 drew to a close, two cases of murder went before the courts.  One case, it could be said, was the mirror image of the other.

On October 25th, a young Ukrainian student named Pavlo Lapshyn was sentenced to forty years for stabbing and killing an 82 year old Muslim man in Small Heath, Birmingham.  He was also convicted of planting nail bombs, powerful enough to kill or maim, outside mosques in Walsall, Tipton and Wolverhampton in the West Midlands.

Lapshyn had arrived in the UK just five days before killing Mohammed Saleem on April 29th 2013, hoping to ignite a race war.  Following his arrest, police asked him why he had targeted mosques.  ‘Because they are not white,’ he told them, ‘and I am white.’

Lapshyn’s crimes were committed in the weeks before the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.  On May 22nd, the young soldier was killed with a machete on a street in Woolwich, south-east London, by two men who turned out to be converts to Islam.  They were arrested at the scene minutes later after confessing to witnesses who had recorded the crime on their mobile phones.  The two men – Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale – were convicted of murder on December 19th.

These crimes demonstrate that the threat of racist violence, towards ethnic minorities, continues to exist in the UK today, both from so-called ‘homegrown’ Islamic militants antagonistic towards the white majority and from white supremacists who on occasion have travelled from mainland Europe,.

However, what proved controversial at the time was what seemed to some a disproportionate response from the police and, especially, the Government and the media to both of these murders.

Three hours after Lee Rigby’s killing, Prime Minister David Cameron, who was travelling outside the UK, tweeted to say that he had asked the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to chair a Cobra meeting, bringing together ministers, civil servants, police and intelligence officers to co-ordinate a response to the attack in Woolwich.

This was in contrast to the murder of Mohammed Saleem just a few weeks before and the attempted bombings of West Midlands mosques that followed, which failed to provoke much response from national government.  Understandably, this left some Muslim community leaders questioning whether a double standard applies in modern, multicultural Britain, when it comes to addressing the threat of racist violence and even terrorism.

It is important to acknowledge the legitimacy of these concerns as well as the sacrifices made by British Muslims like Mohammed Saleem, his family and the community to which he belonged.

While often outspoken in condemning extremist violence, our political leaders and the media have had much less to say about what constitutes that ancient virtue so necessary for effectively combating it in pluralist liberal democracies: moderation.

With a tendency to be defined by a sense of what it is not – by its apparent absence of ideology – moderation has come to be associated with ‘bland’ and incoherent notions of centrism in recent years.  By definition, moderation seems a relative term, often seeming only momentarily discernable in contrast to fundamentalism and militancy in specific socio-political contexts.

The challenge, though, remains: how to cultivate democratic institutions and publics capable of challenging and checking – moderating, in fact – political and religious extremism in an age defined by growing inequalities, polarization and segregation in local communities.

The anxieties expressed by some Muslim leaders may well have been compounded further by the extensive media coverage that was dramatized further by the calling of the Cobra meeting in response to the attack on Lee Rigby.  In the days that followed, several ‘mainstream’ political voices sought to explain his murder not as an isolated violent act but part of a wider problem within Islam.  For example, describing the current UK Government’s measures for tackling extremism as ‘reasonable and proportionate’, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that the murder had been inspired by a ‘dangerous ideology’ unique to Islam:

There is not a problem with Islam . . . But there is a problem within Islam, and we have to put it on the table and be honest about it. There are, of course, Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu ones.  But I am afraid that the problematic strain within Islam is not the province of a few extremists.  It has at its heart a view of religion – and of the relationship between religion and politics – that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.  At the extreme end of the spectrum are terrorists, but the worldview goes deeper and wider than it is comfortable for us to admit. So, by and large, we don’t admit it.

Presented in these terms, Islamic extremism is characterized as a problem for which Muslim communities must take exclusive responsibility.  If there is a sociological explanation to be found for Rigby’s murder at all, so Blair’s logic would appear to suggest, it is one for which non-Muslims cannot be held responsible.

In other words, the argument of the former British Prime Minister – and he was not alone in making it – requires minorities to accept that it is they who must ultimately shoulder the burden of responsibility for crimes committed, by extremists, in their name.

The problem here is that in the moment of diagnosing extremism, as a fault stemming from one (usually other) minority’s alleged ‘failure’ to fully embrace practices of moderation, Blair and other leaders themselves risk failing a central reflexive test of what makes a moderate. A society’s promise to promote a moderate politics depends significantly on the (political) majority’s willingness to moderate itself and, first and foremost, recognize the rights and sacrifices of minorities.

The reaction to Rigby’s murder was more predictable, of course, amongst leaders of far Right political parties, with the British National Party blaming ‘mass immigration’ for the murder and the English Defence League (EDL) organizing anti-Muslim protests in London and elsewhere.

But the story of a York mosque that served tea and biscuits to anti-Muslim protestors days after is evocative and perhaps better represents a ‘teachable’ moment for those of us seeking insights about what moderation might mean in the twenty-first century.

According to online BBC news coverage of what took place, the Yorkshire EDL Scarborough Division posted a Facebook message encouraging people to gather for a protest outside the mosque in Bull Lane the Sunday following Rigby’s murder.  Six EDL protestors turned up.  They confronted over 100 supporters of the mosque, including other faith leaders from the wider community.  A conversation ensued and an invitation extended to the EDL protestors to join members of the mosque for tea and biscuits.

With tensions diminishing, the protestors then joined younger members of the mosque for a game of football.  Speaking afterwards, the Anglican Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu observed that ‘tea, biscuits, and football are a great and typically Yorkshire combination when it comes to disarming hostile and extremist views.’  Local Anglican priest Father Tim Jones added:

I’ve always known they [the mosque] were intelligent and compassionate people and I think this has demonstrated the extent to which they are people of courage – certainly physical courage and also a high degree of moral courage. I think the world can learn from what happened outside that ramshackle little mosque on Sunday.

It is difficult to imagine much that is more banal and everyday than tea and biscuits.  Yet, this true-life fable captures that elusive quality of spirit that makes moderation so hard to pin down analytically.

It underscores a central concern for moderates and moderation: the regenerative power of attending to social relations and the importance of treating those with whom one might hold vehemently opposed views with enough respect and tolerance to cultivate the most appropriate social conditions for facilitating a new kind of conversation.  Here, the promise of moderation lies in its re-articulation as a (self) discipline, a set of practices for engaging divided publics.

There is much grist for the sociological mill in everyday acts like sharing tea and biscuits with those one might initially confront as political strangers.  After all, moderation is about the relations among publics and the possibilities of a deep pluralism that is respectful of difference.

Sociology has a special relationship to the idea of the public as mediating the state and the market.  But publics are under threat, from mass consumerism, neoliberal economics and political and religious extremism.  To counter these threats, sociology has much to contribute to debates about how to re-cast moderation as a set of ethical practices and values for addressing the many economic inequalities and social injustices facing us today.

If the lessons of Lee Rigby’s murder and Pavlo Lapshyn’s crimes are to be learned in 2014, this is a challenge to which sociologists must rise.  After all, the future of sociology is tied to the future of publics and the future of both, without revivified social and political practices of moderation, may be bleak.

Dr. Alexander Smith is a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas.  With John Holmwood, he is the editor of Sociologies of Moderation: problems of democracy, expertise and the media (2013, Wiley Blackwell), which has been published as part of the Sociological Review monograph series.