Ben Lowry: It is not good enough just to keep saying ‘Islam is a religion of peace’

The truck that was used in the Nice massacre on Thursday night (Sasha Goldsmith via AP)
The truck that was used in the Nice massacre on Thursday night (Sasha Goldsmith via AP)

In February, the Archbishop of Canterbury was in Belfast to deliver the annual Church of Ireland theological lecture at Queen’s University.

The Most Rev Justin Welby talked about how we must aspire towards a world in which religiously justified violence was eliminated.

Even the much-maligned George Bush, seen here on September 11 2001, said that Islam is a religion of peace

Even the much-maligned George Bush, seen here on September 11 2001, said that Islam is a religion of peace

“We are in a struggle with a terrorist force of extreme evil,” Rev Welby said of the Islamic group Daesh.

Reflecting on the origins of such violence, the head of the worldwide Anglican communion spoke about understanding communities that had experienced the combination of being a minority and being humiliated. “Humiliation and disrespect are the most corrosive things we can experience,” he said.

This is a powerful and important observation. Those of us who grew up white in the UK can only speculate on how it must have felt 40 years ago to live as an ethnic minority in a nation in which all the most important people were white: royalty, judges, MPs, newsreaders, celebrities, business leaders and, indeed, church leaders.

As recently as the 1970s, the leading figures in British sport – the sphere in which black and Asian people were most likely to reach the top – were overwhelmingly white.

Pastor James McConnell, outside court during his trial in late 2015, was prosecuted after a complaint from a man who defended the peace brought about in Mosul by Isis rule

Pastor James McConnell, outside court during his trial in late 2015, was prosecuted after a complaint from a man who defended the peace brought about in Mosul by Isis rule

Implicit in Archbishop Welby’s comments was the idea that people on all sides share some culpability for most conflict situations. That is an appropriately Christian observation.

The lecture was not a forum for journalists, but rather an event principally for Anglicans, some of whom asked questions at the end.

If it had been another setting, in which journalistic queries were invited, I would have asked him:

“At what point, when someone reacts explosively to the corrosive combination of humiliation and disrespect, does their reaction cease to be our fault and begin also to be their fault?”

By which I mean this:

Hindus and Afro Caribbeans, as two obvious examples, are two British groups who have lived as a small minority in the UK since they first began to arrive here in large numbers more than half a century ago.

Despite the marked changes in the racial composition of the UK, they cannot be other than acutely aware of their minority status when they turn on the TV or drive through the English countryside. All of them have at times suffered humiliation.

But support for suicide bombings in those two communities is negligible.

Outright support for suicide bombings in the British Muslim community is also negligible, but it is from that community that many hundreds of jihadists have travelled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh and other fanatical groups.

And while outright support for suicide bombings is small, some degree of sympathy for the thinking that drives it is much larger. A poll commissioned by one of the most respected news programmes in the western world, BBC Radio Four Today, last year found that 27% of British Muslims had some sympathy with the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

When I used this statistic previously, a critic attacked me for citing it more than once. But I believe it would be a serious society-wide failing to ignore such alarming findings.

Since September 11 2001, the standard response to an atrocity by Islamic extremists has been: ‘Islam is a religion of peace’. Even the much-maligned George W Bush said as much in the aftermath of the felling of the Twin Towers.

This was an admirable comment then, intended to send out an immediate signal that Europe and America will not suddenly embrace Islamophobia in reaction to a core of fanatics.

But it is a phrase that has been repeated after many atrocities in western cities since then, and on its own it is an inadequate response.

This is a specific 21st century problem with Islam.

It is clear to anyone who has travelled in the Muslim world, as I have had the good fortune to do, that the vast bulk of the 1.5 billion+ global Muslim population is moderate and peaceful, including the biggest nations, Indonesia and Turkey (last night embroiled in a coup).

The problem is that a core of Muslims, proportionately small but numerically large (tens of millions), do sympathise with radicals. This poses a threat that is all the more serious in an age in which individuals or small groups can inflict serious harm.

There is not much that can be done to prevent an attack such as the one in Nice, carried out by a sole lunatic.

Even if we add together the biggest recent jihadist attacks on western targets – Paris (twice), Tunisia, Orlando, Brussels, Nice – we are many times more likely to die in a car crash than in such an atrocity.

But while it is important to keep a sense of proportion, there is a growing risk from small groups getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction. The ease of manufacturing them will surely improve with technological advances.

If the Twin Towers attackers had hit the buildings an hour later, when they were closer to being full, and 50 stories lower, so that few people were able to escape, the death toll might have been more than 20,000 rather than fewer than 3,000.

No-one should doubt that people who aim to kill 20,000 people would use a nuclear bomb if they could.

Reducing the allure of Islamic extremism will not be easy and is not in any event achievable solely by non-Muslims. No group of people can tell another group of people, to which they do not belong, what to think about religion and about the world.

Britain is one of the European nations that has many highly integrated and deeply loyal Muslim citizens who abhor terror. By adopting Archbishop Welby’s approach, we will have even more of them.

But at the same time we will have to further beef up our intelligence services.

And we will have to accept some curbs on our civil liberties and kick out the worst Islamic hate preachers as Theresa May determinedly tried to do as Home Secretary.

Such despicable preachers must become the target of our ire, not men like Pastor James McConnell, who gave a clumsy sermon about Muslims, which deserved censure and even ridicule, but not prosecution (let alone prosecution at the behest of a man who had praised the ‘peace’ in Mosul brought about by one of the most depraved regimes in modern history, Isis).

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor. See below earlier comment pieces by him about Islamic extremism:

Ben Lowry in 2015 After Charlie Hebdo: Years of western weakness towards Islamic fanatics

Ben Lowry in January: It is hugely disturbing that Pastor McConnell was put in the dock