“Britain first, Britain will always be first” and “I am a political activist,” are the words which burst forth from Thomas Mair’s mouth as he stabbed Labour MP Jo Cox; a humanitarian, campaigner and mother of two children, to death in the street in Birstall, West Yorkshire.
These words make unequivocally clear what was initially under debate when the story first emerged in the midst of a referendum campaign fraught with emotive political mud-slinging, fallacious information and rampant racism: that Thomas Mair was a political actor, and his act of murder was underpinned by far-right ideology. It is this week, as the case comes to trial, that the significance of these words has finally been registered.
The fact that the political impetus which prompted this attack was initially under question is an indicator of both the mainstream media’s determination to adhere to a narrative that political terrorism can only be committed by minority groups, particularly Muslims, and its utter failure to register the political forces at play beyond the elite metropolitan epicentre.
I’ll start with the first point – the perpetuation of the narrative that terrorism is a ‘Muslim’ problem. The initial discourse surrounding Jo Cox’s murder, that Thomas Mair was a ‘loner,’ with a ‘history of mental illness,’ utterly erases the existence of far-right nationalist ideology which, like any form of extremism, can be utilised to justify acts of murder as serving a ‘higher’ social purpose.
Of course, it is likely that Thomas Mair did suffer from significant mental health problems, and in many ways he is a pitiable figure who was radicalised by ideologies of hate and fear of the other. This is no different from many perpetrators of Islamic terrorism, many of whom have had a history of mental illness (Mohamed Lahouaiyej Bouhlel, the man behind last year’s Nice attacks, and Michael Adebowale, one of the murderers of soldier Lee Rigby are two such examples). Yet in the reportage of the latter two events, the role of Islamic extremism was foregrounded from the beginning. By contrast, in the crucial first stories which covered Jo Cox’s murder, Thomas Mair was described as “quiet, polite and reserved” and “not a violent man.” Through this display of compassion and understanding towards white violent extremists, whilst their Muslim counterparts are portrayed as monsters, the media further entrenches cultural stereotypes in the Western world that terrorism is a uniquely ‘Islamic’ problem, othering Islamic culture as inherently dangerous. By offloading the very real issue at play – that extremist narratives are increasingly gaining traction – as a ‘foreign’ culture’s problem, the media fails to recognise the grave threat which is posed by far-right and white nationalist movements, which in turn prevents serious, concerted efforts to challenge and prevent their rise in power.
The second issue, that the media’s temperature check on what’s going on in British society is skewed due to its proverbial eyes being turned inwards towards social life in the capital, is one which I registered immediately, reading the breaking news story in an office in central London as a northerner in exile. The fact that Jo Cox hailed from a socially deprived, post-industrial town in West Yorkshire meant that she was undoubtedly aware of the profound impact that the xenophobic, anti-immigrant messages have had amongst communities which have been economically starved by neoliberalism and the decline of manufacturing. Groups such as the EDL, the BNP and Britain First, far too often dismissed scathingly as objects of ridicule by commentators based in the capital, have made huge gains in these areas. Educated, economically privileged and London-centric groups which dominate the media and politics fail to recognise the terrible ramifications of their casual scapegoating of immigrants to explain the punishing effects of an austerity programme which has ripped apart communities in the regional north. It happened with Brexit, and the horrifying wave of hate crimes which followed, and it happened here – with Jo Cox’s tragic murder. This rhetoric is not simply political theatre; it panders to and strengthens the far right.
Aside from the terrible fact that Jo Cox’s family and friends have been deprived forever of someone they love, there is profound tragedy to be found in the fact that Jo Cox probably understood more than many of her fellow MPs in Westminster the social forces at play in post-industrial towns like Birstall which have bestowed ideologies of hate and extremism with the power they seek. If we want to remember Jo, and the messages of hope and love she articulated throughout her life, then we must take the threat of the far right seriously. This begins by taking preventative steps.
At JAN Trust, we work with mothers and in schools to educate, inform and prevent extremism – whether this is from far-right movements or from Islamic extremism. We acknowledge and understand the danger of extremist language wherever it appears, and in whatever shape it assumes, and we work hard to prevent it from taking hold – so that we might prevent future tragedies.