The apparent relevance of the Manchester Arena bomber having been ‘suspected’ of praying shows the dangers of Islamophobia including all aspects of Muslim life.
The public inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing, in which twenty-two people were killed, was established to learn about what happened and how to prevent similar attacks from occurring in the future. Whilst this is a necessity — and counter-terrorism strategies must evaluate previous attacks to become more efficient — some of the evidence that has already been heard exposes the increasing dangers of prejudice and Islamophobia in how people think about terrorism. It is important to have a clearer picture of the warning signs of radicalised or extremist people — or terrorists — but the need for this should not eliminate all nuance to the extent that acting like a Muslim becomes sound cause for being suspected of terrorism.
Evidence heard at the beginning of the public inquiry already showed the different approaches that can be taken to spotting a suspected terrorist. One witness stated that he thought a man matching the description of the bomber had been acting suspiciously and had asked him what was in his backpack, to which he received a non-committal response. Despite informing a security guard, no action was taken, and the witness felt he had been dismissed. It is possible that police officers and security guards at locations with large capacity need to receive more appropriate guidance and training so that they can confidently respond accordingly when a member of the public raises suspicions without concerns about accusations of prejudice. Another option may be to increase the number of security guards to ease pressure. The investigation is examining why this happened to establish why this potential opportunity to stop a terrorist attack was not utilised. There must be a clear difference between “looking suspicious”, which can raise prejudice and racism allegations, and “acting suspiciously”.
On the other hand, though what constitutes suspicious conduct should be made clearer, praying should plainly not fall into that category. Witnesses informed the inquiry that they believed they had seen the bomber praying and had informed a British Transport Police officer. In this case, it is entirely unsurprising that no action was taken. Including prayer into the definition of a terrorist would be counterproductive, as it would produce an unbelievable number of false positives and divert attention from areas where resources could be better spent, such as on community engagement or measures to counter radicalisation. Incorporating a criterion that many see as prejudicial not only increases the possibility of racism, but also increases the likelihood that frontline workers may be reluctant to act when they could actually prevent radicalisation or terrorism out of fear of ‘being racist’.
Praying is not a reason to suspect someone of terrorism. The act of praying is simply communicating with God or other key figures in a particular religion and is therefore key to religious beliefs. Praying being seen as suspicious therefore implies the same judgement applying for all people of that religion. Although it was a member of the public, and not someone working for the authorities, who made this judgement, it is nevertheless symbolic of the Islamophobia that is now prevalent throughout the UK. This is an entirely unacceptable path for an open and inclusive society to take, but it is becoming a likelier possibility. Research has found that the biased and inaccurate discourse associated with media reporting increases the likelihood of Islamophobic hate crime after incidences of jihadi terrorism. Unless more is done to combat Islamophobia, challenge unhelpful discourse, and ineffective counter-terrorism strategies, this danger to liberal societies can only worsen.
At JAN Trust, we fight against all forms of prejudice and work to empower our ethnic minority and Muslim beneficiaries. We believe in taking a holistic, evidence-based approach to solving issues, and, for example, empower young women and girls with the skills and knowledge to combat online extremism through our Another Way Forward™ programme. Whilst counter-terrorism policy has plenty of room for improvement, normal religious conduct cannot become equated with terrorism. We must all fight against this threat; but for an accident of birth, any one of us could find ourselves as part of a group that finds itself in danger and increasingly discriminated against.