By Sunny Hundal
Mar 31, 2017
When Khalid Masood drove a car into a crowd
in London last week, killing four people and injuring many more, it was Britain’s
worst terror incident since 2005. It took him just 82 seconds to hit
pedestrians and get to the Parliament building before stabbing a policeman and
getting shot. The attack was over before anyone realised what had happened.
How Britain reacted to its Westminster
tragedy speaks volumes for how we can defeat Islamic State-inspired terrorism
in the social media age.
Hours after the attack, British Prime
Minister Theresa May’s calm and unifying words set the tone for the country.
“The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people
of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the
values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech,” she said, ending with: “We
will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing
the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.”
Of course there were rabble-rousers who
leapt at the opportunity to get on TV cameras. Nigel Farage, the former leader
of the Ukip Party, wasted no time in blaming migrants for the attack. But
Masood was not only born and raised a few kilometres from where Farage lived,
he had come from a Christian family and later converted to Islam.
Our social media age gives extremists
voices an edge because they attract attention and end up driving the debate.
They love the attention even if it’s negative. But it also makes it near
impossible to have a reasonable public debate. Britain’s far-Right tried their
best to score points over the terror attack, by blaming migrants, refugees, or
Muslims, but found little hearing outside their bands of followers. Instead
they faced an avalanche of criticism for trying to exploit the incident.
The measured manner in which the British
establishment reacted to the London terror attack is to be celebrated. It’s
worth reiterating that groups such as Islamic State (IS) need western countries
to overreact to the terrorist threat. Their potency lies not just in the damage
they inflict but also in the fear and panic they induce. Partly because they
don’t want to be seen as “soft” on terrorism, and mostly because they also
don’t like being threatened, our media and politicians rarely acknowledge how
they also over-emphasise the risk from terrorism.
But terrorists would not succeed if their
intended audiences did not feel threatened. ISIS needs western governments to
become paranoid and cast suspicions on all Muslims. It helps them. It makes it
easier for them to groom new recruits. Britain’s response to the Westminster
attack is a sign it is finally having a mature debate on terrorism, rather than
being driven to panic as its tabloid press is prone to do.
British Muslims were also quick to
understand the role they could play in reinforcing May’s words. One group
raised over £30,000 (Rs 24 lakh) for the victims’ families in a week.
Co-organiser Akeela Ahmed told me it was “our way of paying our respects to the
victims and in some small way helping their loved ones.”
The day after the attack, Muslim women
lined up holding hands across the Westminster Bridge to show their sorrow. A
week later Muslim schoolgirls and imams were among the police and thousands of
others at a vigil where the attack took place. They wanted to emphasise this
was their country too and they were united with non-Muslims against IS. For a
terrorist group that places a lot of importance on symbolism this was a visible
The British establishment recognises that
ordinary Muslims are essential allies in fighting those inspired by IS. So far
so good. But we may not be so lucky next time. Only four people died this time,
plus Masood himself. Next time public opinion may be far uglier if more people
die. Next time it could be worse.
With US President Donald Trump now in
charge there is a palpable worry across Europe that a terrorist attack in the
United States could push him to do something irreversibly dangerous. That has
made Britain even more determined to sensibly tackle the problem.
It’s important we challenge religious
extremists and their sympathisers wherever they are and stand for secular and
democratic values. There is no doubt that IS is a genocidal organisation that
must be wiped out. But we cannot do this by falling into their trap. We cannot
defeat terrorism if our actions, rather than weakening the enemy, makes them
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in