‘Innocent until proven guilty’, is the principle known as the presumption of innocence. It is the principle that assumes innocence putting the burden of proof on the accuser. This principle applies in most countries now, thankfully, including the UK, and was enshrined as a basic human right under article 11 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For Muslims this has been enshrined in the Law since fourteen centuries earlier, as the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhī wa sallam) said: “Al-bayyina ʿalā al-Muddaʿī—[the duty] to clarify is upon the claimant.”
However, this most basic of God-given rights seemingly does not apply today to the Muslim community in relation to acts of terrorism. In fact, far from being innocent until proven guilty, the presumption of guilt starts from the outset, without reliable evidence and proof. Some tend to selectively ignore this trend but others are more open about it. Indeed, the pressures are so great, that a level of self-guilt has been consciously or subconsciously absorbed by many in the Muslim community itself.
Let us take, for instance, the terror attack in Westminster last week. Even before any formal confirmation that a terrorist atrocity actually had been carried out, some national Muslim representative organisations had begun to condemn it. This may at face value seem very reasonable; after all, why would we not condemn something categorically forbidden by the Sharīʿa? However, in my opinion if we look at the context, what such a swift and specific condemnation did was instantly associate ‘Muslims’ with this act of terror.
This leads to what is known as ‘guilt by association.’ There is always overwhelming pressure, on Muslim organisations, from right wing sections of the media and islamophobes. They expect us in particular to condemn because they want to reinforce the association between terrorism and Muslims. Hence, to negate such criticism, Muslim organisations are always obligated to denounce and almost seem in a hurry to condemn, even before the full facts are known. In fact, as it then ultimately transpired after four days of intensive enquiries, the police investigating the attack have concluded that the alleged perpetrator “acted entirely alone for reasons that may never be known.” Hence, the reality is that the incident may never have been Islam-related or even politically motivated at all, despite the location of the attack being virtually on the doorstep of the Houses of Parliament.
There has almost become a predestined sequence of stages that the Muslim community seem to go through once news of a putative terrorist incident comes through. After the initial shock and horror, there is a forlorn hope, desire and some may argue desperation, that the perpetrator not be a Muslim. As a consequence this results in the knee-jerk ‘Muslim condemnation’ from the various Muslim representatives, even before the facts are known. This condemnation then seamlessly merges into a phase which can be best described as a form of ‘community restorative justice’ together with a defiant defence of Islām. Restorative justice is when an offender, in this case the party presumed guilty, carries out an act of making amends for a crime that they may have committed. To this end, the Muslim community sent countless messages of sympathy, condolences and took part in many acts of solidarity, with a Muslim group reportedly raising £18k in one day for the victims.
The Muslim community of Birmingham felt an even greater sense of ‘guilt by association’ due to the fact that the alleged perpetrator had lived in Birmingham for a period of time. This motivated hundreds to attend a demonstration in Birmingham which was themed as ‘Not In My Name’. This ‘Not In My Name’ title was used by the anti-war movement when the Blair government voted for Britain’s involvement in the invasion and war in Iraq. The irony is that a sense of ‘opting-out’ is possible when it comes to democratic decisions made by parliamentarians, however what level of ‘opting-out’ is possible when your association is determined by your faith and the city in which you live?
There definitely are good arguments for the showing of sympathy, solidarity, outrage, and so on. However the question here is the self-guilt that many of us may have absorbed over the years. Professedly to counter Islamophobic myths and stereotypes push out by “the media”, the Muslim community have released statements, press releases, countless condemnations, taken part in demonstrations, acts of solidarity and even raised money for victims. But will this actually fix the problem? Will this make those Islamophobes who have been brainwashed by multimillion-dollar industry, begin to like us? Will this show that Islam is truly a religion of peace? Will the gaze of suspicion ever move away from the Muslim community when there is another act of terrorism? The answer to all of the above, in my opinion, is no.
Breaking the Cycle
In their article, After Westminster: It’s going to take courage to break the cycle, advocacy group CAGE refer to a cycle which starts with a terrorist incident and which always ends in more draconian, counterproductive “anti-terror” legislation. Unfortunately, as a consequence of systemic failures such as PREVENT, we have seen time and again Muslims disproportionately categorised as “terrorists” for doing similar crimes as others (many times not even actual crimes). This is fundamentally because the government’s CONTEST “Strategy for Countering Terrorism” only meaningfully covers what it terms ‘Islamic terrorism’ within the document. To be precise, 124 pages of the 125-page document talk about ‘Islamic terrorism’. Other forms of terrorism, including the far-right, only get tokenistic mentions. Hence, to put it in layman’s terms – the mesh size and shape for the PREVENT ‘terrorist’ fishing net is designed to only really catch Muslims that exhibit certain behaviour.
This inevitably has a knock-on effect when it comes to prosecutions. In 2016 there were 24 cases which were successfully prosecuted by the Counter Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). All of these cases, with the exception of one, Thomas Mair (killer of Jo Cox MP), were apparently ‘Islamic terrorism’ related. This is a staggering 96% of the cases, despite Muslims being 5% of the population. To reflect further on this disproportionate representation, readers are free to browse the CPS site for details of the actual ‘criminals’ convicted, with apparently a far lower threshold for what constitutes “terrorism offences” if it happens to be one type of terrorism.
The Way Forward
It is evident in my opinion that our current state of affairs is untenable. No amount of condemnation, solidarity, charity or demonstrating the goodness of Islām is going break this cycle, because it only takes one person’s crime to bring us back to square one, in such a system structurally failing us.
The various national Muslim bodies and organisations which represent Muslims must now take firm and decisive action. The community on the whole have been voicing their objections to populist, structurally-racist and ultimately counterproductive “counter-terrorism” strategies for 14 years now. It is now time that Muslim organisations take their concerns and objections to the highest levels of government. There are clearly senior advocates to change, with Jeremy Corbyn stating, post the Westminster incident, that PREVENT needs to “be broadened to all communities so it doesn’t appear to target Muslims.” The least that can be said that it is a symbolic gesture to recognise something so ideologically-loaded and failing so spectacularly.
In the Meantime
In the meantime, Muslim organisations, leaders and ordinary people will need to contemplate and reflect on the best way to deal with acts of terrorism (and other acts labelled as “terrorism” by the press) in future. We must ensure that condemnation is timely and not to appease the right-wing neoconservatives and Islamophobes, but sincerely for Allāh’s sake. Critically, let us ensure that we are not selective in our condemnations – there are other terrorist atrocities, national and international, commit by state and non-state actors, which also deserve condemnation, however politically inconvenient they may seem.
Instead of condemning with the intention to appease people brainwashed by the Islamophobia industry, let us instead do—or if we are unable, support—the one thing which is tried and tested to melt the hearts of those indoctrinated by hate against Islām and Muslims: daʿwah. What history has shown us is that when Muslims interact on a personal level with others, that is when Allāh opens the hearts of those in whom there is some level of honesty, integrity and commitment to truth. It is no wonder that certain Islamophobes who embody the opposite of those values have openly called for the banning of daʿwah, in the wake of last week’s attack. This is a testament to their fear of those indoctrinated by their irrational hatred and ancient lies waking up!
It is now also time to call a spade a spade, and reject any association of our beautiful, peaceful and awe-inspiring Dīn of Islām with terrorism. The Muslim community can legitimately behave as the innocent party because we will refuse to assume any guilt. We will condemn only on the basis of morality, humanity and ethics, rather than any faith-based collective responsibility and self-guilt. Moreover, we must now stand in solidarity with the dignity and ʿizzah of the Dīn of Allāh and our Muslim brethren, rather than pander to whims and desires of the right wing press and the enemies of Islām.
 A well known juristic maxim based on hadīths reported by al-Bayhaqī, Bukhāri and Muslim
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.