Thursday, 31 October 2013
Following the 1995 Oklahoma bombing Edward Said was invited for interview by the US media. As an expert on the Middle East, the media assumed he would have insight into how this “terrorist” incident bore the hallmark of “Muslim extremists”. The perpetrator later turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, a former Gulf War veteran who sought to avenge the actions of the US federal government at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The assumption was this was an attack so barbarous it could only be attributed to “Muslims” and not to the complex range of social and individual factors which lead people to kill themselves to draw attention to their unheard or less heard political claims.
The incident at Tiananmen Square on the 28th October 2013 saw a Jeep driven into a pedestrian area before 3 passengers set the car alight killing themselves and 2 innocent tourists as well as injuring 38 pedestrians. The incident appears to be a relatively crude attack with no complex co-ordination or sophisticated weaponry (they carried knives, machetes, and petrol). The World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur scholar under house arrest Ilham Tohti have called for calm until we have real information to work with and so that this incident is not used to increase repression in Xinjiang. The central government has thus far released very little information except to say this was a “carefully planned, organised, and premeditated attack” which included carrying flags with “extreme religious content”. What this actually means is unclear at best. The fact that the passengers were a man, his wife, and mother suggests there is a lot more to this story and international terrorism does not appear to fit the facts. International media has a remarkably hard job on its hands making sense of it all because the security apparatus was so quick to conceal the entire incident with large police screens. This means it may be impossible to verify any narrative the party-state decides to tell. Experts on Xinjiang have long considered these official accounts to be problematic at best and deliberately misleading at worst. International journalists, such as AFP, have had their photographs seized, domestic media have been given instructions to follow the official line in framing the issue as “terrorism”, and posts on the subject have disappearing from Weibo, China’s largest social media network, as quickly as they are posted.
A police notice issued to hotels instructed them to watch out for "suspicious people" and Xinjiang registration plates. It named two suspects with Uyghur names from the Piqan (shanshan) and Guma (pishan) counties. The statement was printed online with some media outlets simply adding in the presumption that they are Muslims. Zachary Keck of the Diplomat went further with the irresponsible article ‘Al-Qaeda in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region?’ which offered no consideration of perspectives from Xinjiang. The USA Daily ran with the headline “Muslim family led Tiananmen suicide attack”. No one knows the religion of the perpetrators or if it bears any relevance to their actions. Nevertheless, it appears racial profiling has already begun in Xinjiang with warnings to residents of Shanshan county to be on guard for anyone “suspicious with a big beard or burka”. Identifying the men simply as Muslims obscures a huge ream of complex social factors and controversial policies in Xinjiang which have ethnicised social tensions and sparked small-scale incidents of violence in the region. In recent years, such policies have included discrimination in employment, the eradication of Uyghur language as a medium of instruction, the persecution of writers as“separatists”, the confiscation of Uyghurs’ passports, the demolition of old Kashgar, as well as growing restrictions on fasting for Ramadan and wearing Islamic clothing.
If it is true that a group of Uyghurs were responsible for the car attack then we will need to consider how the party-state’s approach to security works in the region. The LA Times suggests this attack at the heart of Chinese power “has raised doubts about the effectiveness of its security apparatus”. Experts on Xinjiang have raised doubts about this for a long time. However, the weakness lies not with the number of troops posted in Xinjiang or Tiananmen or with the number of armoured vehicles patrolling Uyghur neighbourhoods. The weakness lies with thinking that long-term security comes down the barrel of a gun. The party chief for Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, unveiled a plan last year to have armed police every 100 metres in urban Xinjiang. This does not suggest that the party-state is in control but that it is very insecure and has to use violence to maintain the position of Uyghurs as an ethnic minority in China. These methods which are supposed to improve security (ie restrictions on religion, monolingual language policies, and arresting authors of fiction) make Uyghurs feel their identities and their individual well-being are threatened. If we want to take security seriously, then a more pertinent question is how to make Uyghurs feel more secure and to give them channels to express their insecurity so that they do not feel the need to turn to violence. The policies above and the incidents they sparked suggest that the more the Chinese government focuses on “security”, meaning surveillance of Uyghurs, the more insecure Uyghurs feel, and the higher likelihood of further violence. The best way to address this security issue would be to listen to those who feel most insecure in Xinjiang and deal with their concerns. These voices can offer perspectives on the issue beyond relying on lazy essentialisations of Islam to frame an as yet entirely unexplained act of violence.
Thursday, 23 May 2013
When Islamophobia explodes across England because an individual who happens to be a Muslim commits an act of violence, it suggests our Kingdom is not as United as our politicians like to think. In the wake of the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, we would do well to take a step back and turn a critical lens on our media before we feel the need to lock ourselves in our homes for fear of the terrorists in our midst.
“In the life of a nation, we’re called up to define who we are and what we believe”1.
George Bush uttered these famous words in defence of the US decision to send military forces to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf crisis. Bush, like most politicians, was linking identity to national security by saying identity is something we must define, enclose within national boundaries, and send troops abroad to kill and die in the name of its assumed unity. In these types of state-centric narratives of identity, we do not and must not identify with the suffering of those outside our national borders. There is the nation and there is outside the nation. “The boundaries of a state’s identity are secured by the representation of danger”2. It is through danger which we define who we are because danger is intrinsically Other and outside ourselves. It is a representation of what we do not want to be and what we do not want to happen to us.
“Danger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat”3. Acts of violence are represented in different ways which tell us a lot about how we define ourselves. When the English Defence League assaulted police in Woolwich last night, this was represented by the mainstream media as a “protest” and the damaging of mosques were “attacks”. These are dangers but of a lesser and local order. There is no link to national security in the way the incidents are reported and discussed. On the other hand, a British soldier being murdered by a Muslim has been immediately labelled “terrorism”, a supposed threat to the very existence of our nation.
So who is under threat? For David Cameron, this was “an attack on Britain – and on the British way of life” and that “people in every community will utterly condemn this attack”. Why is this incident an attack on the “British” way of life? Why are racially motivated murders not elevated to this level of threat? Why are the lives lost to violence in working class council estates all across the UK not seen as a “threat” to our nation? These are stories of threats to people’s lives which occasionally make the news but are never seen as matters of national security. These lives are not deemed as valuable as those of British soldiers because they are not seen to embody the nation and so they are represented as local problems of an altogether less threatening nature. This is simply not the type of nation many British people want to live in and it only reinforces existing divisions over class and race to simply pretend they do not exist.
The way the Woolwich violence is represented frames our identity in a way which obscures competing perspectives on the violence and on who we are. It demands we see this attack as a threat to ourselves in a way which racial assaults and violence against young working class men are not. It demands we empathise with the victim and that we must not empathise in any way with the perpetrator. Otherwise, we are excluded from this conceptualisation of “community” which is “sickened” and intellectually paralysed with feelings of condemnation. So we are told we must feel a certain way about this because we are British. When David Cameron says “this attack sickened us all” he may be right but it sickens people in very different ways and for very different reasons. Can we not be sickened by the attack, the nationalist response, and the militaristic UK foreign policy all at the same time? Yesterday, one BBC interviewer even asked “what is that is so annoying about having British troops on their soil?”. To frame British troops invading other countries as an annoyance yet one murder in Britain as a threat to our nation exemplifies an utter dearth of empathy in Britain’s historical and current role in initiating and fomenting violent conflict, simply because it has hurt one of our own.
Condemning comes very easily but trying to understand why this happens takes effort, even empathising with people who you may find disagreeable. Some media coverage has worked to deny British people the right to make up their own minds. The video of one of the attacker’s speech was edited to deny our right to empathise by cutting out the parts where he attempts to empathise. Here is a slightly extended version where he says:
“Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. Do you think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start bussing our guns? Are your politicians going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy like you”.
You may hate the messenger but it is working class persons who are sent to wage the wars which this man himself highlighted as his reasoning behind the attack. Perhaps not going to wars in the name of national identity might make the people we choose to kill in its name feel more secure. If they felt more secure, they may be less likely to want to wage what they see as very similar wars to what happens when British troops leave our shores in the name of “freedom”.
1. Bush, George (1990) “In Defense of Saudi Arabia” in Sifry, M and Cerf, C (eds) The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions.
2. Campbell, David (1998) Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity.
3. Campbell, David (1998).