Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Hope, Not Fear: My Response to the Terror Attack in Berlin

It's so tempting to play the "blame game". This year we seem to have become quite unnervingly adept at coming up with pre-planned responses to terrorist atrocities committed on Western European soil to try and score political points. Espousing fear rhetoric, seems to have become the norm.

The truck attack at a Weihnachtsmarkt at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin on Monday evening defies any rational attempt at justification. 12 innocent shoppers were going about their business preparing for the Christmas holiday, getting in the festive spirit by partaking of Gl├╝hwein and listening to Weihnachtslieder (Christmas carols). Then they were murdered by a terrorist or terrorists unknown whose primary goal was to make Germans scared for their future. So-called IS (or ISIS) has "taken responsibility" for the attack...aka they are happy to celebrate the deaths of the innocent to make them look as if they are still a powerful force for Jihad in Europe. That's absolutely galling in itself. What's equally galling is see victims being used as pawns to try and prove an ideological point; the dead haven't even been buried yet but politicians on the far-right including UKIP MEP Nigel Farage have been blaming Angela Merkel, using her refugee policy as the main reason to explain why the attack happened, despite the fact they have no concrete evidence to back up their claims. As of yet there are no indications as to the suspect's nationality or immigration status as they haven't been arrested. The person who had been presumed to be the driver turned out to be a Pakistani national who has now been freed due to "insufficient evidence" linking him to the attack.

As expected the Alt-Right cringe-inducing tweeters want us to join the dots and immediately berate all Muslims (especially refugees) for their "religion of hate" ideology when most of those that tweet can't even accurately describe the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam let alone interpret the Jihadi motivational passages. I've always believed that it's important to "know your ideological foe" so-to-speak and that's why I've made myself read the UKIP and Conservative Brexiteer comments and party manifestoes, followed the annual conference coverage and talked to avid supporters. If I can bring myself to do that (as a English and Philosophy graduate it's not that difficult), then alt-righters can do a bit of research of their own and perhaps find out why the terrorists carrying out attacks across Western Europe differ from the Muslim refugees escaping the fighting in the Middle East...because I can guarantee those tweeters that a blanket dismissal of an entire religion isn't quite going to cut it as a valid reason to spread fear and anxiety within the German, French or British electorates. Hope, not fear wins my vote and will win the votes of many on the centre left. Any political party wishing to solicit my vote at the next General Election has to understand that....probably why I'll never countenance voting UKIP or for any far right party.

This "Liberal Luvvie" says....

To the Alt-Right, the "liberal luvvie metropolitan elite" as they call people like me (despite the fact I'm working class and live in Lincoln with my parents) are "Islamic terrorist apologists" because we simply ask for all the facts to be established after a through investigation by police before starting to cast aspersions all about the place. Alt-Righters call any attempt by us to praise the emergency services for rescuing survivors and for conducting initial enquiries efficiently as "virtue signalling" and any respectful tweets shown to victims and survivors as "false" or "irrelevant". It's saddening to see these days a scepticism shown towards genuine expressions of compassion on social media. Whenever there is an organised attempt to show compassion for the victims of terrorist acts, whether it be tweeting along thoughts to a #PrayFor hashtag or writing blog posts or articles that call for hate rhetoric to be contained, there are tweeters out there quick to rubbish them for their thoughtfulness. I'm not sure if these tweeters are paid Russian mind game merchants or just dissatisfied melancholy folks needing to fill up their day but it's just a ridonkulous waste of time going around trolling for the sake of upsetting others. I've noticed that those who do troll deliberately tend to be the very same people who are keen to defend intrinsic"nationalistic values" which allow for freedom of expression, including freedom of religious expression. So these trolls should know it's not acceptable socially to demonise people for showing respect, tolerance and offering prayers for the victims. I don't think anyone would have the temerity to rebuke people for showing respect to others at a public event regardless of their political preferences...the trolls would be too afraid of being arrested and then being shamed/forced to apologise for their actions. If only there was an automatic way of doing that online...some flashing red shame button with Trump's face on it would do it!
Anyways I saw an exasperated comment from a teenager to a right wing detractor who told her to "get up and do something"; she posted a message image saying..."I know that tweeting prayer hashtags probably doesn't help solve anything but it's the thought that counts. We're teens after all. Stop rubbishing us for showing our respect for the victims". That message makes me feel hopeful for the future. Hope not fear, compassion not malevolence... those are the sorts of virtues we need to aim to show in our response to terrorist attacks.

Of course if you manage to get round the Alt-Right trolling of your compassionate tweets...what they dismiss as"virtue signalling", you can get stick for simply pointing out that Muslims in predominately Muslim countries are also victims of terrorist atrocities committed by ISIS. Think of the ISIS attack in Quetta, Pakistan that killed 61 people at a police academy on the 25th October 2016 or the 94 mourners killed on the 8th August 2016 when they had gathered at a Quetta hospital to mourn the death of their friend, 45 year old lawyer Bilal Anwar Kasi. Think of the Baghdad bombings on July 3rd 2016 which killed over 300 people and injured 221. ISIS, Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist organisations do not care whether they kill non-Muslims or those who identify with a form of Islam that doesn't align with their own. They are all "kuffars" or non-believers to them. So do Farage, Milo et al really believe that Muslims who are fleeing war zones to stop themselves being murdered by such terrorists are equally to blame for attacks in Europe and so should be feared by us? Should we fear Muslim migrants that come from Pakistan to work in our hospitals to care for our sick? Tell that to the families of those innocent citizens killed in Quetta who have lost loved ones as a result of the actions of misguided, evil people who tried using religion as a way of justifying their malicious acts. Why is it so hard for those on the far-right to accept that moderate Muslims are not to blame for the actions of those who profess themselves to be the "truly faithful followers of Islam?" The young Muslim shopkeeper who serves my Dad his cigarettes and lets me pay for my chocolate or my feminist Muslim friend from University who advocates for Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) to be mandatory in schools to help teach students about consent are not acting in the same way as deplorable ISIS terrorists who strike Christmas markets and music halls. To my friends, Islam is a "religion of peace" because the codes of behaviour they follow differ from that of the terrorists; they would never inflict harm or wish harm on their neighbours. I take them at their word.

That's why it's important for the "liberal luvvie elite" or any human being who considers themselves to be of decent character and sound mind to point out that not all refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants are potential terrorist recruits or actual terrorists who want to eradicate our "Christian" culture and "impose Sharia Law" on us with zero respect for equality and multiculturalism. Alt-Righters scoff rather prematurely and declare "multiculturalism to be dead" and applaud any Western Government who is considering a closed border immigration policy or a policy that involves direct discrimination against Muslims by requiring them to sign a register to record their entry into the UK and movements thereafter (if there is such a register it should include any migrant, asylum seeker or refugee coming into the country but when you say that the Alt-Right lose interest). To me it seems ironic that misguided ultra nationalists want us to segregate ourselves off from the world by pulling out of political unions such as the EU (whilst simultaneously berating trade unions for taking action against exploitation of workers in terms of Health and Safety or stagnating pay and conditions) and still expect the UK to act like "the best world leader" when it comes to helping resolve conflicts. It's a-OK for Kippers to say the UK should be best pals with anti-LGBT rights dictators like Putin and cray-cray narcissists like Trump but we should distance ourselves from Angela Merkel just because she decided to show an ounce of compassion and take in refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict zones to try and give them a more stable life in Germany. Yes her migration policy should have been staggered over a longer period and more effort should have been made to try and get other EU countries to take in a greater amount of refugees or there should have been a priority placed on bringing women, children and injured refugees into Germany first but at least her heart was in the right place. Mrs Merkel is not the "Devil Incarnate" who can be blamed for every European terrorist attack that has happened or will happen in the future. I don't fear for my life changing as a result of any immigration policy decision taken by a European leader alone. That would be pure jingoistic folly.

I refuse to live my life in fear.  I won't change the way I dress to appease those who believe gender neutral, non-binary, queer or trans people should not be able to wear what they want whilst in public because it "offends their eyes". As long as I'm covered in the right places, who cares? I refuse to stop wearing my crosses in public or to stop talking about my Lutheran Christian beliefs and values and how they may differ from other Christian interpretations of the Scripture. If you believe in freedom of expression whilst acting within the confines of the law you have nothing to worry about. I refuse to stop discussing why we need to be compassionate towards those who have lost much as a result of conflict in the Middle East. Most importantly of all with regards to this blogpost, I absolutely refuse to conflate the beliefs and views of most Muslim asylum seekers and refugees with those of Islamic terrorists. When refugees have literally fled to escape fundamentalist repressive belief systems with very little left after the long journeys they have made, should we not try and do everything we can to help them settle in the UK if they have been granted leave to stay by our Government? Migrants should be treated with respect and not be automatically regarded with suspicion. Not every migrant is a potential rapist or radical preacher or benefits scrounger. To think that they are would be against my own values. I guess that's because I am someone who believes in being hospitable and friendly. Perhaps I'm "misguided" or "too luvvie liberal" for modern tastes but I'm never going to change. Fear will not win out in my mind, no matter how many times someone claims I'll be "thrown off a building" in the future.

My view on Immigration policy....

I'm not adverse to looking at UK immigration policy to make sure it is fit for purpose. I'm yet to be convinced by those who want a complete closed door approach to immigration or by those who want to implement an Australian style points system. However, creating token quotas and targets for net migration doesn't seem to have done anything to allay the fears of those who feel migration has led to wage depression or extreme strain on public services. That withstanding, it's also important to look at refugee and migrant welfare. I believe we must ensure that any refugee, asylum seeker or migrant who is allowed to settle in the UK understands our basic legislation and about our culture and society. Norway has been putting on mandatory migrant classes since 2013 which teach men and women about European sexual norms and it seems to have been quite a success. I was very pleased to read about Mr Kelifa, the Muslim African asylum seeker in Stavanger who has finally learned that a husband can be accused of domestic violence under Norwegian law (something he had not thought were possible under his understanding of marriage), and realised that he needs to treat all women with respect, regardless of their choice of dress. You can read more about Norway's approach in the 2015 New York Times article here : http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/world/europe/norway-offers-migrants-a-lesson-in-how-to-treat-women.html?_r=0

A UK programme should include mandatory awareness training on the Equality Act (2010), so that refugees understand the need to respect differences and not be tempted to commit hate crime (either verbally or physically) and economic migrants should definitely have training on employment legislation so that they know their right to Statutory Sick Pay and Statutory Maternity/Paternity Pay if they are employed on a contract; this may prevent them from falling prey to unscrupulous agencies and gang masters in the first place. Yes this might cost the UK Government a fair amount to create and administer the system but it's clearly better to empower migrants with the knowledge they need to survive in the UK instead of expecting them to muddle along and "figure it out" as and when they choose to do so. It's important that everyone living in the UK knows that our society allows for freedom of expression but only within the boundaries of existing laws. When there is a custom practiced by anyone that is incompatible with UK legislation, such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), it should rightly be questioned and condemned. Any person condoning domestic violence and abuse, rape, hate crimes against Christians, Muslims, Jews or any other religious group, LGBTQ hate crime, ableism racism or sexism should be arrested and if found guilty, be punished accordingly. Religion cannot be used as an excuse for wilfully breaking the laws of the land and no council official, social worker, teacher, police officer, GP, activist, neighbour, friend or family member should ever feel afraid of speaking out against unlawful practices that they see occurring in their own communities. Trust is important in getting people to speak out willingly and I feel that UKIP supporters and people who espouse far-right views are extremely unwilling to exercise any kind of feelings of trust in those who are Muslim, especially if they happen to be refugees or first generation migrants. That lack of trust is very sad to see in our society.

We cannot unfairly target Muslims now just because the terrorists happen to adhere to a sort of ideology that can be sort of linked to Islam. Our approach has to be that any extremist person or group needs to be confronted and have their status in the UK considered accordingly. That's why I was quite surprised by the uproar created by far-right activists when Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary decided to proscribe the neo-Nazi group National Action because of comments they had made celebrating the actions of Thomas Mair, the far right extremist who murdered Jo Cox, Labour's MP for Batley and Spen. Regardless of those comments (which I shall not repeat here), the views and policies espoused by National Action should already have been found to have been inconsistent with current legislation. An example policy quoted from National Action was that they wanted to reintroduce Section 28, a policy which prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality in schools". This would mean there could be no openly LGBTQIA teachers or teaching assistants practicing in UK schools and schools wouldn't be able to design and deliver PSHE lessons which deal with LGBTQ relationships and identities. This type of direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender reassignment would violate our current Equality Act head on. Freedom of speech within our democracy may mean that you may have the right to utter despicable comments but that doesn't mean you shouldn't think there wouldn't be any consequences as a result of you freely uttering them. Words can inspire actions and it's not just Islamic terrorist organisations such as ISIS that inspire people to commit heinous acts, as the example of Jo Cox's murder has highlighted.

So yes, I support anyone who wants to seek refuge or asylum in the UK or live and work in the UK provided they will demonstrate compassion, tolerance and respect for our rule of law. The far-right activists have to accept that there are hundreds of thousands of hard working, law abiding migrants in the UK who are not trying to sabotage our way of life, who are not trying to be a drain on our resources and who are not "abusing our hospitality". If those migrants are working hard, contributing to our Government coffers, then I believe they should have fair access to in work benefits, regardless of how long they have been in the job for or whether they've come from the EU or from Commonwealth countries. That's called having a fair policy for all working people in the UK. The far-right and some conservative voters may not like that but it's what I believe to be fair.

Relying on blundering stereotypes and using exceptional cases to make people fear migrants just isn't on. In fact, it's deliberate misrepresentation. My Mum and Dad are migrants. My Irish Dad Ivan had a number of jobs over his 40 year career in logistics and he worked with gangs made up of workers from across the EU and beyond. My Norwegian-Swedish Mum Rita worked as a care assistant in a retirement home in Lincoln for over 17 years and she worked with Muslims as well as Christians who came from across the world and from a variety of backgrounds. They all contributed to the UK economy, paying taxes, abiding by the laws of the land and encouraging their children to aspire to a better life. That's why I worked hard at school, defied my detractors who thought having dyspraxia would hold me back from getting into any decent profession and went and attended the University of York, gaining a 2:1 degree in English and Philosophy. I thank my parents every day for the hard work they put in to make sure I did well. Yet my parents and their working class colleagues rarely got thanked by the far right politicians. My Dad and his gangs never got thanked for making sure the gas pipes were laid properly ready for people to use their gas ovens to cook their Turkey on Christmas Day. My Mum and her colleagues never got thanked by Mr Farage for caring for those who needed help to live with dignity in the final years of their lives; making sure they could enjoy the Festive period without worrying about not having their dressings changed. The social care system seems to only enter our national stream of consciousness when individual homes get canned for poor standards or when there is a lack of funding to keep the homes fully staffed. If right wing politicians spent more time showing appreciation for the positive contribution migrants have made to UK society and less time trying to dehumanise migrants and turn them into some unknown "Other" to be feared, aided by Islamophobic rhetoric then maybe efforts would be spent on looking at positive ways to bring down the need for economic migration -e.g. providing full bursaries for training British nurses (not taking them away and making them pay back loans), providing free Level 2 and 3 apprenticeship training to care workers (regardless of age or experience) and encouraging local British born young people to consider a career in agriculture. There definitely needs to be more funding allocated to rural areas to allow more GP surgeries and schools to remain open and a municipal public transport system with affordable fares wouldn't go amiss. Free English lessons should also be offered for the family members of migrant workers to help improve their chances of securing employment or even to help them gain the confidence they need to consider joining community groups so they have a social life away from the home. These are not patronising policy suggestions but practical solutions that would achieve far more than getting public officials to swear some kind of vacuous oath to "British Values" when all that's really needed is empowerment and trust in our doctors, nurses, teachers, council admin staff and social workers etc.

Conclusion:

Terrorist attacks are designed to make us fearful of the world we live in; the ISIS terrorist attacks are specifically designed to try and change mainstream public opinion in Western Europe to the point that we will routinely demonise innocent Muslim migrants and refugees so much that those migrants and refugees will willingly turn to ISIS for "protection" and "respect". We cannot let this happen. I have no interest in reviving a "Crusader" mentality, regardless of the fact that I am a Lutheran. I can only hope that others with my working class background will join me in rejecting fear and investing in hope for a more peaceful, compassionate world in 2017. There are practical measures we can take to reduce instances of radicalisation that do not involve patronising migrants and refugees but we must be brave enough to empower these migrants and refugees to speak out against unlawful practices and radical ideology. The way we do this is to let them know about the legal tools at their disposal. If we empower and inspire moderate challenges to fundamentalist ideologies whilst also easing public service pressures in communities that have experienced high levels of migration, with the reinstating of a Migrant Impact Fund, I believe we can turn the tide away from Islamophobic discourse and defuse the populist power exercised by those on the far right. Migration and Islamic terrorism seem to be intertwined and now is not the time to give up on the process of debunking stereotypes. So I say to activists on all sides of the debate: collaborate....improve the lives of all people in the UK...unite against the common enemy (terrorists) and let's choose hope over fear.