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Extremism Begets Extremism: Reminders from the Drummer Lee Rigby Tragedy

Aaron Patrick Flanagan • May 30, 2013

As I sat at my desk last Wednesday, following the BBC’s real-time coverage of yet another gutless act of extremism—the bigoted murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London—I couldn’t help but ponder his murder alongside those of two other young Englishmen whose names struck headlines across England’s media.

In July 2005, 18 year-old student, Anthony Walker of Huyton, Liverpool, was murdered by two cousins, one of whom split Walker’s skull open with an ice-axe after racially abusing him as he waited for a bus. The judge presiding over the case called it, a “racist attack of a type poisonous to any civilized society.” The pair left the axe embedded in his head before fleeing. Back in April 1993, Stephen Lawrence, of Eltham, London, and a friend waited for a bus when a group of young men began racially abusing them before finally attacking Lawrence,who was beaten to the ground and suffered two 5-inch stabs wounds that severed axillary arteries.

Both men, like Rigby, died of massive blood loss and trauma. And like Rigby, the murderers of both Lawrence and Walker are widely recognized as having been motivated by bigotries.

Two-Sides of the Same Coin: the EDL (above) & the al-Muhajiroun Network (below). Photos taken from HOPE not hate website.

As equally tragic as their three deaths are, the extremists willing to capitalize politically on the attention that accompanies the aftermaths of such tragedies are equally disgusting. These demagogues have always sought to inject their parasitic message of infinitesimal culture wars into mainstream discourse, casting themselves as the true heroes and defenders of Western freedom.

The night following Rigby’s murder, members of the anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL) began fighting pitched battles with London police in the streets of Woolwich. The Guardian reported that, “More than 1,000 supporters [of the EDL] – including football hooligans, veteran fascists and others – assembled under tight police security at the entrance to Downing Street, where they listened to their leaders blame Islam for the killing in Woolwich last week.”

On the night of the battles with police, Tommy Robinson, leader of the EDL, offered the following to media members:

“They’re chopping our soldiers’ heads off. This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today. They’ve cut off one of our army’s heads [sic] off on the streets of London. Our next generation are [sic] being taught through schools that Islam is a religion of peace. It’s not. It never has been. What you saw today is Islam.”

The anti-Muslim demagogues here in the United States, like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, both who  maintain an open-relationship with Robinson and the EDL, echoed his sentiments.

To present Rigby’s murderers as representatives with a rationale grasp on anything, especially Islam, is to indulge the lowest common denominator of one’s own anger. Furthermore, if one is willing to indulge that Rigby’s killers are true representatives of Islam, then one must be willing to present Lawrence’s and Walker’s murderers as true representatives of Whites in Britain. Clearly, to entertain either claim is ludicrous.  

In these moments of crisis, though, it is easier for a country “to look inward” on the hatred espoused by its citizens as unfortunate and deplorable. When a country “looks outward,” however, as we in the West so often do towards Islam and even our Muslim neighbors, it is also easy for a citizenry to feel righteous in its collective anger. Such anger has the power to coalesce us in some ugly and regressive manners.

During these crises and beyond, we must respond directly to all promoters of extremism—such as the anti-Muslim EDL and the anti-Western al-Muhajiroun Network in England. Our responses to these extremists, whose separate existences are predicated on the other’s existence, though, must not solely be focused on their bigotries-we must also take care to acknowledge that these extremists and the culture wars they perpetuate are consequences of our societies and institutions, and not vice versa.

Well-meaning people must stand together — to define and to deal directly and lawfully with extremists. Similarly, the anger of well-meaning people must be reasoned with, patiently. We cannot afford to push those individuals towards extremists—to the EDL or to al-Muhajiroun—simply because we disagree initially.

Those who are familiar with Lawrence’s murder will know that its aftermath provoked the people of England “to look inward” in order to confront individual and institutional bigotry simultaneously. In doing so, a landmark moment for race relations in England occurred that is still playing out today. The cultural crisis playing out in the aftermath of Rigby’s death — exactly 20 years and 1 month to the day of Lawrence’s death — will also produce such a landmark.

But what kind exactly?

As Sara Khan writes in her piece titled, “Let Muslim Women Speak For Themselves,” written for the London-based organization HOPE not hate, “Muslim organizations need to do more in tackling socio-economic and cultural discrimination, and challenge Muslim preachers who promote unacceptable and extreme views about the role of women in Islam.” Khan is right: we must openly challenge those who present any role within Islam in an extremist or unjust manner — just as we must challenge the extremists who fall in-line with Robinson and the EDL’s view of Muslims. Furthermore, we must stand alongside Islamic organizations and the communities they represent that are willing to stand against extremism, and together we can attend to the facets of our cultures that produce both sides of this bigoted coin.

Otherwise, their culture wars truly will prove eternal. The murder and subsequent battles in the streets of Woolwich are only our most recent reminder — extremism begets extremism.

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