The recent terror attacks in Brussels produced a wave of social media reactions and negative headlines, with some taking to Twitter to blame the Muslim religion for the attacks, using #StopIslam.
The demonisation of an entire religion for the actions of a small group is inaccurate and unfair. Such reactions are representative of a wider issue; the existence of a culture of Xenophobia surrounding a religion. These attitudes are fuelled by the actions of news outlets, who in the aftermath of a number recent terror attacks have published articles stressing attacker’s claims to have been motivated by supposedly ‘Islamic’ ideals.
The spread of such ideals will only serve to divide communities and could potentially produce a number of reprisal attacks, such as after the Woolwich Attack in 2013 when Mosques across the UK were assaulted in the mistaken belief that their congregations and religious leaders were somehow directly responsible for the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby. Such ideas only play into the hands of groups such as the so-called Islamic State, by portraying the actions of a select few as representative of an entire religion and giving credence to the idea of a worldwide conflict between Muslims and Non-Muslims.
Negative rhetoric in both newspapers and social media only serves to create a ‘moral panic’ and increased tensions between groups within a community, which will only increase the risk of violence and terror. Muslim residents of both Paris and London in the aftermath of the attacks spoke of their fear of such reprisal, with one member of the congregation at a Mosque in Paris telling Le Monde:
Of course we are scared…
We didn’t choose for this to happen. The people who carried out the murders were not Muslim, they were not fanatics, they were assassins. But not everyone sees that.
The figures give legitimacy to such worries. According to the French National Observatory Against Islamophobia, the week after the Paris shootings in January 2015 saw a total of 60 Islamophobic incidents, including racist graffiti and threats as well as assaults on the buildings with gunfire and grenades. The scale of such reprisals is further illustrated by the map below, which shows reprisal attacks in France after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
With Belgium’s large Muslim population, there is the risk that reprisal attacks following recent events in Brussels could be even more intense and potentially even more divisive. The story today of a Muslim woman being confronted in Croydon and being asked to explain Brussels, however light-heartedly it may be perceived, shows that the reprisals have already begun.
Matthew Doyle, who provoked widespread recrimination by tweeting about the aforementioned encounter, told the Telegraph that he was not a ‘far right merchant’ and insisted the discussion surrounding his comments had become a ‘hand grenade’ far removed from the original intended meaning.
The discussion surrounding this incident serves as an example of how easy it is to misunderstand the link between radical groups and religion. Responsibility for this level of misunderstanding that exists among some sections of the public must rest partly with media outlets, who have stressed the supposedly ‘Muslim’ nature of these groups on multiple occasions, although such widespread perceptions such as this are usually influenced by a variety of factors.