In the year since Brexit, the United Kingdom has fallen victim to its first significant wave of Islamic terrorism since the London bombings in 2005. Radicals and extremists have weaponized everyday objects to attack “soft targets” and strike fear into Britain’s population. Though is brand of Islamic terrorism has become commonplace in mainland Europe in recent years, the U.K. once seemed like an exception to this European trend. However, in light of recent political attacks, it seems as though the British exit from the European Union has greater implications than just economic and political.
As the March 22, May 22, June 3, and September 15, terror attacks on Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, and the London Underground have displayed, the very national security of the United Kingdom has been influenced by the shift of societal rhetoric and institutional structures that has resulted from the fateful referendum.
As a nation within the European intelligence sharing community (EUROPOL), outside the Schengen Area, and physically removed from the European continent, the U.K. virtually controls its own borders and security. The one exception to this complete border sovereignty was their membership in the E.U., which warranted that the U.K. extend asylum to a certain amount of North African and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants each year.
Though statistically most radical Islamic terrorist attacks are perpetrated by disgruntled second and third generation nationals, there still exists a perception and hysteria that today’s waves of refugees and migrants contain clandestine extremists and terrorist operatives. This Islamophobic and xenophobic hysteria, combined with the anxieties of losing sovereignty to the supranational E.U., played a major role in the rhetoric expressed by members of the “Leave” campaign preceding the Brexit referendum vote.
With a majority of perpetrators of radical Islamic terrorism being home grown, an analysis and comparison of the experiences and conditions of Muslim communities in the U.K. and on mainland Europe is warranted.
In the case of the U.K., centuries of British colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent have resulted in large communities of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, Nigerian, Arabic, or Turkish descent, concentrated around the cities of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. U.K. Muslims amount to around three million persons, approximately 5% of the entire country’s population.
Prolonged historical interaction between British and native-Muslim cultures have created a sense of familiarity and mutual understanding. In comparison to Muslim populations on the European continent, British Muslims have had relative ease integrating into British society, often experiencing less socio-economic disadvantages such as poverty, unemployment, and crime. This greater acceptance and toleration was highlighted in 2016, when Sadiq Khan, a citizen of British Pakistani descent, was elected the Mayor of London, becoming the first ethnic minority mayor of a major Western capital. An election of an individual with the background of Khan would be unimaginable in contemporary France or Belgium. Although the overall condition and situation of Muslims in the U.K. are superior to those of their mainland counterparts, discrimination and prejudice still remains a part of daily life.
In France and Francophone Belgium, the conditions of Muslims are significantly different. France has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe, with 6.2 million persons making up approximately 8% of the French population. A majority of these French Muslims communities are concentrated in the greater-Paris area. Although one-time a pillar of Catholicism and Christendom, since the French Revolution the French have remarkably regressed from their piety and toleration of organized religions, and have routinely routinely expressed these sentiments in policy. However, France’s cultural emphasis on keeping religion out of the public sphere has inherent conflicts with the religion of Islam, whose French followers experience both societal (de facto) and legal (de jure) discrimination, enduring far higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and unemployment than non-Muslims.The perceived inability of Muslim integration into a secularized French culture has led to tensions, fear, and hatred from white citizens, who believe that Islam poses an existential threat to French and Western society. The presidential campaign of Marine Le Pen highlighted and consistently partook in the persistence of such anti-Islamic sentiments. In recent years, disgruntled second and third generation French Muslims have expressed their hatred towards France by becoming indoctrinated in extremist philosophy and carrying out radical Islamic terrorism in the name of the Islamic State (ISIL).
Though racism and discrimination in the U.K. have not become solidified or embedded to the level of France, there remains a clear shift in the atmosphere since the Brexiteers have emerged victorious. Once a model of a diverse integrated Western society, the aura of the U.K. has been tainted by an increase in suspicion, alertness, and hatred. Hate crime rates have soared throughout the U.K. since Brexit, especially in Muslim communities. Xenophobes, islamophobes, and radical nationalists have used their political victory as validation of their prejudices and as justification to commit acts of and hatred. When Brexit opened Pandora’s Box, it became more “socially acceptable” to despise Muslims. Ironically, the increase in hostility has opened more disgruntled British Muslims to mutual detestment and, thus, radicalization.
Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to coerce a government or civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives. Further, the use of homegrown terrorism is to advance an imitative of divisiveness and hatred amongst a population. The recent incident near London’s Finsbury Park mosque, when on June 19, a middle-aged, white British man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims exiting worship, best exemplifies this conundrum. The vehicular attack was in “retaliation” to the acts of radical Islamic terrorism that had rocked the city in weeks prior. Take away the race and religion of the perpetrator and victims involved and the Finsbury Park incident is indistinguishable from prior acts of terrorism. In an address to her nation, British PM Theresa May called for the “diverse” and “compassionate” community of London (and Britain) to resist the temptation to give into hate. In a move that may prove effective in quelling the more radical of her constituents, May acknowledged that anti-Islamic sentiments and actions are just as dangerous as radical Islamic terrorism.
If Britain does go through with a “hard” Brexit and cuts ties with the E.U. and its agencies it would most likely lose access to the Schengen information system II, a massive database that contains information on criminal suspects, missings persons, and individuals denied access into the E.U. member states. According to former Home Secretary James Brokenshire, the database is, “another vital weapon in the fight against global crime and terrorism.” Britain’s impending pursuit of a “hard” Brexit as well and the ending of vital intelligence sharing as its unintended technicality threatens to make all of Europe and the Western world more vulnerable to terrorism. That is, unless a new agreement can be made.
The deep irony in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave from the European Union is that the decision’s results have made the nation neither safer nor more secure. Brexit has deeply divided the British population based on lines of identity politics, demographics, and region. With the incumbent May government still pursuing some form of Brexit, the “victors” of the referendum are still in positions of power, continuing to validate the ideologies of xenophobes and islamophobes alike. Unless the British government can quell the more extremist of their energized base, hate crimes will continue to threaten the U.K.’s Muslim communities. This persisting hatred will render more individuals in these targeted communities susceptible to extremist indoctrination. To make matters worse, less access to intelligence will make violent extremists of both ideologies more difficult to track and apprehend before carrying out acts of unspeakable violence. To break the cycle that is becoming ever more prominent in the Britain, its atmosphere of disdain, prejudice, and hate must be replaced with greater appreciation, cultural toleration, and love.