In September 2001, President George W. Bush addressed a grieving nation and a shocked world following the horrific 9/11 attacks. During that speech, he put both allies and enemies on notice: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” About two months later, during a joint news conference with French President Jacques Chirac he reiterated and doubled down on his doctrine. “Over time, it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity,” he said. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
The “with us or against us” narrative had an instantly chilling effect in that it almost immediately silenced critics of war, or even those who questioned evidence for the justification of intervention (i.e. Iraq). After all, who would ever want to oppose the fight against terror, or appear to side with terrorists? Critical thought, dissent and courage were overwhelmingly replaced with fear, conformity, cowardice and an inability to hold power accountable (save for a few exceptions). As a result, in the years that followed, we had an unnecessary and immoral war in Iraq (which is still continuing), drone campaigns and covert actions in a host of other countries, the loss of thousands of U.S. troops and by some estimates, millions of civilians and millions injured throughout the region. But one other unfortunate byproduct of the “us vs. them” mentality often overlooked is the fact that it has galvanized extremists on all sides.
On Sunday, a 47-year-old white male reportedly plowed a vehicle into a crowd of Muslims near a mosque in the Finsbury Park neighborhood of London. According to witnesses, he yelled “I want to kill all Muslims.” At least 10 people were injured and one person has died, though it isn’t clear at the moment if the individual died as a result of the attack (he was receiving other medical treatment when the incident took place.) The UK Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have both called this an act of terrorism and it is being investigated as such. No response yet however from our President whose twitter trigger fingers never hesitate to chime in when an attacker claims to be Muslim, or has a Muslim name.
Almost immediately after this tragedy in Finsbury Park took place, Islamophobes and white supremacists were praising the act with as much vitriol as one might expect. But you know who else was praising the tragedy? ISIS. That’s right, ISIS.
Terrorist groups like ISIS have many stated objectives in addition to reaching their overall goal of reeking havoc all over the world. One of those objectives that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention is ISIS’ desire to eliminate gray zones of understanding. In other words, spaces and places where mutual dialogue, interconnectivity and coexistence take place across religious, racial and ethnic lines. They, like many of those on the extreme far-right, want nothing more than to live in a perpetual world of “us vs. them”. For ISIS, the Finsbury attack is a welcomed moment to show British Muslims and Muslims in the West that they somehow do not belong there and should instead join them in building their empire. They want to sow division and this awful attack feeds into their narrative just as it feeds into the narrative of those who peddle in Islamophobia.
Coinciding with the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, there is a steadily increasing rise in white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, and hate groups in general all throughout Europe and here at home as well. Many of these, unsurprisingly, are anti-Muslim groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. tripled in 2016 from 2015. Meanwhile throughout Europe, we have seen a disturbing rise in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and far-right groups and leaders that are actively running for office or mobilizing on the ground. Whether in Germany, France or elsewhere, these individuals and entities speak volumes about the current climate we are in. While Marine Le Pen lost the Presidential election, she was still able to secure a seat in the French Assembly which is disturbing enough. Following this win, she stated: “We are the only force that will fight against the dilution of France.”
Everywhere in the proverbial western world, there is an incredible push and pull taking place between those that believe in interconnectivity and strength through diversity and those that believe in nationalism, division and nativism. The latter are utilizing every opportunity to push the “us vs. them” narrative, and are in essence also eliminating the gray zone.
Following the Finsbury Park incident, Mayor Khan said that it was an “attack on common values”. He added: “Terrorism is terrorism … the intention is the same, to divide communities, to make us stop leading the lives that we do.” He is absolutely correct. Not only does terrorism create chaos and fear, but it also causes us to question and doubt the legitimacy of the other. It creates a perpetual cycle of violence, and it also plants distrust, dislike and a lack of empathy for people who may not look like you. It, in effect, eliminates the notion of mutual understanding, mutual respect and coexistence.
While many innocents have been caught in the middle of polarization that they had nothing to do with, some politicians have taken further advantage of the situation for their own political advancement. For example, someone who has campaigned for the highest office in the land by stating that he would like a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country”. Others have utilized tragedies to sell their books, brand themselves as experts or simply make money off of people’s uncertainty and anxiety. These are the times we live in.
Monday morning, Prime Minister May stated: “Terrorism, extremism and hatred take many forms.” Fact check ― true. As terrorists and extremists continue to prey on the unstable, vulnerable or just pure evil, they make it increasingly difficult for the sane voices in the room to be heard. It is a vicious cycle that makes the gray zone harder and harder to see, let alone feel. The “with us or against us” and “us vs. them” narratives that were birthed years ago have been exploited by radicals from all ends of the spectrum.
Sadly, this seems to be about the only thing the mission has accomplished.