When Khalid Masood drove a car into a crowd in London last week, killing four people and injuring many more, it was Britain’s worst terror incident since 2005. It took him just 82 seconds to hit pedestrians and get to the Parliament building before stabbing a policeman and getting shot. The attack was over before anyone realised what had happened.
How Britain reacted to its Westminster tragedy speaks volumes for how we can defeat Islamic State-inspired terrorism in the social media age.
Hours after the attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s calm and unifying words set the tone for the country. “The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech,” she said, ending with: “We will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.”
The next day MPs stood up in Parliament one by one to pay their respects and stressed the need to unite the country to fight terrorism.
Of course there were rabble-rousers who leapt at the opportunity to get on TV cameras. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the Ukip Party, wasted no time in blaming migrants for the attack. But Masood was not only born and raised a few kilometres from where Farage lived, he had come from a Christian family and later converted to Islam.
Our social media age gives extremists voices an edge because they attract attention and end up driving the debate. They love the attention even if it’s negative. But it also makes it near impossible to have a reasonable public debate. Britain’s far-Right tried their best to score points over the terror attack, by blaming migrants, refugees, or Muslims, but found little hearing outside their bands of followers. Instead they faced an avalanche of criticism for trying to exploit the incident.
The measured manner in which the British establishment reacted to the London terror attack is to be celebrated. It’s worth reiterating that groups such as Islamic State (IS) need western countries to overreact to the terrorist threat. Their potency lies not just in the damage they inflict but also in the fear and panic they induce. Partly because they don’t want to be seen as “soft” on terrorism, and mostly because they also don’t like being threatened, our media and politicians rarely acknowledge how they also over-emphasise the risk from terrorism.
But terrorists would not succeed if their intended audiences did not feel threatened. IS needs western governments to become paranoid and cast suspicions on all Muslims. It helps them. It makes it easier for them to groom new recruits. Britain’s response to the Westminster attack is a sign it is finally having a mature debate on terrorism, rather than being driven to panic as its tabloid press is prone to do.
British Muslims were also quick to understand the role they could play in reinforcing May’s words. One group raised over £30,000 (Rs 24 lakh) for the victims’ families in a week. Co-organiser Akeela Ahmed told me it was “our way of paying our respects to the victims and in some small way helping their loved ones.”
The day after the attack, Muslim women lined up holding hands across the Westminster Bridge to show their sorrow. A week later Muslim schoolgirls and imams were among the police and thousands of others at a vigil where the attack took place. They wanted to emphasise this was their country too and they were united with non-Muslims against IS. For a terrorist group that places a lot of importance on symbolism this was a visible slap.
The British establishment recognises that ordinary Muslims are essential allies in fighting those inspired by IS. So far so good. But we may not be so lucky next time. Only four people died this time, plus Masood himself. Next time public opinion may be far uglier if more people die. Next time it could be worse.
With US President Donald Trump now in charge there is a palpable worry across Europe that a terrorist attack in the United States could push him to do something irreversibly dangerous. That has made Britain even more determined to sensibly tackle the problem.
It’s important we challenge religious extremists and their sympathisers wherever they are and stand for secular and democratic values. There is no doubt that IS is a genocidal organisation that must be wiped out. But we cannot do this by falling into their trap. We cannot defeat terrorism if our actions, rather than weakening the enemy, makes them stronger.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal