Resilience, religion and laughter after the London attack and Manchester bombing

The two most recent terrorist attacks in the UK – one in London and one in Manchester – have raised significant questions around how society and communities should respond.

The PM has argued that ‘enough is enough’ and that the UK has tolerated extremism for too long. The response appears to be to grant more powers to the police and security services to carry out surveillance and question individuals, as well as to introduce more criminal offences onto the statute books. This security-orientated response is understandable, but is one that misses some significant issues about how society responds to terrorist attacks and what we can learn from that for countering violent extremism.

Firstly, it is not clear that the UK ‘tolerates extremism’; there is in fact considerable evidence and numerous examples of Muslim and non-Muslims challenging extremist ideas and extremist violence, often doing so in very British ways. Just last month, Birmingham Central Mosque organised a ‘tea-party’ in the face of EDL extremism. This was no glib PR exercise but part of a sustained attempt by Birmingham Mosques to challenge extremism through their sermons, through their inter-faith engagement, through their charity work, and through their public condemnation of terrorism.

Second, such events and the ‘One Love Manchester’ music concert in Manchester, as ‘twee’ as they might appear to outsiders, constitute a very important part of resilience – they are expressions of collective joy and laughter in the face of terrorism and extremism. As I have written elsewhere, such collective togetherness is important to countering the totalitarian logic of extremist groups. These are not ‘tough measures’; they are not always so visible either. They are often low key, quiet expressions of solidarity and a willingness to share the world, such as the personal letter from a ‘non-Muslim’ to a local Mosque. These are the ‘thick social’ bonds that create cohesion.

Third, the humour we have seen in response to London and Manchester is also important. Humour has been linked to evolutionary responses where violence is no longer appropriate – humour enables us to ‘let off steam’ and redirect anger in more productive and less dangerous ways. However, it is more than that, humour is a positive emotion, not merely a ‘coping’ mechanism, one which creates social bonds. Humour also helps makes sense of the world; it talks truth to power, and operates as an act of resistance. Therefore, hashtags such as #ThingsThatGetBritainsReeling,#ISISClaims, and the mocking of the idea that Londoners are ‘in fear’ (and never spilling a pint) are important to resilience. Humour has also been used as a deliberate strategy to productively talk about, and teach young people about issues such as terrorism. The film Four Lions was a successful comedic vehicle that challenged stereotypes around terrorism and radicalisation.

Fourth, what humour and public events also show is that we must not assume that the problem with (or the solution to) radicalisation is with Muslim communities and Islam. Such assumptions silence rather than empower young Muslims and limit the ways in which they can engage in public debate and policy, for fear that taking an interest in politics or religion renders them ‘suspect’. Yet not taking part renders them suspect in the public’s eyes, where Muslims are accused of not denouncing terrorism loudly enough.

The increasing number of Islamophobic attacks is a problem that is not only linked to specific terror attacks but also to a divisive and abusive public discourse that legitimises such prejudice. This focus on Muslim communities and the demands that individual Muslims ‘must do more’ reinforces prejudice, obscures extremism from the far right, and enables non-Muslims to abdicate involvement in countering-violent extremism agendas.

Collectively, what these four points demonstrate is that bottom-up, locally relevant schemes that provide public spaces and forums for shared interaction and public displays of joy and laughter are as essential to any policy aimed at countering violent extremism as more police, more surveillance, and yet more legalisation.

Dr Katherine Brown
Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham