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Reported for simply speaking Arabic? How Manchester is recovering from a terror attack

What Ireland can learn from Manchester about radicalisation and Islamophobia.

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ON 22 MAY 2017, a suicide bomber killed 22 innocent people and injured over 100 others following an Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena.

The attack was carried out by Salman Abedi, who was born in Britain to Libyan parents. Abedi had been a student at Salford University, where he studied a business and management course before dropping out. He travelled to Libya, where it is believed he was radicalised, before returning to England.

The threat level of a terror attack happening in Ireland is deemed to be moderate – this means that an attack is possible but not likely. Last summer, gardaí conducted a counter-terrorism exercise in Dublin to test their response in the event of a terror attack.

TOPSHOT-BRITAIN-ATTACK A woman walks by posters displayed in Manchester after last May's terror attack AFP / Getty Images AFP / Getty Images / Getty Images

A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána told the threat level is “kept under constant review”, saying gardaí are “prepared for any terrorist incident” due to “regular training and simulation exercises here and abroad with our colleagues in other policing and intelligence services”.

They said that, while “Ireland is a safe place and Dublin is a safe city”, gardaí are not being complacent and are “constantly vigilant for any potential emerging threats”.

“We are in constant contact with our policing and security partners across the world, but particularly in Europe, to share information and analysis. In general, there has never been more co-operation and information sharing between policing and security agencies.”

As part of Radical Pathways, our series exploring radicalisation, integration and Islamophobia, travelled to Manchester to look at how the city is recovering after last May’s attack.

Islamophobic incidents increased by 505% in Greater Manchester after the suicide bombing. Police said there were 224 reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the month after the attack, compared with 37 in the same period in 2016.

Saffa Mir, a law student at the University of Manchester and Vice President of Student Affairs at the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, said she and her friends gear themselves up to face Islamophobic comments and behaviour in the aftermath of an Islamic terrorist attack. Particularly when it happens so close to home.

Hijabs ripped off 

Mir is aware of some people who have been spat at and women who have had their hijabs ripped off.

“Whenever an incident happens, firstly we’re sad for what’s happened. Secondly, we’ll ask ‘Is it a Muslim or not?’ Because we know the second that it’s announced it’s a Muslim, there we go again. The spotlight is going to be shone on us.

“The next thing is, now we’ve just been told it’s a Muslim, does this mean we can’t go on public transport for the next few days? Does this mean now that I can’t really be vocal on social media about it because somebody will say something?”

Mir said she and her friends are sometimes afraid to express condolences about an attack online because people will target them.

“It’s a lose-lose situation. You’re not going to win either way. So we’re genuinely upset and saddened by it … but you’ll still get a negative response back because it will be like, ‘Oh, you’re saying this yet Muslims are still committing it.’

We’re just like everybody else. We feel the same pain … it’s annoying that we have to prove to people that we’re genuinely sad about this.

Mir said there’s a double standard when it comes to talking about people who carry out atrocities, telling us: “When it’s a white shooter … they’re mentally unstable, but when it’s a brown or Asian-looking guy it’s, ‘Is he a terrorist?’”

Another thing Mir has noticed changing in recent times is how she and other Muslims students talk in lectures, often self-censoring themselves about topics like terrorism.

“I studied counter-terrorism as a module as part of my law degree. We explored very interesting topics … different wars, we looked at the IRA, we looked at 9/11, we looked at Prevent (part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy).” / YouTube

Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films 

Mir said she’s normally “quite vocal in classes” but found herself being afraid to give her opinion, even if it was a non-controversial view. She said she and her friends used to joke that she’d be reported to police if she was seen reading certain books.

“If I was sat there on the train reading Terror, Terrorism and Terrorists … it probably wouldn’t look the best.

“In our class, we used to joke that if any one of us was going to get stopped for reading a certain book, it would be myself. I always used to say to my classmates, ‘You know, behind every joke, there is truth.’”


In the aftermath of the attack at the Manchester Arena, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham set up an independent commission to consider how to tackle hateful extremism, social exclusion and radicalisation.

One of the commission’s roles will be to examine how Prevent, a multi-agency programme aimed at preventing radicalisation and terrorism, operates in the area. The commission met for the first time in October 2017 and is expected to report back to the mayor by June.

There has been some criticism of Prevent, through which educators, healthcare workers, members of the pubic and others report suspicious behaviour to authorities. Many commentators have argued that the programme stigmatises and ostracises Muslim communities – members of which are regularly reported without a valid reason.

Dr Necla Acik, a lecturer at the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Manchester, has carried out research into how Prevent is viewed by young Muslims. Acik said some teachers, for example, didn’t receive enough training on how Prevent is supposed to work. As a result, they reported children for simply speaking or writing in Arabic.

“Sometimes you might pick up on behaviour that’s very normal or not necessarily an indication of risk but, because you’re not familiar with the culture, you think, ‘Oh, this is a sign of radicalisation.’”

Acik said teachers told her they were unsure if they should report a child for saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ which means ‘God is great’. Acik said some students use this as an everyday phrase with no ill intent, while others may say it in a joking manner.

“Obviously people who blow themselves up, they use that as well, but it doesn’t mean when you use it that it also refers to that. So, for the teacher it was an alarming sign but for the student it was just like an everyday thing you would say.”

Acik said students she interviewed about Prevent thought that non-Muslims regularly got away with saying or doing things that would have resulted in Muslim students being reprimanded or reported.

Acik said 80% of the 4,000 referrals to Prevent over a 12-month period in 2015 and 2016 were deemed “false” – as in, without any merit and not acted upon. She said the situation in the UK is one Ireland should look at and learn from when refining its own counter-terrorism strategy.

‘Asking white Brits to apologise’

Dr Tanzil Chowdhury, a research associate at Birmingham Law School, said it’s tiring that Muslims have to continually apologise for the actions of terrorists, people who they don’t know and whose actions they condemn.

“We don’t go around asking white Brits to apologise for apartheid or colonialism…

“When I speak to Muslim friends of mine after there is a terrorist attack, they pray that it’s not a Muslim because they know that they’re going to have to go through this vilification. / YouTube

Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films 

“The irony is, if we look at terrorism on a global level, the biggest victims of it are Muslims. If we look at terrorism on a global level, the biggest critics are Muslims. And it’s kind of a cruel trick, I guess, that the very victims of these heinous attacks also get constructed as if they were the main progenitors and suspects.”

Chowdhury noted that the “suspect communities of yesteryear” in the UK were “Irish people who had no, or very tangential involvement, in the Troubles were castigated and criminalised, and that’s the same thing that’s happening now”.

Going abroad to join ISIS

Acik said counter-terrorism and anti-radicalisation programmes are obviously needed, but that the current model in the UK isn’t working.

“It is really worrying to see that young people out of nowhere suddenly go abroad to join ISIS, their parents don’t know what’s going to happen with them. Nobody wants their child to be in that situation.

“So the government has the responsibility to do something. And as a society we have a responsibility to help these young people, like we would help other vulnerable young people.”

Acik said a local, grassroots approach is needed, as well as better training for stakeholders, if Prevent is to gain the trust of people who are critical of it.

One positive element of Prevent, Acik said, is the fact that it also deals with right-wing extremism – a sign that radicalisation extends well beyond a tiny minority of Muslim people.

If you’re worried about extremism, radicalisation, we should look at all sections of society and all threats that might come, not just from Islamist extremism.

Chowdhury believes Prevent is flawed for a number of reasons, and that Ireland can learn from the UK’s experiences in this regard.

“Any effective counter-terrorism strategy has to fundamentally understand what causes terrorism. A counter-terrorism strategy which is misinformed about what causes terrorism is going to be similarly ineffective because it doesn’t understand the cause of terrorism correctly.

“The Prevent strategy is predicated primarily on the idea that what causes people to commit acts of political or terrorist violence are radical ideas, extreme ideas, in a nutshell.

“So, someone has a particular idea which is extreme or radical, and that compels them to commit these heinous acts. It’s often euphemistically called the ‘conveyor belt theory’. I think that that’s a massive oversimplification as to why people commit these acts.

“I think it’s one side of a very complicated, multi-faceted phenomenon, and therefore the Prevent strategy is always going to be similarly misguided. It’s always going to ignore people that it should be looking at or it’s going to involve people that it shouldn’t even be concerned about.”

Chowdhury said the causes of terrorism are “far more complex” and include “people’s positions in particular groups or organisations”, as well as foreign policy.

He noted how Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former director general of MI5, told the Chilcot Inquiry that the Iraq War had a radicalising impact on certain individuals.

What Ireland can learn

Chowdhury said the UK needs “to go back to the drawing board” in terms of its approach to preventing radicalisation, stating: “We need to have a full and frank discussion about what we think as a community, not just Muslims, but everyone who has a stake in this, as to what causes terrorism.”

As part of this process, he said different actors including the government will have “to ask and also answer some pretty tough questions about what role that they may have in radicalisation”.

Chowdhury said Prevent might actually be “creating and disillusioning more and more people and pushing them towards committing these heinous acts” because of the way it makes people feel “alienated and disenfranchised”.

He said it’s not too late to change how Prevent works and is perceived. “We make mistakes, we review, and we look at how we can do things differently. I think that there are a lot of key Muslim voices that are making critical interventions which seek to identify what causes terrorism, and therefore what ought to inform a counter-terrorism strategy.”

The Prevent Strategy was published by the UK government in July 2011 and forms part of a wider counter-terrorism strategy known as CONTEST. It aims to “safeguard people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism” and “addresses all forms of terrorism, including when it is inspired by Islamist or by extreme right-wing ideologies”.

If a member of the public, or someone working with the public, has a concern about a person they believe may be radicalised, they can raise these concerns with their local authority safeguarding team or police, who will assess the situation and take further action if deemed necessary.

When asked to take part in an interview, groups involved in Prevent, including the Greater Manchester Police and the local council, were reluctant to engage.

A spokesperson for Greater Manchester Police told us: “Prevent has come under fire many times and it is not there to criminalise people, but to prevent them entering the system in the first place.”

A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority said the organisation didn’t “want to preempt the findings of the Commission by speculating on its findings at this stage”, before it reports back to the Mayor this summer.

To prevent Muslim communities in Ireland feeling targeted by a counterterrorism strategy, and to help crack down on Islamophobia, Mir said authorities here should “have conversations with individuals that are genuinely suffering as a result of it”.

original (2) The terror attack simulation by gardaí in July 2017 Niall Carson / PA Images Niall Carson / PA Images / PA Images

Mir said there needs to be a “two-way conversation” between authorities, Muslim communities and the wider community about Islamophobia and related issues. She said authorities need to ask how they can support all communities so that people from different background are better integrated.

“I think lessons can be learned by Ireland … I think that’s what’s gone wrong [in the UK]. Every time that the government engages with Muslims, it’s on the basis of radicalisation. It’s not about integration, it’s not about actually wanting to hear from us.

I think that’s the biggest lesson that should be learned – if you genuinely care about your citizens, look at them as citizens. Of course, they’re Muslims as well, but they’re not just that. They’re Irish citizens as well, just as any others.

A spokesperson for an Garda Síochána said the potential introduction of a Prevent-style programme in Ireland is “a matter for government”.

They added: “The differences in the scale of the Muslim population in the UK and here, and also the threat level in the UK from Islamic terrorism, should be noted.

“We have a very good relationship with the Muslim community, the vast, vast majority of whom are law-abiding. An Garda Síochána was one of the first police services in the world to establish a dedicated unit to liaise with new communities.”

The spokesperson noted that the Garda Intercultural and Diversity Office (GRIDO) has over 200 ethnic liaison officers throughout the country “whose job is to work with new communities”, including Muslim communities.

Speaking to, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said: “While some of the recent terrorist attacks in EU states have brought a spotlight to bear on Muslim communities, it is to be emphasised that no one community or faith group can be held responsible for acts of terrorism or violent radicalisation.

Ireland has a small and peace-loving Muslim community that makes a positive and valued contribution to our national life. The leaders within our Muslim community have made very clear publicly their abhorrence at and their rejection of terrorism and violent radicalisation.

“International terrorism and violent radical actions inspired by it are, sadly, a threat that currently faces Ireland like all open and democratic states.”

This week, is exploring the themes of radicalisation, Islamophobia and integration. The series, Radical Pathways, looks at the situation in Ireland, as well as what we can learn from the experiences of other countries, particularly the UK and Denmark.

Videos produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films 

Supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund and the Tony Ryan Trust


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