Death by the barracks

May 29, 2013

Some 1,000 supporters of the far-right English Defense League (EDL) marched through central London on May 27 in the wake of the horrific murder of a British soldier that the media have seized on as evidence of Islamist "terrorism." The racists outnumbered anti-racist counter-demonstrators by about 2-to-1, according to reports. The EDL reportedly held an even larger demonstration two days earlier in the city of Newcastle, and its members mobilized to the Woolwich area of London where the killing took place on the night of the murder to clash with riot police.

Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier from the Royal Fusiliers, was killed on May 22 when he was run over by a vehicle and stabbed repeatedly, near a military base. The two assailants were of Nigerian descent, one an immigrant and the other the son of immigrants. When it was revealed that the two men were Muslims, the media began referring to the killings as "terrorism," and the Conservative-led government unleashed a racist backlash. The predictable result: Nearly 200 reports of Islamophobic attacks were reported within a period of six days.

British socialist Richard Seymour, author of American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism, responded to the media and political establishment's frenzied response, in an article written the day after the killing for his blog Lenin's Tomb.

I KNEW John Wilson Street sounded familiar. I lived on that street as a student, just adjacent to the barracks and close to the Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich.

There is a tawdriness to the setting of yesterday's killing that adds to its sadness. The main thing going for Woolwich, then as now, is the fact that almost everywhere else nearby is even more grim: Plumstead, Thamesmead, Charlton, North Woolwich. These charmless suburban wastelands surrounding Woolwich actually improve its plight, as by comparison, it starts to look like a thriving little metropole.

But the postcode area, SE18, was and still is one of the poorest in the country. The Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich, formerly a Polytechnic, was then quite a neglected, dilapidated set of buildings--quite a contrast to the stunning neoclassical facades of the Greenwich campus. It is long closed.

There is a "common" that looks derelict and abandoned--because it has been abandoned by Olympics planners who flew in with a bunch of promises, then fucked off just as quickly once the shooting was over. Whereas Greenwich town center has been the focus of neoliberal gentrification and tourism-driven growth, unemployment in the borough is especially concentrated in the two wards, Woolwich Common and Woolwich Riverside. There is nothing there. No amenities, no jobs, no future. Every day is like Sunday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron
British Prime Minister David Cameron (Moritz Hager)

In addition to being the site of an army base, which was incorporated into an already militarized Olympics Games, it is a racially mixed area. These, in themselves banal facts, provided the backdrop for a (no doubt partially sincere) attempt by local MP Nick Raynsford to respond to the attacks with a classic New Labour "integrationist" racial project. In essence, Raynsford defended a form of "Britishness," where militarism could co-exist with lived multi-culture, as in Woolwich: Black people can fight our wars, too. Their loyalty, their collusion in our shared martial values, is what makes them British.

But why does race come into it? Why does multiculturalism come into it? David Cameron has hinted at "indications" that the killing was a "terrorist" incident. He has provided the usual assurances of British resilience in the face of such attacks, although such histrionics say the opposite of what they are supposed to: They imply that the British state, one of the most powerful and well-armed in the world, might conceivably one day actually yield, give up in the face of two men with knives.

What does "terrorism" have to do with this? Why is British grit, as opposed to a standard police investigation, the order of the day? The statement from the IS Network highlighted the speed with which the narrative changed once it became clear that the victim was a soldier, even while details remained scarce. Why did the narrative change, and what purpose did that serve?

This is not a post about the killing of a soldier, about which there is little to say, nor about the "double standards" in the use of the term "terrorism". It is about how the notoriously pliable category of "terrorism" has been put to work in developing fables about our racial selves, about "Britishness" and its others.

The Muslim in British raciology

Through "race," social relations, events and bodies are symbolized and come to be seen as "racial." Take, for example, the northern riots in 2001. There were a number of conjunctural elements involved: a struggle over local council resources; protests against police brutality; right-wing and fascist violence against Asian businesses and citizens; anti-fascist mobilization; police repression; and so on.

Among the structural elements were the deindustrialization of former mill towns and ensuing poverty and unemployment; the institutional racism of local governments, which led to struggles over resources being racialized; the degeneration of Labourism, which provided some of the raw material for a right-wing populist politics; the racism of local police forces, who stigmatized Asians as "anti-white" and violent drug-dealers.

This was clearly a complex web of political struggles: the media saw only "race riots". Subsequently, a more detailed government response saw "self-segregating" Asians, "no go areas for whites," "parallel lives" and a crisis of "Britishness". Subsequently, after 9/11, this view of the Asian as self-segregating, hostile, and anti-British, was re-deployed in an Islamophobic variant which has since become a neo-Powellite folk wisdom. The plausibility of these responses depended on the prior acceptance of their basic precepts. Race is something that has to be believed in order to be seen.

With that said, what does a Muslim look like? When the victim of yesterday's killing was revealed to be a soldier, now known to be a fusilier who had served in Helmand, sections of the media instantly began to seek a Muslim connection.

The media has form here. One only has to remember how the Utoya attacks prompted instant speculation about Muslim involvement and hand-wringing about the "failure of multiculturalism," even well past the point at which it was clear that the attacker was an Islamophobe inspired by the EDL. In this vein yesterday, the BBC's Nick Robinson set the tone by describing one of the assailants as being of "Muslim appearance."

Yet both assailants, as evidenced in the morbid footage, were Black men wearing casual clothing. One, who addressed a passerby recording the incident on a camera phone, was wearing jeans, a hoodie and a beanie hat. Even by the conventions of British raciology, it seems a stretch, or at least a new departure, to say that this is a stereotypical "Muslim appearance." The police's blunt Identity Categories would, as Symeon Brown pointed out, classify the assailant as being an IC3 male--a man of African/Caribbean descent.

Challenged about his description on social media, however, Robinson replied to his critics that he was quoting a description from a Whitehall source, who was in turn quoting police. Such reporting at third hand demonstrates the mutually corroborative effect different wings of the state and media connecting to one another in a perpetual feedback loop. But it also suggested a strong will on the part of the authorities to "see" a "Muslim appearance," as that would instantly provide the fable they desired.

It was also suggested that there was some chanting of the phrase "Allahu Akhbar" after the attacks, the story attributed to two men who reportedly heard it. This story was circulated by all the major news media.

Once ITN News broadcast video footage of one of the assailants, Michael Adebolajo, all doubt seemed to pass. He said that the beheading of this soldier was a message to David Cameron, who has sent British troops to Arabic lands: "We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." He went on: "You think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy--like you--and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace." While a Muslim man spoke those words, they do not constitute a religious diatribe, but rather a straightforward and perfectly coherent political message. The only directly religious phrase used, as far as I can tell, is biblical rather than Koranic.

Adebolajo, notably, came from a Nigerian Christian family, and is a convert to Islam. He went to the University of Greenwich when he turned 18 and lived in student accommodation in 2004 and 2005. He must have studied at the Avery Hill campus if he lived in Eltham during that time. I'd like to know what he studied, and what degree he ended up with. It was in 2005 that he first came under surveillance by MI5. I'd like to know what groups spoke to him, and converted him.

There is a vague report that he was "radicalized" by the group Al Muhajiroun in 2003, a suggestion which seems to ignore something fairly massive and bloody which began to happen in that year. I'd like to know how he ended up living in a miserable housing estate in Woolwich, handing out Islamist literature in the high street every week, probably not far from where I used to proselytize for revolutionary socialism.

I think his conversion to Islam, and particularly to Islamist politics, may have had something to do with the anger and misery arising from the many sleights, insults and exclusions of living in a racist society. I think his affiliation with a network of combat jihadists may have given him a sense of power and purpose: they had an analysis of their problems, a strategy for resistance and a utopian horizon to aim for.

Certainly, this bloody action seems to have been committed with a sense of empowerment: they seemed, to witnesses, to be completely in control of what they were doing, and to relish the opportunity to explain why they had done it. They were not "on something," and they were not "disturbed." They were political militants who had killed an enemy combatant as far as they were concerned. One thinks of Richard Reid's trial. He had been to prison before: that is where he had converted. But this time, he was not afraid. He sat before the judge and stated with a smile: "I am an enemy of your country and I don't care."

"Terrorism" and Its Other

Before the body of Drummer Lee Rigby was cold, his mutilation was already being registered, not simply as a killing, but as "terrorism."

The Telegraph refers to the perpetrators as "al Qaeda-inspired Islamic terrorists," situating the attacks as a "return" of the "terrorism" last seen in July 2005. The Guardian likewise referred to the killers'"typical al-Qaeda rhetoric." The Independent warns us, citing a former Flying Squad Commander, of an emerging "new type of terror threat." David Cameron is reportedly attending an emergency meeting of Cobra, presumably intending to contrive a "tough" new response to "terrorism."

Glenn Greenwald has done the usual sterling work in anatomizing this response. Without duplicating his points, a simple comparison suffices to convey it: of all the freelance racists who have murdered Black people in the UK over the years, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually, how many have been characterized as "terrorists"?

And it seems worth asking what is left of the term "terrorism" once one has discounted for the consistent inconsistency of its usage? No one can agree on a definition. No serious scholarly book on the subject dares venture a definition that isn't either weighed down with caveats or ultimately self-cancelling. Suffice to say that in some cases, violence with a clear political and symbolic purpose is classified as "terrorism," and in some cases, it is not, and there appears to be no explicit, principled distinction between those which are and those which are not.

The distinctions which are offered between, say, "terrorism" and "just war" are pure ideology. Talal Asad points out that there are typically three such distinctions offered. First, a just war is fought in pursuit of virtuous, liberal, humane and democratic ends, while terrorism is waged only for nefarious, fanatical ends. Second, a just war is restrained, seeking to avoid civilian casualties, while terrorism is unrestrained mayhem that if anything actively seeks out a civilian body count. Third, a just war takes place only at the last minute, after all alternatives have been exhausted, while terrorism is capricious and barely needs provocation. It goes without saying that this is pure ideology: no serious examination of the course of, say, the "war on terror" would bear out any of these claims.

The term "terrorism" is concretely used here, not to signify a method, a goal or a form of organization, but rather to signify a particular genre of story-telling. It is a narrative device. In this context, the counterpoint to "terrorism" was the "absolutely indomitable British spirit," as the prime minister called it, exemplified in the acts of members of the public who spoke to the assailants and attempted to guard the already mutilated corpse against further assault. Cameron went on to say: "The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values that we hold dear. The belief in freedom, in democracy, in free speech, in our British values, Western values."

Thus, a pitiable scene in a cold, grey-skied summer day in Woolwich was attached to a world-historical battle mantled with abstract values. More to the point, it was linked to a contemporary metaphysics of race. Using David Theo Goldberg's terminology, we could classify this as a "historicist" type of racial metaphysics. Whereas a "naturalist" racial metaphysics treats biology as destiny, "historicist" types treat racial differences as a result of differing degrees of cultural and political development. For the subordinated, "historicism" holds out the promise of eventual racial uplift, full citizenship, pending the fulfillment of certain conditions--acceptance of our values, integration, passing a citizenship test, and so on.

Once examined, the terms "British values" and "Western values" unspool into a sequence of connotative links, connecting territory, birth and culture in a roughly "historicist" manner.

It is a given that "the West," for example, is not a geographical entity so much as a historically produced caste of national states comprising Europe and its colonies, from North America to Australasia. This white West is connected to its supposed values through the crucial vector of culture.

Thus, it just so happens that white people are the legatees of a particular level of civilizational and cultural development that give them these unique, priceless assets such as democracy. This necessitates forgetting how passionately and often violently democracy was resisted within the social formations of "the West," as well as how much modern democratic revolutions owed to the decidedly "non-Western" Haiti. But the link between territory and values is most forcibly made through the example of the Second World War, with the Cold War providing a distant second point of reference, which is why "terrorism" is always discussed as if it's the equivalent of the Third Reich stamping on the toes of the British Empire.

It goes without saying that the meaning of culture, in this neo-Powellite culturalism, is greatly reduced. Culture, aside from being cross-sected by multiple antagonisms, never ceases to be constructed, its points of reference continuously displaced, and thus never arrives as a finished essence. But in the dramaturgy of "Western values" and "British values," culture has to do perform the same theatrical purpose as biology once did, and thus it has to be frozen and essentialized. If biology is not destiny, culture certainly is: in the warmed up "modernization theory" of the post-Cold War era, it is the destiny to which all formerly abject peoples were suddenly racing.

What the race fable tells us, then, is that we belong to an indomitably superior culture that is radiantly attractive to others, part of whose superiority lies in its generosity, its openness and its ability to incorporate those of lesser cultural breeds--whether through an overly relaxed immigration policy, or through an excessively benign policy of military intervention.

It tells us that there are some who, given this priceless opportunity, decline to accept it; they revert to type, repudiate it and spit in our faces. With few resources, but endless guile, they seek to persuade others of their status also to repudiate the gift, and kill us instead. And in doing so, they come to resemble their kin in the non-West, while "we" resemble ourselves only more perfectly as "we" stoically respond to the challenge. This is "terrorism."


The race fable was illustrated by ITN News, which, after showing the footage of a bloodied Adebolajo, referred to the scene in Woolwich as a day when "Baghdad-style violence" came to south London. It was a catchy line, precisely because it resonated with the media's own conventions when reporting from imperial frontlines. Others, such as the Telegraph, have evoked untamed bestiary, and in one typical article, speculates on a possible link to a Nigerian group which has waged "a bloody campaign against Western values of freedom and democracy."

In other words, though the "terrorism" was homegrown, it has actually penetrated from the outside, smuggled in by immigrants and the Internet. The juxtaposition in the Baghdad line reminds us where such violence really belongs.

Yet the vector through which the pathology spread is more specific than immigration as such, or the Internet. In this connection, the plight of other British Muslims in all this has not been forgotten. It has been a mainstream political doctrine for some years that "terrorism" is a specific pathology of Islam, that it is something which Muslims have a particular duty to seek out "terrorism" in their midst and report it to the authorities.

Governments from Blair onward have seen it as their particular business to coerce and coopt British Muslims in this way. This is the doctrine of "muscular liberalism" that David Cameron has boasted about; it lets British Muslims know that their national status is still in question, and that this is largely because of their own shortcomings.

Cameron was briefly magnanimous enough to say that the attack was not the fault of Islam, but of the individuals alone. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Ramadhan Foundation corroborated this exoneration of the faith with their strenuous denunciations of the killing.

But they will know very well that such corroboration implied that the exoneration was needed. They will also know that in his speech, Cameron also referred to the problem as one of "extremism," and it is this which he charges ordinary Muslims with tolerating or harboring. They will know that Cameron's government will hold Muslims and Muslim organizations answerable for this, irrespective of diplomatic statements made in the heat of the moment. Their every statement can now be combed for potentially disloyal nuance. Police searches, internment, a few more Forest Gates--all this is possible until the government is satisfied with the degree of cooperation it is receiving.

The consequence of over a decade of syncopated Islam-baiting has been a pronounced political turn to the right, especially on questions of immigration, nationality and "race." Coterminously, "Britishness" has increasingly been merged with militarism. The ultimate test of one's integration, one's loyalty to "British values," is to fight for said values. The ultimate proof of one's betrayal is to insult the soldiers who defend them. One can be against war, on the ground that it is too much benevolence for an undeserving mob, but one can't denounce the troops themselves. The case of Azhar Ahmed, whose sole offense was to castigate British soldiers on Facebook, indicates the potential costs of doing so, particularly for a Muslim. It also illustrates the centrality of the state to the development and implementation of these ideologies.

And it is because of the dominant role of the British state, and in the context of that state's action, that a right-wing "counter-jihadist" politics of street mobilizations and violence has developed. The "lone wolf" mosque attacks in Woolwich and elsewhere were followed up by an English Defense League "protest" in Woolwich.

The EDL had exhausted itself until recently in a sequence of miscues and hyper-activism, but last night mobilized a contingent of masked combatants to descend on Woolwich within hours of the attack. Their Facebook page experienced a surge of new supporters, and they have shown up in some cities this evening for the first time. They now plan to march in central London this weekend, and are probably emboldened in their recently revived scheme of staging at least one successful march in Tower Hamlets. Even if they succeed at none of these objectives, it is quite plausible that some of them will succeed in shedding some blood before the immediate consequences of this have worked themselves out.

The dominant political response to this threat is largely dismissive. Nick Raynsford has suggested that the EDL simply needs to "grow up" and realize that causing trouble is "counterproductive." He presumably did not mean to imply that his disagreement with the EDL is mainly a tactical one, that they threaten to scupper shared objectives. A New Labour politician is emphatically not on a par with a proto-fascist football casual.

Nonetheless, I think his slip is meaningful. The account of "terrorism" and "Britishness" which I have just given above describes a set of ideological parameters that are virtually unchallenged in the mainstream, and which validate the Islamophobic far right, making it nearly impossible to seriously oppose them or to discern anything but a completely misconceived appropriation of "real concerns." This is the role that "terrorism" is playing in British politics today.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

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