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Police urged to stop using “Islamist” and “jihadis” to describe attackers

Police urged to stop using “Islamist” and “jihadis” to describe attackers

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday August 04 2020

Following pressure from the National Association of Muslim Police, it was recently revealed that police forces are exploring dropping terms such as “Islamist terrorism” and “Jihadis” when referring to attacks carried out by people who claim to be motivated by Islam.

If the police were to follow through on these plans, it would mark an important milestone in undoing the harms that the counter-terror apparatus has inflicted upon Muslim communities.

Labelling attackers as “Islamists” or “Jihadists” works to strain relations between Muslim communities and the police, as opposed to combating future acts of terrorism.

Indeed, the National Association of Muslim Police proposed “a change in culture by moving away from using terms which have a direct link to Islam and jihad. These . . . do not help community relations and public confidence.”

That there are numerous studies – most notably the Lammy Review – detailing the disproportionate level of policing and punishment being inflicted on the UK’s BAME communities, if a police group representing one of these minority communities, such as the National Association of Muslim Police, has observed a means of rebuilding some degree of trust it should be acted upon. 

Labeling theory also posits another damaging consequence of continuing to use terms which have the effect of associating an entire community with criminality – that doing so can lead to an individual from that community to take on such an identity as a result of what they term a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Becker, for example, observes that the primary consequence of being labelled a deviant (or terrorist, in this context) is the change one’s social identity undergoes, and adds that when an individual is known to have committed a crime, it can become what he terms their “master status” – one which overrides all other aspects of their identity. He then describes the consequences, saying: “one tends to be cut off, after being identified as deviant, from participation in more conventional groups.”

What this means is that labels which reference the community an attacker claims to belong to/act for, can lead to ordinary and visibly Muslim men/woman being considered “terrorists”, treated as such, and even actively aspire to that aspect of identity. All other identities become secondary and, in the words of Becker, the deviant identification becomes the controlling one.

It is therefore possible for individuals experiencing constant stigmatisation to take positive validation from a rebellious and rejectionist form of identity – an act of resistance against social power hierarchies and discourse over which they are without any control. In other words, people who grow and develop with this identity being imposed on them as their primary identifier, may come to embody behaviours and views stereotypically associated with it, further aggravating the sense of exclusion from other groups in society.

Using words negatively loaded with religious connotations serve little purpose beyond creating divisions and a “suspect community”. Instead, they reinforce the idea that everything to do with Islam and Muslims is problematic.

Rather than seeking to shed light on and unpack the historical, political, and socio-economic specificity of each terrorist attack, essentialising them on the grounds of being linked to Islam through using labels like “Jihadi” or “Islamist” can actually do more harm than good when trying to understand the causes of terrorism.

What this means is that Muslims can find themselves ostracised from wider society due to how they are perceived as a result of the labels attached onto them. Attaching labels which associate entire communities of millions with the actions of a few, is clearly damaging and can have the unintended consequences of excluding swathes of society from meaningful social and political engagement participation.

Active engagement between police forces and minority communities are essential for overcoming unconscious bias and stereotypes that affect the ways in which local police officers perceive and understand the communities they serve. Furthermore, the language that is used by police forces and repeated in the media can have a more significant impact than perhaps initially envisaged.

There is an ongoing need for an investigation into structural Islamophobia within the Criminal Justice System. However, if the police were to take up this initiative regarding terminology and follow through with it, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction in terms of promoting healthy relationships between the police and communities that are based on trust and understanding, and laying down an example for media outlets to follow in how they describe and treat minority communities.


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