Notes for a speech

We present the text prepared by our secretary for a speech at the vigil held on Saturday 25 March in Market Square by Cambridge Stand Up to Racism. Owing to illness he could not attend on the day.

On behalf of the Cambridge People's Assembly, I wish to send a message of condolence and support to all those touched by Wednesday's attack on Westminster, in which four people were murdered and many more injured. The means used in Nice (14 July 2016), in Berlin (19 December 2016), and now in London, that of driving a motor vehicle into crowds, is particularly horrifying: for its force, but also I think for its duration, as experienced by the victims and by the murderer who wills it. That Khalid Masood's final target seemed to be the Houses of Parliament (where he fatally stabbed his last victim before being shot dead) almost irresistibly suggests a political motive, although this must be confirmed by the police investigation.

It's this, perhaps, that would make Masood a terrorist. Yet we have to be prepared to resist the work of that word. As Arun Kundnani says, following Eqbal Ahmad, it's used by governments to isolate selected acts of coercive political violence from others, including their own, which are 'considered normal, rational, or necessary', and to justify exceptional measures in response.1 So a recent report by Amnesty International finds that across Europe, and most of all in Britain,

wave after wave of counter-terrorism measures ... have eroded the rule of law, enhanced executive powers, peeled away judicial controls, restricted freedom of expression, and exposed everyone to government surveillance.2

We also have to be prepared for the Westminster attack to be exploited by those who will say that Muslims like Masood are naturally susceptible to violence, naturally drawn to terrorism, naturally different. (This is the process of racialization also treated by Kundnani.)3 They're aided by the racial charge that has built up since 2001 in the word 'terrorism', which for some politicians and journalists now means political violence by Muslims.4

For all I've said against it, I'm not ready to give up a word I believe can serve thought as well as disable it. But its abuses must inform our response to Wednesday's horror. We should call for whatever can be saved of justice for the victims, dead and injured, and their families and friends. (With the murderer himself dead, this becomes a matter of truth and remembrance.) We should refuse further trespasses on popular freedoms. And we should refuse any attempt to divide us by religion, colour, or race.

Neil Kirkham

25 March 2017


1. Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming! (London: Verso, 2014), 21. Kundnani follows Eqbal Ahmad, 'Terrorism, Theirs and Ours', in The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, ed. Carollee Bengelsdorf, Margaret Cerullo, and Yogesh Chandrani (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 257–266.

2. Dangerously Disproportionate: The Ever-Expanding National Security State in Europe (London: Amnesty International, 2017), 6. For Britain as the country where these measures have reached furthest, see 'Welcome to Big Brother Britain', Amnesty 192 (spring 2017): 5.

3. Arun Kundnani, The End of Tolerance (London: Pluto Press, 2007), 124–128.

4. One example: a veteran journalist on the BBC's Today programme for 6 March described al-Qaeda, the Islamist organization prominent from the late 1990s and responsible for the 11 September 2001 attack on New York, as 'the original terrorists', and challenged his interviewee (the police administrator Mark Rowley, now involved in Masood's case) when the latter cited the murder of the politician Jo Cox by a fascist as an act of terrorism.

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