When is a terror attack not a terror attack? When it terrifies Muslims

Is a hit and run accompanied by hateful speech a hate crime or something more? 

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What is the difference between terrorism and hate crime?” This was the message I received from my sister this morning. As I logged on my computer this morning and read the news about the hit-and-run outside a mosque in Cricklewood, I was hit with a profound sense of loss and weariness.

We have been here before.

Two years ago, I wrote an article in response to the rise in far-right extremism in the UK, exploring the legal definition of terrorism. I wrote that we were blind to the increase in far-right extremist violence in the UK, primarily because far-right violence was not considered terrorism. More often than not, far-right extremist violence takes the shape of racist violence and is considered a hate crime, not an act of terror, even when it is very similar to violence considered to be terrorism.

However, the difference between terrorism and hate crime is not just in the eye of the beholder, but it exposes a deep crack in our collective society. We tend to think of terrorism as an attack on a collective community, while a hate crime is an attack on an individual. But a hate crime is an attack on an individual because they represent a bigger group. They are attacked because of their membership in that group, not because of anything they have done themselves. Hate crimes are violent crimes on a collective community, just as much as terrorism is.

Further, the individuals charged with terrorism are often framed as stand-ins for a bigger group or community, while those charged with hate crimes are seen as individuals with no affiliations.  A Muslim man charged with terrorism will not only be seen as representing a terrorist group, but representing the Muslim community as a whole. Nothing else explains the constant calls for Muslims to condemn terrorism, the deep state interference and monitoring of the Muslim community and the wholesale treatment of Muslims as a suspect community. However, a white man (and it is usually a white man) charged with a hate crime will not be seen as a sign of a deep pathology within his community. He may not even be seen as a sign of the rise of the far-right crime even if he belongs to a far-right group. His actions will not be treated as harbingers of some sort of cultural or societal malaise. Often, they are only recorded in minor news stories and will not attract a response from government officials.

Take, for example, the 2017 Finsbury Park Mosque attack, when Darren Osborne killed one person and injured 12 others. Though he was found guilty of murder as a terrorist offence and was called a terrorist by some in the government and the media, there has been no active, institutional response to it. There have been no new strategies, no new policy, and, significantly, no urgency when it comes to tackling far-right violence.

The Cricklewood hit and run has so far been a secondary news item, something you find after scrolling around a webpage. While certain details are yet to emerge, reports suggest the driver was shouting anti-Islamic taunts, and the Met Police is treating the incident as an Islamophobic hate crime. But what if the driver was shouting about British foreign policy, and the attack took place outside a church? We all know the response would have been vastly different. The attack would have been front page news, warranting rolling coverage by the BBC and an official response.

Instead, once again, we have silence. We have silence because as a country, we have come to a point where we identify with the aggressors, not with the victims of hate crimes. Look at our deeply unequal criminal justice system that strongly prejudices against those from black or minority ethnic groups. Look at how the years of the War on Terror have scarred countless Muslim men and women across the world. Look at how our lives have been poisoned by a hostile environment that treats those born in a different geographical location to us as less than human.

Hate crimes are often seen as apolitical, even when they are associated with the far-right. This is because they are framed as not having anything to do with government policy – either as a motivation or as meriting a response. But violence against Muslims, people of colour, migrants, women, transwomen and transmen, and gay people is the very stuff of politics. We have been here before, many times. After all, hate crimes have only increased since Brexit, as has the number of far-right terror arrests. But our collective shrug at the rise of hate crimes and our collective will to pay attention only when violence is committed by those considered to be the Other, is a further sign that we have normalised a toxic rhetoric that was usually reserved to the fringes of political debate.

And as long as this is the case, we will, unfortunately, be here again.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.