As a formal exercise, denunciations and condemnations nearly always ring hollow.
“We strongly condemn the recent attacks…”
Blah blah blah… Ya don’t say?
That’s not to suggest these statements are insincere; it’s just that they are generally so predictable they have become a somewhat pointless ritual.
What’s radically different is when the denunciation comes from someone in the moment who in that moment spontaneously uses words to upend the meaning of an act of violence. This is when language grasps its real power.
This is what happened last night at the Leytonstone Underground station in London after a 29-year-old man stabbed a 56-year-old man, while shouting, “this is for Syria.”
VIDEO: Bystander shouts 'you aren't a Muslim' at man that attacked commuter in London tube station this evening. pic.twitter.com/u0q00ZQKa7
— Conflict News (@Conflicts) December 5, 2015
I’m going to make some wild guesses and see if I can deconstruct what happened here:
1. The man with the knife was a Muslim (and probably British).
2. He had no idea who he was stabbing other than that he assumed his victim was British and not a Muslim and thus could be held responsible for the actions of the British government following its recent decision to start bombing Syria.
3. The attacker felt like he was standing up for Muslims.
A bystander, a Muslim Londoner, having witnessed what happened, videos the arrest and as a Muslim policemen handcuffs the attacker, the bystander calls out: “You ain’t no Muslim bruv [brother].”
Again, another assumption: he was directing this statement at the attacker, not the policeman.
For good reason, the bystander has received widespread praise.
#YouAintNoMuslimBruv – the power of language. One sentence pushes away extremists and unites everyone else. This is our stance now. Great.
— Dr Craig Morris (@1CraigMorris) December 6, 2015
#YouAintNoMuslimBruv – one man does more for community cohesion with one sentence than any government initiative.
— Russ (@russburt) December 6, 2015
Echoing the gunmen in the Paris attacks, the attacker in London chose the phrase “this is for Syria,” but in spite of ISIS’s large presence on Twitter, the hashtag that’s trending now is #YouAintNoMuslimBruv — it isn’t #ThisIsForSyria.
Some Muslims aren’t happy about this.
@LinahAlsaafin Tagic & infuriating that Muslim community conditioned 2 distance selves via de facto apologism as means of self-preservation.
— TabethaB (@TabethaBee) December 6, 2015
I understand why Muslims feel like they shouldn’t be expected to denounce the actions of extremists — such condemnations inevitably sound like an expression of collective guilt. But this isn’t what happened in London.
At a moment when a guy has posed a threat to everyone around him and he’s claiming to be acting in the name of Muslims, another Muslim deftly cuts down that claim in an expression of solidarity that unites Muslims and non-Muslims, Londoners (who come from all quarters of the globe) and everyone else.
ISIS wants Muslims and non-Muslims to spill each other’s blood in an apocalyptic war, but instead we have to stand together.
#YouAintNoMuslimBruv shows how it can be done.
One Muslim brothers words representing the voice of millions… #YouAintNoMuslimBruv
— Khayam (@khayamcreates) December 6, 2015