A Troubling Speech on the Nature of the ISIS Threat

Written by Alexander J. Segal on

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On March 2, 2017, Hannah Ellis-Petersen of The Guardian posted an article titled “Riz Ahmed warns lack of diversity on TV will drive young to Isis” [PDF version].1

The article discusses a speech delivered to the House of Parliament in London by Riz Ahmed, a Pakistani-British actor and rapper, on the subject of diversity in film and television.2 Ahmed spoke broadly of encouraging diversity in film and television, and he was critical of the United Kingdom for being, in his opinion, behind the United States in this area. However, Ahmed made an interesting argument regarding what he perceived as the power of diversity in film and television to prevent young people from joining ISIS. While this portion of his speech has received much attention and acclaim, I will explain why I find it quite troubling, given my strong interest in immigration issues.

ISIS

The Guardian quotes Ahmed as saying that, “[i]f we fail to represent [in the media], we are in danger of losing people to extremism.” Ahmed continued:

“In the mind of the [ISIS] recruit, he's the next James Bond right? Have you seen some of those [ISIS] propaganda videos, they are cut like action moves. Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they valued?”

The Telegraph then quoted a later passage of Ahmed's speech, where he made his troubling argument most clearly:

“If we don't step up and tell a representative story … we are going to start losing British teenagers to the story that the next chapter in their lives is written in Syria. We are going to see the murder of more MP's like Jo Cox because we've been mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be.”

Ahmed's argument is anything but poignant or inspiring. I cannot say what his intent was in making the claims that he made in his speech, but I will explain why he was wrong to argue his point in this way and why his argument has very troubling implications.

Firstly, I will start by noting that I have no opinion on the state of diversity in the UK media. Certainly, it is to the benefit of everyone that talented actors and actresses obtain leading roles in movies and on television. There is certainly no reason to begrudge Ahmed for arguing that talented actors and actresses are being overlooked in the United Kingdom.

However, Ahmed's decision to tie the goal of increasing the representation of Muslims in movies and television to preventing people from the UK from joining ISIS is both ignorant and perverse.

Firstly, Ahmed is taking an issue that may well be worthy of discussion and attempting to stifle discussion and debate over solutions by conflating it with counter-terrorism. Even if he has correctly diagnosed a problem with the UK television and film industry and his call for more diverse and representative casting is entirely warranted, the issue has nothing to do with preventing the assassination of UK public officials, discouraging recruitment by and support of ISIS, or otherwise preventing people from engaging in rape and murder in the name of Islam in the Middle East.

Secondly, Ahmed implicitly attempts to separate ISIS from its ideological basis. ISIS, like other Islamist groups, is based on a specific reading of Islamic scripture that conflates religious practice with an oppressive political system. Many of these groups are also willing to use extreme violence to achieve their ends. ISIS and other similar groups such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, must be acknowledged and confronted as ideological movements. It is wish casting to separate the ideology from the movements and to portray their sponsored activities as random violent “extremism” with no ideological basis or objective.

Ahmed is correct in noting that ISIS uses social media to appeal to the sensibilities of foreign youths. However, it is borderline insulting and remarkably patronizing to argue that the only thing standing between thousands of young Muslims in the UK and suicide bombings, torture, rape, and murder in the Middle East is whether Ahmed or some other actor gets cast in a movie. As Ben Shapiro noted in the Daily Wire, “I didn't see a lot of Orthodox Jews on television growing up. Somehow, I didn't end up a member of the Neturei Karta.”3

Ahmed's speech also has sweeping — albeit likely unintended — anti-immigration consequences if it is taken to its logical conclusion. Followers of my blog will be aware that while I was critical of much of now-President Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigration during the campaign [see blog], I have broadly supported his call for “extreme vetting” [see blog] and for the temporary suspension of immigration from terror-prone countries [see blog]. I support these measures in recognition of the fact that the United States faces a particular threat from Islamist terror, and that the first priority of our immigration system should be ensure that immigration does not harm the security and the national interest of the United States.

Many have argued that the policies I support are not reasonable but drastic. However, if what Ahmed says is true, that would seem to call for far more drastic proposals regarding the suspension of immigration and surveillance than what I have proposed. As the headline to Shapiro's article on the issue in the Daily Wire summarized the speech — correctly — “'Rogue One' Actor: If You Don't Put Muslim Actors On TV, Muslims Will Join ISIS.” If Ahmed is correct in contending that Muslims are so susceptible to the lure of Islamist terror that television casting will drive them into waging a holy war in Syria, one would have to consider some very dramatic solutions that go far beyond who stars in Dr. Who, Downton Abbey, or the next James Bond movie.

Fortunately, Ahmed is wrong in his diagnosis of the Islamist terror threat and on his typecasting of millions of young Muslims in western countries. Once we understand terrorism as the primarily ideological issue that it is, we can create vetting protocols to best guard against those with dangerous ideologies from entering the United States, and guard against those who wish to do us harm on behalf of ISIS or other similar groups [see blog]. By improving vetting and taking into account country conditions in making immigration policy, the United States and European countries can better ensure that they do not allow entry to people who allegedly may only be prevented from mass murder in the name of Islam by being satisfied by the racial and religious demographics of the Academy Awards. The situation only becomes as dangerous as Ahmed seems to believe it is when we ignore the nature of the Islamist threat and the proliferation of dangerous ideologies from unstable regions of the world.

By appropriately distinguishing Muslims who mean to do harm based on particular readings of Islamic scripture from the millions of non-violent and non-Islamist adherents to Islam, we can create a sound immigration policy that takes into account the Islamist threat without gratuitously insulting and patronizing a broader swath of Muslims like Ahmed did in his address.

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  1. Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “Riz Ahmed warns lack of diversity on TV will drive young to Isis,” theguardian.com (Mar. 2, 2017)
  2. Renshaw, David, “Watch Riz Ahmed Speech To U.K. Parliament About The Importance of Diversity On TV,” thefader.com, (Mar. 3, 2017)
  3. Shapiro, Ben, “'Rogue One' Actor: If You Don't Put Muslim Actors On TV, Muslims Will Join ISIS,” dailywire.com, (Mar. 3, 2017)