The case of Muhyiddin Mire, the mentally ill knife attacker who tried to kill Lyle Zimmerman at Leytonstone tube station in December last year has been treated in a manner that would suggest Mire was a committed and hardened ‘extremist’. This demonstrates a worrying trend where the media all to readily classify acts of violence committed by Muslims as ‘Islamic extremism’. Not only does this add to the fear-charged climate of Islamophobia, but it also acts to further existing cycles of violence.
It has been well established that Mire had suffered from paranoid delusions and had missed an appointment with a community mental health team four days before the incident. Nonetheless, the Daily Mail recently led with the headline “Jihadi Attacker” and infused the headline with numerous Islamic references. Other papers lead with “ISIS attacker” and references to his apparent religiosity were made.
This is at odds with the assesment of Scotland Yard, who reached the conclusion that Mire’s behaviour was in fact a result of his mental health problems. “The victim, the doctor who treated him and a substantial part of Britain’s security establishment echoed this view“.
However this did not dissuade Scotland Yard itself from suggesting he was inspired by ISIS, which the press promptly pounced upon. The Judge Nicholas Hilliard, concluded that the attack “was carried out to advance a religious or ideological cause, namely Islamic extremism.” Rather than acknowledging that mental health issues were at the core of the incident, this unfortunate assertion by the judge further exacerbates the Islamophobic climate and plays to the fears of Britons who feel they are under attack.
All evidence points to the fact that this was an act of violence, committed by an individual who needed urgent intervention and help. Acknowledging that Mire had serious mental health issues, while also asserting that the attack was done to further a political cause are irreconcilable positions, since a premeditated political act demands some form of sanity and planning on the part of the perpetrator.
Lack of psychological support is the key issue
The family of Mire expressed their concern over his mental state prior to the incident and even contacted the police in an attempt to have him sectioned. They felt that he was becoming a risk to himself and potentially to others. Yet despite all this evidence, Mire is deemed sane enough by the media and significant authorities to make a conscious decision to attempt to take another person’s life for a political cause, namely “Islamic extremism”.
This is a fundamentally flawed approach. Following recent attacks across Europe and the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric, there seems to be an inability to objectively assess such cases and their causes. Anything remotely Islamic, must be terror related. The causes are addressed superficially, and real grievances are overlooked in favour of a discourse that only serves to vilify mainstream Islamic thought.
Mire’s family had approached authorities for help -` why wasn’t this help forthcoming? Why had there been no follow-up from community mental health practitioners when Mire missed his appointment? These are all legitimate questions that remain unanswered in the tabloid rush to connect his act to Islam and in so doing further problematic ‘extremism’ theories.
On cue, the media made reference to him beginning to wear “traditional dress”, and being a “practicing Muslim” which feeds into a flawed perception that Islam and violence are synonymous. His paranoid schizophrenia is downplayed and the attention is placed upon his faith. The narrative is immediately shifted to one of ‘extremism’, ‘radicalisation’ and the role of religious orthodoxy as opposed to the dire lack of support for his psychological problems.
Mire’s brother, Mohamed, said: “He was saying odd things, talking nonsense and saying that he was seeing demons … I explained to the family the situation, we tried to get him help, we tried to call the local authority. They could not help him. We tried to tell them – this guy has mental issues, can you at least section him. I talked to the police. And then I decide to move him out of the country, so I called my mum [who lives in Somalia] and she told me to take him out the country to help him out.” According to him, Mire developed mental health problems after smoking cannabis and was treated for paranoia in 2007.
In the 1970s, some paranoid schizophrenics’ delusions were centred on the IRA and tensions in Ireland. Likewise, schizophrenics today could experience delusions related to the prevailing culture, where there is “a heightened state of tension over Islamic terrorism”, said Dr Shaun Bhattacharjee, a Broadmoor forensic psychiatrist at the sentencing hearing. It is claimed Mire first began accessing IS material in May 2015, but it was only after his mental state deteriorated that he engaged in violence. “It is clear at the time of the offence he was very psychotic and manifested a significant number of psychotic symptoms,” said Dr Bhattacharjee.
It is important to note that while mental illness does not completely absolve an individual of responsibility, approaching Mire’s act within the framework of ‘Islamic terrorism’ risks overlooking the need to treat his deep psychological problems in a meaningful and effective way.
Double standards when it comes to the mental health of Muslims?
Mire’s case opens up important questions regarding the treatment and perception of Muslims with mental health issues, over a more considered and measured approach, which is more often applied to non-Muslims.
The case is reminiscent of Talha Ahsan who was extradited to the US to face trial in 2012 despite having Asperger’s Syndrome. This, after six years of detention without trial, charge or prima facie evidence. In 2013 he entered into a plea bargain and was later released, but not before serving time in a Supermax Prison in solitary confinement.
That same year, Gary Mckinnon who was also suffering from Asperger’s was spared extradition to the US for hacking into US Military and NASA computers. Despite it being described as “biggest military computer hack of all time”, the extradition was blocked by the then Home Secretary Theresa May because it was “incompatible with his human rights”. Although a welcomed decision, the inconsistency in the application of the law was glaring.
Because of the charged climate, Muslim suspects are not given the benefit of the doubt and public sentiment is generally against them. A mentally ill man, who undoubtedly had his judgement impaired by his affliction is being presented as an ISIS inspired attacker and may be treated as such during his incarceration.
Moreover, this climate works to further harmful narratives. Labeling a person as mentally disturbed inconveniences those who wish to burden an entire community with the responsibility of this crime. Unlike ideas, mental illness is not contagious and thus the discussion surrounding motives and influences would halt, and the Islamophobic industry would have nothing to run on.
But this state of affairs endangers us all. Not only does it overlook serious flaws in our mental health system, as well as ongoing and unaddressed problems with drug abuse in society, but it relies on an approach that is seemingly duplicitous when it comes to Muslims, and fundamentally inhumane.
A fairer, more balanced and evidence-based approach is needed if we are to stop our current cycles of violence.
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