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Shame on the right for demonising refugees over the Clapham attack

Toxic masculinity, not the asylum system, is to blame for a rise in crimes using corrosive substances

Coast Guard, Ambulance staff, Border Force and police escort asylum seekers who have just landed on Dungeness beach on an RNLI life boat late in the evening. Photo: Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images

Reactions to the Clapham alkali attack pitched from horror to opportunism when it emerged that the alleged perpetrator, Abdul Ezidi, was a refugee. The prime minister railed against “foreign criminals”. Robert Jenrick railed against the prime minister. The Sun and the Mail delved into conspiracy theories about “gullible vicars”.

Commentators linked acid/alkali attacks to Islamic or “primitive” cultures “imported” by immigrants. The Telegraph’s Charlotte Gill suggested we can stop acid/alkali attacks by limiting: “the number of male arrivals from countries that make women wear veils, stay at home, deny them education, stone them, circumcise or mutilate them, have honour killings and take child brides”.

Much of this is culture war point scoring. We grant people asylum because they face harassment, violence, torture, or death in their country of origin. Bad people are still entitled to human rights.

It’s arguably racist (and certainly xenophobic) to punish a refugee twice (by criminal sanction and by deportation) for a crime for which we would only punish someone born in Britain once. Ezidi’s asylum claim was forensically tested by a court. I have seen those sorts of cases first-hand. Often the scrutiny is so rigorous as to be humiliating.

Had Ezidi been deported, of course, then he couldn’t have committed the attack of which he is being accused. But this misses the bigger picture. In 2022 the UK experienced the highest number of corrosive substance (“CS”) attacks in the world. Attacks have been recorded in Britain since 1832. Data collection is notoriously poor but that which is available suggests most attackers today are white and British.

In 2021, for example, Essex police recorded 28 attacks by white perpetrators and 2 by Asians. The largest concentration of attacks, globally, occur in South Asia. But Asians make up just 6% of suspects in London (on the most recent available data).

What’s certain, however, is that CS attacks are on the rise in the UK. 2022 saw a 69% year on year increase. The highest concentration of attacks was in Northumbria (home, incidentally, one of the lowest concentrations of immigrants), followed by London, and Merseyside. In 2023, for the first time, there were more female than male victims. Perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. We need to start grappling with the root causes of this rise, and it’s not “foreigners”.

CS attacks are driven, primarily, by toxic masculinity. This often manifests in misogyny. Attackers reduce women to their physical attributes then try to destroy those attributes. As one London gang member told VICE, he would “prefer to use acid on a girl nine out of 10 times [because] they love their beauty.”

Globally, 80% of CS attacks are targeted at women. As Bipash Baruah and Aisha Sidikka of Western University, Ontario, authors of a wide-ranging study on CS violence, put it, “gendered roles and hierarchies within families and society not only motivate perpetrators to commit the crime, but also provide them with a sense of impunity.”

In the UK, however, men are often as likely to be victims as women. Toxic masculinity is about more than just misogyny. It encourages men to relate to each other through competing for dominance, embracing violence, and obsessing over status.

CS attacks are a visceral method for one man to establish dominance over another. Young men are at least as obsessive over their social media presence as women. It’s unsurprising that male-on-male violence now targets aesthetic attributes.

Toxic masculinity is certainly a British problem. On the same day as the Clapham attack, King’s College London published research showing that around one in six men between 16 and 29 embrace aspects of toxic masculinity. These include believing that feminism is a threat and identifying with toxic “influencers” like Andrew Tate.

This concerning trend goes hand-in-hand with identity and mental health crises. Suicide is the most common cause of death amongst men under 45. Gen Z and millennial men have far fewer economic opportunities than their parents. Chronically low pay and high rents have infantilised swathes of young people, reducing them to living with their parents and denying them the “life stages” (a steady job, their own home, marriage, kids) to which they were taught to aspire.

As mental health campaigner Conor O’Keefe identifies: “Our grandfathers knew what their place was within the family unit and therefore within society itself. There isn’t this jigsaw [that] we can fit into seamlessly anymore.”

Right wing grifters have been quick to exploit this, encouraging men to find identity in the most unreconstructed versions of masculinity. Jordan Peterson, a so-called “academic” who pushes culture war memes online, has praised people like Tate for offering young men “forthright aggression” as an alternative to “cringing defeat”. Attempts to develop modern and inclusive cultures of masculinity face fierce backlash. Sadiq Khan’s campaign to encourage men to challenge each other on misogynistic behaviour was ardently opposed by the right.

It’s too early to know why the perpetrator committed the crimes of which Ezidi is accused. Perhaps it was toxic masculinity. But not every crime fits the same pattern. Perhaps he was motivated by religion, video-games, or nothing. Perhaps he is just a horrible person. More broadly, however, we know that toxic masculinity is a structural driver of CS attacks. Unless we stop it there will be many more cases like this, and most of the attackers will likely be white.

Using Ezidi as a culture-war brickbat is a betrayal of past and future victims.

Sam Fowles is an author, barrister and columnist. He is on X

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