Less than three weeks ago a 75-year old Muslim grandfather was stabbed to death on the way back from evening prayers in my city of Birmingham. Police feared that it was a racist attack. Racist and Islamophobes have often targeted mosques and their attendees. The killer is still at large. There was relatively little media and public outrage. Yesterday’s gruesome murder in Woolwich was done for the cameras – and it seemed to have got the desired effect.
The Woolwich attackers and the English Defence League (EDL) – who organised anti-Muslim rallies last night in protest – seemingly have one thing in common: both believe there is an imminent – or even current – war with Islam, not only in occupied lands but, right here on the streets of Britain. Few people actually believe this but there will undoubtedly be a backlash as a result of what happened yesterday.
In fact it has it has already begun. Public resentment towards immigration, Europe and Islam was already growing as seen by the record number of votes received by UKIP in recent council elections, in spite of the racist and Muslim-hating views of some of its candidates. The EDL, who openly endorse UKIP, have responded with customary thuggish anti-Muslim marches which have been followed by attacks on mosques and Islamic centres, coupled with taunts and assaults against perceived Muslims, particularly women.
Undoubtedly there is a rise in at least online if not on-street support for the far-right. For now, although the Government appears to be saying everything needed to calm the situation, unlike much of the media, ordinary Brits really are being made to feel they’ve had enough. But it’s the government’s potential long-term response to this crisis that should be of concern to communities of all backgrounds around the country.
If left unchallenged, the real backlash will insidiously materialize in the shape of extra police and intelligence powers with a de facto application on Muslims resulting in more draconian anti-terror legislation, more racial and religious profiling, more schedule 7 stops, more surveillance, more spying in the community, more attempts at entrapment, more deportations and extraditions, more Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPiMs), more secret courts and even more excuses not to secure the release of Guantanamo prisoners held without charge. All of this was already justified by past and present governments in the name of fighting terror, but if unrestricted power in the name of freedom has shown us anything it is that this, and not terrorism, that has the potential to change the shape of this country.
Certainly we must come together, express sympathy with those suffering bereavement and work within our communities to pre-empt this sort of thing from recurring. We are Muslims and we are from Britain – we wish harm upon neither. But our Muslim leaders and centres remain silent on the reasons behind such acts to our own detriment. From the 7/7 bombers, through to all the (mercifully) failed plots, to the present attack all have cited the same rationale behind their actions: end occupation, withdraw troops from Muslim lands.
The armed forces personnel are not to blame: they go where they are ordered by the government, even if some have been responsible for atrocities, like the torturing to death of Iraqi prisoners or the alcohol fuelled bayoneting of a 10 year old boy by British squaddies. The mosques and Islamic centres need to be places where precisely such outrages, and the correct responses to them, should be openly discussed. Conveniently declaring these men non-Muslims, ostensibly to placate those who don’t know better is disingenuous, myopic and dishonest. What are they, if not Muslims?
There is also a certain duplicity at play which is seen by all but spoken of by few: Muslim poets, publishers, booksellers, demonstrators and internet posters have all been arrested and convicted for various terrorism-related crimes – alongside actual plotters and supporters of newly categorized terrorist acts, while numerous members far-right of organisations convicted for arson, GBH and possession of explosives, acting in the name of a virulent racist ideology, are almost never described as terrorists. And neither are their spokespersons.
On the other hand, despite radical ‘preachers of hate’ having been imprisoned (often without trial), extradited, (in the process of being) deported, droned and shut down and Islamic institutions not even entertaining the idea of their ideas, the threat of terrorism not only remains, it is proliferating. But no one is asking properly why.
Community leaders are trying to outdo each other with vociferous condemnations of these attacks. Most Muslims would concur with them entirely, if only they added just a little more regarding the prospective motives behind such attacks. Even MI5’s head clearly stated that the existential terrorism threat to Britain “significantly” and “undoubtedly” increased as a result the 2003 Iraq invasion. It is true that British troops are mostly of Iraq, but they remain fighting everyday – killing and being killed – in Afghanistan. Seeking to give an explanation – a motive, a crucial ingredient in any crime – should not be conflated with justification, but Muslim leaders need to feel unafraid to do so.
A Cub Scout leader who approached one of the attackers, who’s blood-soaked hands were holding butchers’ knives as he stood over the soldier’s corpse, had the courage to ask him why he did it. The response, as indefensible as it may sound, is the one recurrent theme of every terrorist attack – real or imagined – that has occurred in this country since 7th July 2005.