Islamophobia and violent extremism: tackling the twin-menace head on

Faith and conviction cannot be burnt by the flames of hatred.

"We should not allow the murder of Lee Rigby to come between Londoners. The unified response we have seen to his death across all communities will triumph over those who seek to divide us", said Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, matching his determination with a decision to increase 24-hour police patrols around potentially "vulnerable" locations.

This has reassured London’s wary Muslim population and given a pointed message to potential perpetrators of further attacks on Muslim places in our great city of London.

This decisive step comes after fire-fighters were called to a Darul Uloom boarding school in Chislehurst in south-east London in the early hours of 9 June, the second suspicious fire within a week; almost 130 pupils and staff were evacuated from the religious seminary.

The first fire on 5 June flattened an Islamic centre, run by the Somali Bravanese community in Muswell Hill in north London. The centre was used by the younger generation as a place for learning, as well as by members of the local community for social interaction and physical and spiritual development. Since the shocking incidence the community has been deeply touched by the overwhelming messages of support from local neighbours, politicians, community associations, faith, interfaith and non-faith organisations, as well as numerous individuals.

In our recent visit to the burned down centre we were heartened to see a unique community spirit that has brought people together. The Chairman, traumatised by the destruction of the complex, was full of praise for the London Fire Brigade who took appropriate steps to prevent the fire spreading to neighbours and the Metropolitan Police for laudably reassuring the local community with their physical presence. He was resolute when he said: “Together we will not let this tragic incident divide us. We have lost an important building in our community, but we will remain strong and steadfast and, with the help of all those who have supported us, we will rebuild our community centre. It will once again become a beacon for cohesion, social action and friendship."

Faith and conviction cannot be burnt by the flames of hatred.

With Lee Rigby murder on 22 May our country faces two major political and social challenges of our time that need tough handling by all of us, the government and citizens, with resolve and wisdom – one, the utter criminality cloaked under the guise of politics or religion by a few deranged individuals in the periphery of the Muslim community who are putting the whole community on the dock; and secondly, the violent response from far right activists that frightens Muslims and divisive narrative by some columnists that poisons ordinary people’s mind against the Muslim community.  Both are dangerous and they need to be challenged head on; they feed on each other.

Lee Rigby’s killers were known to be linked with the extremist group (Al-Muhajiroun) that was banned a few years ago. The group re-emerges in variant forms with the same message of hate and as far as I am aware, mosques and Islamic centres up and down the country are a ‘no go area’ for this group; the Muslim community has ostracised them, but sadly some of our national media provide them with disproportionate oxygen of publicity for probably offering sensational news to people.

On the other hand, the far right group (English Defence League) that emerged in 2009 with some football hooligans had organised series of violent protests against mosques across the country. Thankfully, they have also been ostracised by the mainstream society and the political establishment.

In order to defeat this twin-menace w e need to be careful on our words and language; they matter, especially if they come from senior public figures. Our former Prime Minister Tony Blair who has a strong ideological view on Muslim issues (“There is a problem within Islam...”) has recently made a ‘brave assault on Muslim Extremism after Woolwich attack’; this has the potential of further undermining the positive work done by the Muslim community and also giving ammunition to the far right group. Tony Blair took us to a disastrous war against the will of majority British people in 2003; he, according to Prof John Esposito from Georgetown University in Washington, has misread Muslim terrorism.

The root cause that separate people in any society is ignorance that leads to fear of unknown. The local communities across the country generally get on well with one another, due to the fact that there is a lesser amount of ignorance among them and more public interaction in their daily life. They are served by the local police, religious or community centres and other civic organisations.

But, nationally and regionally, we very much need to find creative ways to bring our diverse people together. Pragmatic political decisions by our politicians, more constructive role by our media and judicious comments by powerful individuals are what we need today to spread the message of realistic hope and allay fear of others; we all have a duty to dispel myths surrounding other communities. This needs a clear strategy and inclusive approach by people in authority - political and civil, Muslims and non-Muslims, religious and non-religious.

Downplaying the seriousness of violent extremism or retaliatory anti-Muslim prejudice by any will be a grave mistake.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant.  Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari


Fire officers outside the burned down Islamic centre in Muswell Hill, north London. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant. Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.