Facing the aftermath: putting the Woolwich attack in context

Targeting a community at large for the criminal activity of a few is unacceptable.

 

For many of us who heard the breaking news yesterday our stomachs clenched with sickness. To hear of such a violent killing in broad daylight so close to home is enough to make most people review the concept of humanity. Our thoughts immediately turned to the victim so callously murdered, for his family so carelessly bereft of a member and living soul. It was a shock to us all.

Unfortunately, for many Muslims, this sickening feeling is likely to have been exacerbated with an added dose of anxiety that for over a decade at least has become troublingly familiar. While our friends of different communities were left to mourn for the victim and his family, we were additionally caught up in anxious thoughts of who the killers were.

“Please let them not claim to be Muslim,” many of us silently prayed. The impending media narratives likely to affect and implicate the entire British Muslim community, and the tide of anguish and hate that frequently follows, was a familiar scene we hoped would not be repeated. In recent weeks, a similar fear was expressed and realised in the US in the wake of the Boston bombing; this phenomenon is neither new nor isolated.

So, when these fears were confirmed, with reports emerging stating that one of the perpetrators was quoting the Qur’an to an ITV news crew and the victim was potentially a British soldier, our already-sunken hearts sank further.

Swiftly the language changed with depressing predictability; this attack was now a “terror attack”. Prime Minister David Cameron stated "The terrorists never win because they cannot defeat the values we hold dear". The government’s emergency response committee, Cobra, immediately met with another meeting planned today and the Director General of MI5 was called in and briefed. The stage was set and our press was prepared. Everyone from the Telegraph to the Mirror spoke of “Terrorists” while BBC’s Dominic Caciani was quick to consider the role of al-Qaeda and ruminate on “radical Islamism”.

But as of yet, the actual details of the incident are sketchy and conflicting, including the types of weapons being used – particularly following police arrival. And with footage emerging of a single man with bloodied hands strolling and justifying his actions to people with an unsettlingly casual air of self-confidence, we cannot say with certainty that he represented any group. In the absence of actual police investigations, jumping to conclusions is not only premature, it is irresponsible.

Both the government and, more so, the press have stoked a familiar flame that has manifested in troubling ways on our streets since. While the Muslim Council of Britain joined many Muslims in condemnation, stating that “this is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and we condemn this unreservedly”, soon after, they were reporting attacks on Gillingham and Braintree Mosques, while a balaclava-clad violent English Defence League mob had gathered in Woolwich.

These events are symptomatic of the brunt that must be borne by an entire community due to the irresponsible reporting on the actions of individual men and the free association that too often come into practice as a result. To target a community at large for the criminal activity of a few is akin to targeting the entire Jewish community for Israel’s actions in operation Cast Lead; it is illogical, unjust and wrong. 

This generation of young British Muslims has been, in a manner, cursed. Even youngsters (ourselves included) at schools, colleges and universities have had to become spokespeople defending their innocence in playgrounds and classrooms in the midst of horrific crimes since 9/11, crimes that target and affect them as much as they do any other Briton.

We don’t want to apologise for a crime we did not commit and we don’t want to be irrationally lumped with people who’ve destroyed a life or more. We are part and parcel of British society – going to university, paying our taxes, eating at Nando’s – and we want to mourn for the victims without being enshrouded in doubt, or in some cases, openly attacked.

Today, our thoughts are with the family of the unnamed victim who was butchered in Woolwich, just as they were for the families of the man who was axed and beheaded on a London street in 2005 (interestingly not termed a “terror attack”), for the 17-year-old Aamir Siddiqui who was murdered in front of his parents in Cardiff in 2010, and for Robert and Patricia Seddon, who were shot dead by their son Stephen with a sawn-off shotgun in Manchester in 2012.

One of the Woolwich suspects has been quoted to have declared God is Great. God is indeed Great. He taught us to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions rather than answer for the sins of others (Qur’an 3:185), to act with justice and mercy (Qur’an 60:8) and that to kill one person is equivalent to killing the whole of humanity (Qur’an 5:32).

One man’s opportunistic misreading of God’s word should not precipitate into the en masse misreading of a community.

As we now pray for the victims of this crime, we also recall the Qur’anic teaching, all the more relevant at this time: “the servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on the earth, and who, when aggressive people address them, reply with words of peace.” (Qur’an 25:63)

Lubaaba Amatullah and Zainab Rahim are joint editors-in-chief of The Platform, a current affairs and cultural commentary site launched to allow young people to tell their own stories. 

Soldiers walk past a flag flying at half-mast at Woolwich barracks. Photograph: Getty Images
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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era