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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt