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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue