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
Photo: Getty Images
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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.