“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