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31 August 2017

Manchester after terror – a city divided on how to prevent it again

The devastating attack has left its mark on community relations. 

By Kirstie McCrum

The end of August marked 100 days on from the horrific bombing in Manchester. The city has held hands through #OneLoveManchester, reaffirming a closeness between neighbours.

But while hashtags of togetherness have been abundant, and a reported 10,000 Mancunians were inked with “Manchester bee” tattoos in emotional solidarity with those injured and killed, on social media #WeStandTogether can ring somewhat hollow. 

When Salman Abedi perished in his own suicide bomb attack in Manchester Arena in 22 May 2017, so did his motivations for taking the lives of 22 innocents and injuring countless others. 

But if sowing seeds of division between communities was his intention, he may have succeeded in pushing a wedge between Muslims and their fellow Mancunians. 

Less than three weeks later, on 16 July, the Nasfat Islamic Centre was gutted by fire.

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Comments online included “shame it wasn’t full at the time” and “Go home Muslims your [sic] not welcome”.

Last night a pig’s head was left on the fence outside Taiyabah Masjid mosque in Bolton.

In the week after the Manchester Arena attack, there was a 50 per cent rise in hate crimes, according to figures released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Although a statistical spike was perhaps to be expected, there are still Muslims who feel under siege in Manchester itself.

Dr Abdul Aziz Belattar says that “we stand together” is the message which all Mancunians must adhere to, for the sake of a stronger community.

“It’s not the first time this has happened,” says the community leader, who is chair of the New Muslim Committee in the Muslim Association of Britain in Manchester. “We had the IRA before, but we stood together with the Irish community even through that test.”

For him, it’s a straightforward act which needs to be addressed: “An individual has committed a crime and the court has to deal with it as an individual. We can’t put down the whole community because of one person.”

But Dr Belattar sounds an alarm about how easy it is to reach extremists on any side of the community.

“The preacher has no effect, the family have no effect, the mosque has no effect. It’s social media, the information is there, for 24 hours. In school, we teach children for 23 hours a week – but they’re on social media for seven hours a day.”

One group which knows the social media issues associated with Islamophobia only too well is Didsbury Mosque and Islamic Centre.

It was at the centre of the media storm post-attack, as it was alleged that Abedi had worshipped there. Its leaders denied the claims, but a guard was posted outside the building for many weeks after 22 May. 

Recent comments directed at the mosque on social media include “did the Barcelona bombers happened to have passed by recently? sure u taught them everything u know right [sic]!”

Another tweeter labelled it: “Manchester’s terror recruitment centre”.

The mosque has attracted the attention of Lucy Brown of Rebel Media, which is associated with the former English Defence League head Tommy Robinson. Brown helped to organise the 11 June “UK Against Hate” march in Manchester city centre, which the media reported was hijacked by men wielding pig’s heads.

“We need an answer on what happened at Didsbury Mosque,” she tells me, mentioning an incident from May, where an audience member on Question Time claimed he had gone to an open day at Didsbury Mosque and found anti-West leaflets. 

Brown claims that “Islamophobia is a phrase used to cut people off when they have a legitimate concern”. 

While the far-right may be showing their displeasure on the streets, mainstream politicians are seeking to overhaul counter-terrorism policies in order to come up with a more distinctive approach for the city. Andy Burnham, pledged to review the Prevent strategy during his mayoral campaign, and is expected to launch his new vision in September. 

Councillor Rishi Shori, who leads Bury Council in Greater Manchester, is the co-chair of the commission set up to review the current government legislation. “We’re keen to create a Greater Manchester charter, to create a set of values for the city to live by and doesn’t target religions,” he explains.

“No one wants to see family members injured or killed, we all want to prosper. There is an appetite to work together to stop attacks like this happening again.”

Burnham, who took over the Greater Manchester mayoralty just days before the attack, is adamant that those who blame Muslims, or attempt to intimidate them, are not speaking for Mancunians.

“There’s an organised network of people on the far right who just denigrate anytime there’s an event that brings people together,” he says. “I do not believe they in any way represent the vast majority of public feeling that you see when you go about.

“Most people have drawn strength from the palpable sense of togetherness since the attack, no question about it.”

He says asking the “tough questions” is his goal, and something which will help heal divisions sown by Abedi’s actions.

“There is extremism on all sides, it’s not the sole preserve of one community, and that’s what we have to challenge – those who portray it as a problem of one community are then fuelling it, they fuel division and mistrust, and that’s where things go wrong in my view.”

As for those blaming Muslims online, Burnham says it’s a symptom of the times we live in.

“People say things online that they wouldn’t have said 10 years ago and that fuels a reaction. It is quite scary, and I’m on the receiving end of that quite a bit.

“Extremists are a very small minority of every community, and we need to be better, all of us, at identifying them and challenging them.”


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