Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Finsbury Park mosque attack: why have we allowed Islamophobia to flourish?

The media has cultivated a culture of hostility, which the government has done little to prevent.

An attack on Muslims near Finsbury Park Mosque on Sunday night, as they finished their prayers during the last days of the sacred month of Ramadan, left one man dead and injured ten others. A 47-year-old man from Cardiff called Darren Osborne has been arrested on suspicion of terror offences.

Over the past two years, Finsbury Park Mosque has been threatened or attacked at least twice, including once with a petrol bomb. It is not alone in becoming a target for far right groups.

A week earlier, on the other side of London, volunteers outside East London Mosque were co-ordinating with the charity Islamic Relief to gather emergency supplies for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. In the midst of this, Paul Golding and other members of Britain First turned up to make an inflammatory video, calling on the far right group's supporters to take back their country. From what, I asked him. Religious charity workers out to help the needy?

Following the Manchester attack last month, arsonists set fire to an Oldham mosque. Another mosque in Stockton-on-Tees was defaced with graffiti.

We know that in the wake of terrorist attacks, Muslims experience a surge in hate crimes. But what is being done to understand why regular Muslims are being victimised for the actions of terrorists? Why has Islamophobia become normalised?

The background music to these incidents is the far right rhetoric in the mainstream, which only feeds a sense of vindication among relatively marginal groups that their doctrine of conflict is true.

That normalisation is clear in the near constant inflammatory headlines blurring the lines between Muslims and extremists. In one such example, one of the most widely read papers in the UK, the Sun, featured commentator Douglas Murray declaring that the UK needs “less Islam”. Does anyone care to ask what exactly such statements mean in concrete terms?

Not only has the British government devised no serious policies to counter Islamophobia, but the term itself is contested, as if Muslims were conspiring to create a national self-pity contest.

Commentators are given a platform to claim not only that Islamophobia is not real, but that it’s actually rational to express prejudice towards Muslims on the basis of their religion. The normalisation of hostility towards Islam and Muslims feeds into a dangerous cauldron of broader discontent – immigration, fear of terrorism, racism.

In this atmosphere, the symbols of our faith become politicised. Headscarves and face veils, mosques and prayer rooms, become targets. The consensus is clear – Muslims are a problem.

What kind of a problem you deem them to be typically reveals your political colours. From fifth column to a threat to Britain’s liberal mores, you don’t need membership of the English Defence League to openly declare your concern with the number of Muslims in the UK. You can hear such views aired on Radio 4 or alternatively, read up on "startling" Muslim birth-rates in the Times.

Earlier this month, while referring to Muslims, former LBC presenter Katie Hopkins called for a "final solution", while Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson has called for internment camps. This is the mainstream. Go to the fringes, and former EDL leader Tommy Robinson recently warned militias would "clean out this Islamic problem" and referred to British Muslims as "enemy combatants", presumably meaning they are fair game for attack.

And it’s not that there isn’t sufficient evidence of anti-Muslim prejudice from official statistics and human rights groups. In 2015, hate crime in London had risen 70 per cent, with Muslim women the primary victims.

The monitoring group Tell Mama reported that incidents of anti-Muslim abuse were up by 326 per cent in 2015 across the country, and warned that far right extremists were radicalising people online. It also expressed concerns at the impact of Brexit rhetoric on Muslims.

While the survey found incidents often occurring online, many attacks also happened in the real world, at schools and colleges, in restaurants and on public transport.

As a community, these are not simply numbers – this is someone’s grandfather murdered on his way back from the mosque. It’s a pregnant women losing her baby in a violent attack while shopping in the supermarket. It’s your children being taunted with names like “Bin Laden” or “Isis” at school and asking you why people hate Muslims. It’s a van being driven into your friends as they pray. None of this is theoretical or in question to those on the receiving end of Islamophobia.

Official efforts to tackle mounting Islamophobia have been slow off the ground, and have little to show. In 2012, while a government minister, Sayeeda Warsi formed a working group on anti-Muslim hatred, after previously warning that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test”. Four years on, many participants had jumped ship or openly denounced the lack of action.

One former participant and academic, Matthew Goodwin, spoke of a lack of funding or motivation to take the task seriously. Writing in 2015, he asserted: “During a generally unpleasant four years, the basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred.” He, like others, eventually resigned from the group out of sheer frustration.

As a consequence, there is no government research into the causes of anti-Muslim hate or possible strategies to tackle it. Various "community engagement initiatives", which are meant to assuage concerns but have ultimately not resulted in any concrete solutions, have been bandied about.

And while the government recently announced a hate crime strategy, including funding to tackle it in communities and protect places of worship, this still does not engage with the root causes of Islamophobia.

In her speech following the attack in Finsbury Park, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of the need to tackle "terrorism, extremism and hatred [...] whoever is responsible." This is essential. As is the PM’s recognition of Islamophobia as a form of extremism. Finally, some may say.

But what about tackling the source of that extremism? Where are the studies which could help point out the reasons behind the rise and normalisation of Islamophobia?

It’s high time the government took seriously anti-Muslim hate. Not only for the welfare of Muslim citizens, but also because the lack of attention to this issue feeds into a dangerous dualistic worldview, according to which the government invests in policing Muslims as suspect community, but does little to tackle their concerns. And that’s not good for anyone.

Myriam Francois is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.