LONDON // It was, perhaps, too good to last. In the wake of the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge attacks, British Muslim communities have been increasingly on edge, fearing a violent backlash against acts in which they played no part, and for which they felt only horror and revulsion.
When it finally came, just after midnight on Sunday, politicians and commentators alike were quick to condemn the actions of the white van driver who mowed down worshippers outside the Finsbury Park Mosque as terrorism. British prime minister Theresa May said the attack was “every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life”, as the atrocities in London and Manchester had been.
It took the police just eight minutes to declare the attack a terrorist incident. Just as armed officers had been dispatched to vulnerable targets in the wake of the Manchester bombing, so Scotland Yard announced patrols would be sent to guard mosques across the capital.
British authorities are treading a fine line, anxious to be seen to be taking the attack as seriously as possible, while also keen to stress that the 48-year-old attacker was a disturbed individual with mental health problems.
On Monday evening, hundreds of people of all faiths and none attended a vigil outside Finsbury Park Mosque. Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists stood silently side by side and, carrying banners with messages such as “Love will win, terror will lose” and “United against all terror”, the show of unity seemed intended to offer reassurance that, at the end of the day, all was well.
“An attack on the Muslim community is an attack on every single citizen in Great Britain,” Rabbi Herschel Gluck told the crowd. “We are one nation, under one god, living together, working together, co-operating together in this country.” An attack on one faith, said the Rt Rev Adrian Newman, the Bishop of Stepney, “is an attack on us all”.
Standing alongside Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Mohammed Kozbar, chair of the mosque, said that, whatever their creed or colour, it was the aim of “extremists … to divide our communities … to spread hatred, fear and division”. His message to them was “we will not let you do that”.
But the vigil did not paint a true picture of the increasingly tense situation in which Muslims find themselves in the UK.
On Monday, the Muslim Council of Great Britain, an umbrella body representing over 500 mosques, organisations, charities and schools, pointed out that “over the past weeks and months, Muslims have endured many incidents of Islamophobia”. The van attack on the Finsbury Park worshippers, said the council’s secretary-general, Harun Khan, was merely “the most violent manifestation to date”. According to the police, the daily number of reported anti-Muslim hate crimes in the capital spiked after the London Bridge attack, rising to 20 immediately afterwards, up from a typical average of 3.5 a day.
Tell Mama, a project run by Faith Matters, a counter-extremism think-tank, collates reports of incidents of Islamaphobia in the UK. Examples are added to its catalogue of hate almost daily, and they make for shocking reading. In the past few months, a bag of vomit was thrown at a woman in the Blackburn area; worshippers in Cambridge left their mosque to find bacon had been draped over their cars; and in Rotherham, a northern city with a large Asian population, Muslims were said by the local paper to be “resigned” to being “spat at, abused and intimidated”.
“I am very sensitive about promoting a sense of victimisation but when I speak to Muslim communities and ask if anyone has come across examples of hate, virtually everyone’s hand will go up,” Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, told The National. “This is not acceptable. It is time to take seriously the extremist threat from the right.”
Examples of harassment and worse are legion. Mr Mughal said that he himself spent four and a half years trying but failing to secure police help to deal with a man who was harassing him online. The man was finally jailed – for just three months – but only when Mr Mughal brought a civil action against him.
“People look at a 61-year-old white guy and think ‘He can’t be an extremist’, even though he’s involved in some of the worst anti-Muslim sites we know and has crossed the criminal threshold for harassment. ‘He’s just a granddad, isn’t he?’ But they look at an Asian guy and say ‘He must be guilty’, and this is our reality.”
For a Muslim family in south London earlier this month, that reality meant receiving hand-delivered hate mail, warning them to “Leave or you will be among the first to die”. Killing Muslims, the note continued, “is no longer murder. It is pest control.”
In Salford, Naveed Yasin, a surgeon who had spent 48 hours saving the lives of victims of the Manchester Arena bomb attack, was abused as he sat in traffic on his way back to work at the hospital. “Go back to your country, you terrorist,” the white, middle-aged driver of a van screamed at him. “We don’t want you people here.”
Mr Mughal said it was right and proper that the London mayor, politicians and religious leaders had stood shoulder-to-shoulder in condemning the Finsbury mosque attack. But it would be “a big mistake” to pretend that Britain was one big, happy, multicultural family.
Right-wing online networks “are creating exactly the same radicalisation triggers as Islamist extremist material”, he said. The Home Office “knows what the problem is but is scared to do anything”, a situation exacerbated by the weakness of Mrs May’s lame duck government which is now more dependent than ever before on far-right voters.