June 19, 2017
Like many of London’s Muslims, Mohammed
Abdullah grew tired of defending himself, and his religion, after Islamist
terrorists carried out two attacks in the city and another in Manchester during
the past three months. Hostile glances followed him on the street, and rising
fury greeted him on social media.
Then came last week’s devastating fire at
Grenfell Tower, a citywide tragedy that killed at least 79 people inside the
24-story tower, including many Muslims. “Good riddance,” one far-right forum
But early Monday, a white British man
rammed a rental van into a congregation of Muslims leaving prayers during
Ramadan, the holiest month on the Muslim calendar. One person was killed and at
least 10 were injured.
“It feels like you’re under siege,” said
Mr. Abdullah, 23, a law student standing outside Finsbury Park Mosque in North
London on Monday morning hours after the attack. “I wonder,” he said, “is
anyone going to write about a ‘white Christian terrorist’ this time round?”
London may be the most diverse and tolerant
city in the world and is home to more than one million Muslims from dozens of
countries. The city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is Muslim, and he enjoys broad support
outside the Muslim community, too. When Britain voted to leave the European
Union, London voted to stay.
But this proudly cosmopolitan city is now
confronted with the tensions and ugliness that have been simmering on the
fringes for years and are boiling to the surface.
As Hamdan Omar, another student who grew up
in the area, put it, “There are people on both sides who want the clash of
The man under investigation for the mosque
attack was identified by the police as Darren Osborne, 47, of Cardiff, Wales.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been criticized for her response to the
Grenfell fire, denounced the assault as an act of “evil” and “hatred” and
promised to bolster security at mosques.
The authorities said they were treating the
attack as an act of terrorism against Muslims, while many of the city’s Muslim
leaders pleaded for calm and warned against a rising tide of anti-Islamic
“Over the past weeks and months, Muslims
have endured many incidents of Islamophobia, and this is the most violent
manifestation to date,” said Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim
Council of Britain.
In the week after the June 3 terrorist
attack on London Bridge and at Borough Market that killed eight people and was
carried out by three men inspired by the Islamic State, the Metropolitan Police
reported 120 Islamophobic events, compared with 36 the previous week. Similar
increases were recorded after the terrorist attacks in March on Westminster
Bridge in London, and in May at the Manchester Arena.
On Monday in Finsbury Park, one of London’s
many diverse neighbourhoods, residents left flowers and messages of solidarity
outside the mosque.
“With love, sympathy and support to our
Muslim neighbours, victims of this horrific act of terrorism,” one handwritten
note read. “This does not represent Finsbury Park,” another read.
The children of a local school had drawn a
colourful, even cheerful, sign: “One Community. Standing Together.”
By late morning, the initial fear and shock
over the attack had given way to anger — anger at the government and at the
news media for too often amalgamating Islam and Islamists. But by the
afternoon, another sentiment made itself heard powerfully here: defiance.
“Things like this will only strengthen
London,” said Mr. Abdullah, the law student. His grandfather and father had
both been praying at the mosque before the attack and were inside when it
happened. “An event like this will be met with resilience.”
Uba Osman, 20, a local business manager,
concurred: “There are some people who are trying to divide us,” she said. “But
they won’t divide us. Londoners are not like that.”
There was a sense of relief here, carefully
expressed, that the man suspected in the attack was not from the city.
“Somehow, it would have been even worse if he had been from our city,” said
Zahra Mounia, 45, a mother of two who lives in South London but traveled here
to see a friend after the attack. “We are so proud of this city and what it
Attacks in Britain
An attack at a London mosque is being
investigated as terrorism. Britain has seen several such assaults recently.
March 22: Westminster Bridge A 52-year-old
Briton drove into pedestrians, killing five people. He then fatally stabbed a
police officer before being shot and killed near Parliament.
May 22: Manchester ArenaA 22-year-old
resident of Manchester, England, killed 22 people, many of them children, and
injured dozens in a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande show.
June 3: London Bridge Three men in their
twenties and early thirties rammed pedestrians with a van, then rampaged a
popular nightspot with knives. Eight people died, and dozens more were wounded.
The police killed the assailants.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility
for all three attacks. The group considers anyone whose actions were inspired
by it to essentially be a member.
But some worried London’s tolerance was
fraying on the edges, too. Over the past three months, as Islamist militants
struck three times, several residents said they experienced small but
unsettling episodes of hostility.
“In London, people feel they must tolerate
you, so they won’t say anything but you get the dirty looks, people avoiding
eye contact,” said Suzanne Stone, 42, a convert to Islam and a writer of
children’s books. “My friend outside of London gets real abuse.”
Her husband, Omar Faruq, said he worried
about some of the things in the news media. “They say things on the radio and
are not held to account,” he said, recalling one show in which a member of the
far-right anti-Muslim English Defence League “was calling on people to form
Mr. Faruq was also concerned that the
government might further stigmatize Muslims by expanding the country’s already
powerful antiterrorism legislation. “Now there is a lot of talk about
nonviolent extremism,” he said. “What does that mean? If you don’t believe in a
certain way, you are extremist? Everything is extremism now.”
He pointed out the way the news media had
been quick to identify Finsbury Park Mosque as a former hotbed of
radicalization. He wondered if that was appropriate. “It just takes away that
little bit of sympathy,” he said.
Details matter. That is something many
people here said on Monday. It was Muslims, awake because of Ramadan, who saved
a lot of lives in Grenfell Tower by waking up neighbours and alerting the fire
department. And it was an imam of the Muslim Welfare House who helped form a
protective ring around the van driver on Monday before the police arrested him.
“How many people know that?” asked Omar Hussain, a community worker.
Language matters, too. When The Daily Mail
initially described the assailant outside the mosque as a “white van driver”
rather than a terrorist, Muslims were not alone in their indignation. J. K.
Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” books, criticized The Mail, an
influential right-wing tabloid, for the way it referred to him. “The Mail has
misspelled ‘terrorist’ as ‘white van driver,’” she wrote, but later deleted, on
Twitter. “Now let’s discuss how he was radicalised.”
One answer, said Jacob Davey of the
Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who analyzes extremist online narratives, is
that Islamist militants and far-right extremists have fed on one another’s
hatred to recruit people for their causes.
After the Grenfell fire, the English
Defence League posted an image of the tower on Facebook (later removed) with
the caption: “They say Ramadan saved Lives. It would be the first time Islam
In another Facebook thread about Monday’s
mosque attack, one comment read, “What do you expect?” Another, “Civil war has
Meanwhile, on Ummah News, a forum that
supports the Islamic State, commenters reacted to the Monday attack by calling
for Muslims to fight back: “Oh Muslims you need to wake up the war is starting
now in your own streets outside your own Masajids. Your elders could be killed;
your sisters could be attacked. They hate your Oh Muslims.”
Nazir Afzal, who was once the acting chief
prosecutor for London and has lived in the city for 20 years, said it was a
powerful message to people “on the cusp of radicalization.”
In Finsbury Park, some linked last year’s
vote to leave the European Union to a change in atmosphere in the country that
also left its mark on London, its opposition to the British exit
“Since the ‘Brexit’ vote, things have been
crazy,” said Mr. Abdullah, the law student. “The spotlight is on minorities.
The signal is, ‘You’re not wanted here.’”
Brendan Cox, whose wife, Jo Cox, a Member
of Parliament, was shot and killed a week before the referendum by a right-wing
extremist, urged the country to fight hateful ideology against Muslims, just as
much as it was fighting Islamist militancy.
“When Islamist terrorists attack we rightly
seek out hate preachers who spur them on,” Mr. Cox wrote on Twitter. “We must
do the same to those who peddle Islamophobia.”
Mendy Korer, the rabbi of Islington, one of
many local faith leaders who had come to Finsbury to show solidarity, said he
was confident the local community would beat hatred. “We have a duty to break
that cycle,” he said.
Not everyone was so optimistic.
“I think it could escalate,” said Shiraz
Kothia of the London Muslim Community Forum, who helps the Metropolitan Police
to manage community relations during major episodes like this. “We’ve got the
right-wing extremists and we’ve got the Muslim extremists.”
“I’m really worried,” he added. “Today
outside a Muslim mosque. Tomorrow outside a church?”