Let us be clear: The person who carries prime responsibility for the attack outside a mosque in Finsbury Park is the man who chose to drive a van into a crowd of people. But just as we should ask what ideas, ideologies, and events motivated Khalid Masood to drive his car into a crowd on Westminster Bridge, or Salman Ramadan Abedi to blow up children at a concert in Manchester, or Khuram Butt and his associates to carry out their disgusting attack on London Bridge, we should also ask what may have contributed to last night’s attack in Finsbury Park.
The key here is that the attacker is said to have shouted: “I want to kill all Muslims.” He didn’t shout: “I want to kill Muslim terrorists,” nor did he want to kill the perpetrators of the recent spate of Islamist terrorist attacks. He said he wanted to kill “all” Muslims. This is what happens when we foster a climate of collective responsibility, when a whole community is held responsible for the actions of an individual.
Despite Britain’s Muslim community being best understood as a hugely diverse “community of communities,” all too-often anti-Muslim activists and even mainstream media outlets homogenize the community into a single monolithic block, often characterized by its most extreme and violent elements.
Just as Islamists rationalize their murder by homogenizing “the West” or non-Muslims as “the enemy,” anti-Muslim activists legitimize their Islamophobia by holding a fictionalized and caricatured Muslim “community” collectively responsible for the actions of a tiny minority of Muslims.
This idea of collective responsibility is why we so often see spikes in hate crime against Muslims in the wake of Islamist terror attacks. In the days following the London Bridge attack, for example, there was a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks and a 40 percent increase in racist incidents. Sadly, this type of reaction seems to be getting more prevalent—this represent a larger increase than in the wake of the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013.
With Stephen Lennons (aka Tommy Robinson)’s departure from the far-right English Defence League (EDL) back in 2013, the U.K. anti-Muslim street protest movement fractured into a number of regionally-based splinter groups. That meant the days of mass demonstrations came to an end.
Lennon’s own efforts to launch a U.K. branch of the German anti-Muslim group Pegida was an abject failure and petered out after a few small and uneventful demonstrations in Birmingham. However, last weekend in Manchester, as many as 2,000 people crowded into Piccadilly Gardens—creating scenes not seen in a British city center since the heyday of the violent English Defence League (EDL).
There was also a strong contingent from Lennon’s failed Pegida project, with former press secretary Jack Bucky, also of the anti-Muslim “counter-jihad ” political party Liberty GB, in attendance. One of the biggest cheers of the day was reserved for former Pegida U.K. leader Anne Marie Waters, of the anti-Muslim Sharia Watch UK, when she announced to the crowd her intentions to stand as leader of UKIP, a move in line with the party’s increasingly anti-Muslim platform.
Whether the march is the start of a “new” anti-Muslim protest movement of note or whether the large numbers were merely the result of quite understandable anger in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks, only time will tell. Lennon finished the event by announcing a demonstration in London on 25 June which will go some way to answering that question.
In addition to Lennon and his U.K. Against Hate enterprise are a whole plethora of other domestic anti-Muslim street groups. The English Defence League has limped on despite Lennon’s exit, but is a shadow of its former self. There are also a number of violent regional groups like the North East Infidels, the North West Infidels, South East Alliance and the Sunderland Defence League which all continue to push anti-Muslim prejudice on the streets.
While large anti-Muslim demonstrations such as the recent U.K. Against Hate march in Manchester are important, they only tell us part of the story. To fully understand Islamophobia in the U.K. we have to look at online, as well as offline activity. Take for example the notorious Britain First that, while managing to muster tiny numbers at demonstrations, has a staggering online reach—with over 1.89 million likes on Facebook alone.
Far-right individuals and groups are now reaching numbers of people that would once have been inconceivable. This is especially worrying considering they now have the ability to affect and even manipulate the narrative following tragic events such as the Westminster terror attack.
Shockingly, the 10th most viewed video in the U.K. on the day of the Westminster terrorist attack (and the most viewed video relating to the events out of the top 50 trending videos) was from Stephen Lennon, whose video for far-right alternative media channel Rebel Media lambasted both the mainstream media and the left for not blaming Islam. For some, Lennon has clearly become a go-to voice in the wake of attacks and even on Monday, following the Finsbury mosque attack, Tommy Robinson began to trend on Twitter across the U.K.
Similarly worrying is that in the aftermath of the attack, the most-mentioned Twitter account in Britain was for Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large for the far-right American conspiracy and fake news site InfoWars. He launched his YouTube channel in July 2011 and now has over 950,000 subscribers; it has had over 206 million views, with individual videos regularly being viewed over half-a-million times and some over several million times.
The online reach of these activists means we can no longer measure the scale and influence of the anti-Muslim movement by the size of its street demonstrations.
One thing we must avoid is tricking ourselves into believing that anti-Muslim prejudice is the preserve of the far right. The worrying reality is that in Britain there has been a creeping process of normalisation of anti-Muslim rhetoric, with some mainstream media outlets such as The Daily Mail , The Sun and The Daily Express and some politicians adopting positions not dissimilar to those promoted by anti-Muslim “counter-jihadists.”
As with much of the rest of Europe the 2015 migrant crisis and the wave of terrorist attacks on the continent contributed to wider anti-Muslim prejudice. But, in 2016 Britain also held a referendum on its membership of the European Union. While there were legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate, there was often a toxic atmosphere when it came to discussions about immigration, much of which was centered on Muslim refugees.
A recent report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) criticized rising “racist violence and hate speech” by both the press and politicians in the wake of the Brexit vote. ECRI chair Christian Ahlund said: “It is no coincidence that racist violence is on the rise in the U.K. at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in the newspapers, online and even among politicians.”
So, while we must oppose anti-Muslim street movements and monitor online Islamophobia, we must also challenge anti-Muslim prejudice when it emanates from the mainstream. After all, street protest movements are usually the result of anti-Muslim prejudice rather than the cause.
But with all that said, we must continue to remember the positives.
Britain remains a generally tolerant and welcoming country and while we face huge challenges and must fight prejudice wherever we find it, it is worth remembering that the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which an explicitly Islamophobic manifesto, had a dreadful general election. Despite a succession of terrible violent extremist attacks in the run up to the June 8 elections, the xenophobic backlash didn’t materialize as many of us had expected.
This follows the Conservative politician Zac Goldsmith’s failed attempt to become London Mayor by disgracefully whipping up distrust against his Muslim opponent Sadiq Khan—again showing that prejudice alone is not enough to win an election in Britain.
In the wake of every attack we have seen remarkable examples of people coming together from all faiths and none, bonded by a common humanity. Britain remains one the most open and welcoming countries in the world where the vast majority of people reject the politics of prejudice offered by Stephen Lennon. In troubling times like today, it’s worth remembering that.
Displayed with permission from Newsweek
Dr Joe Mulhall is Senior Researcher at anti-racism campaign, HOPE not hate. He tweets @JoeMulhall_