After the senseless attack Sunday night, when Darren Osborne drove a white van at worshippers leaving Ramadan prayers in north London, naturally our focus should have been on the victims (one man killed, 10 injured), on the threat of terror to all of us, and on addressing the fears of Muslims under attack.
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Indeed, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement outside Downing Street on Monday that the Finsbury Park attack was "every bit as sickening" as other recent terror attacks in Britain. May went on to say that, “terrorism, extremism and hatred take many forms; and our determination to tackle them must be the same whoever is responsible.”
Yet, despite this, far too much media attention, not least in the UK, has focused on the historic ties, a decade ago, Finsbury Park mosque had to Islamist extremists. The effect of this constant reminder of the ‘context’ of the attack is clear: the Muslim victims aren’t quite as innocent as the others targeted in the recent series of terrorist attacks to have hit the UK.
This is hardly surprising: Muslims in Britain, and their media portrayal, are often framed through the prism of terrorism. And the atmosphere against UK Muslims has become truly toxic following the recent attacks in London and Manchester. Fired up by the right-wing tabloids that are happy to dehumanize Muslims, it is now the norm to incite hatred against them and to vilify them on a daily basis.
Unsurprisingly there has been a recent accompanying rise in Islamphobic attacks. It’s already established precedent that following a terrorist incident, anti-Muslim violence spikes. In particular mosques have become the frontline of recent anti-Muslim attacks: according to Tell MAMA, an organisation monitoring anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, over 100 mosques were targeted and attacked from May 2013 to September 2016. The Muslim Association of Britain has called Sunday’s attack “the most violent manifestation” of Islamphobia and it has called for extra security outside mosques.
We in Britain must now take the threat from Islamphobic extremism seriously.
The attacker, Darren Osborne, a 47 year old from Cardiff, deliberately targeted Muslims; witnesses heard him shout, “I want to kill all Muslims”. One in four extremists reported to the UK government’s Prevent program, a counter-terrorism initiative, controversial in some quarters, that was introduced in 2003 to dissuade radicalization and the support for terrorism, are far-right extremists. We in Britain need to talk about not just the radicalization of young Muslim men, but the radicalization of young white men too – those who are attracted to Britain’s growing far right extremist groups.
When it comes to terrorism, Muslim communities rightly perceive that the focus is overtly, even exclusively, upon Muslim communities. Finsbury Park makes clear that all forms of terrorism, whatever their ideological motivations, must be treated equally. Last June Thomas Mair shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox MP. Though Mair was found guilty of a terrorist murder, he was treated by the media as mentally ill, or a ‘lone wolf’ extremist, when in fact he was a neo-Nazi killer with numerous links to others far-right organizations and individuals, and was driven to commit a heinous act of political assassination by a far-right fascist ideology.
Finsbury Park was always an unusual mosque because it was not officially linked to the umbrella community organization, the Muslim Association of Britain; and the worshippers were made up of an eclectic mix of Muslims - Algerians, Afghan, Moroccans and Somalis, a reflection of its multicultural neighborhood.
Its infamy, now used by the tabloids to modify and restrain the quality of empathy to be offered to Sunday’s victims, originated in the character and teaching of its former imam, the extremist preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri. An Egyptian radical, he arrived in Britain in 1979, became a naturalized British citizen, and led the mosque from 1997 until 2003.
For several years as a teenager, I attended the Finsbury Park Mosque, and Abu Hamza was my preacher. I remember him with fear; he was a larger-than-life character who dominated mosque life. During Friday prayers he would go into long sermons, usually about the dangers of mixing freely with non-Muslims, warning us about the dangers of becoming too British, and of following their habit of engaging in pre-marital sex.
Abu Hamza sought to create divisions and anxiety in the local community. He would hold large prayers on the street outside the mosque, which drew the attention of the media and police. In 2003 the police raided the mosque and returned it to its trustees. And in 2004 Abu Hamza was arrested on terrorism offences. By 2005 the mosque had come under mainstream community control and Muslims themselves had driven out the radicals. In fact, the Finsbury Park Mosque has become a symbol of how Muslim-led organising can successfully fight against extremism within Muslim communities.
This is now the fourth terrorist attack on British soil in less than three months. But London is a resilient city; the community around Finsbury Park Mosque has come together and shown that our best defense against terrorism is our unity. Nor must we allow Sunday night’s horrendous attack to further sow the seeds of division and mistrust.
But, it’s also clear we in the UK have an issue with terrorism, whether from the far-right variety or from Islamist extremism. For the UK’s Muslim community, the statistics are troubling. 850 people from the U.K. have travelled to support or fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We’ve had 400 young British jihadi fighters return from Syria, and many others who stayed in the U.K., prevented from leaving to fight.
We already know the post-9/11 anti-radicalization and counter-terror responses to extremism in the Muslim community have largely failed, while hostility towards the UK Muslim community from the mainstreaming of nationalist, exclusionary rhetoric has grown. We can’t respond as a society by stigmatizing Muslims, nor by pandering to populist anti-Muslim rhetoric. We need to do much more as a community to draw people away from becoming radicalized in the first place.
More than a decade has passed since Britain’s worst terrorist attacks, the 2005 public transport suicide bombings, yet, arguably, Britain today faces an more critical threat from terrorists. Abu Hamza was pushed out of Finsbury Park mosque long ago. But Britain, and we in its Muslim community, know countering the endless motivation of extremists is a struggle from which we can’t ever rest, nor become complacent.
What we hope is that, as right-wing extremism becomes more tangible and violent, someone will be covering our backs too.
Ismail Einashe is a freelance journalist based in London and a Dart Center Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School. Follow him on Twitter: @IsmailEinashe