The terror attack targeting Muslims in north London in the early hours of Monday morning was a clear attempt to sow division between communities in the UK. For all the potential dangers, it’s unlikely to succeed.
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Communal relations in this diverse city can be complicated. Finsbury Park mosque, the site of the attack in which one person was killed, was once notorious for the Islamist extremism of some of its leaders.
From the late 1990s it served as the base for Abu Hamza al-Masri, a cartoonish one-eyed, hook-handed preacher who boasted that he’d sustained his gruesome injuries while fighting jihad in Afghanistan.
Under his control, a series of al-Qaeda operatives passed through the mosque, including the so-called shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, linked to the 9/11 plot. There were reports of hand-to-hand combat and weapons training inside the center, which became a by-word for radicalization.
Eventually, in 2003, after more than 100 police officers raided the mosque in an counter-terror operation, it was shut down and Abu Hamza was sacked.
Undeterred, he and a series of his acolytes continued to hold heavily-policed services in the street outside the mosque. He was finally arrested, convicted of charges of incitement to murder and to racial hatred, and jailed in the UK for seven years for his links to terror and subsequently extradited to the U.S. where he is now serving a life sentence.
These connections have made Finsbury Park one of the best-known mosques in London, if not the UK, and as such it has previously been a target for anti-Muslim hate crimes. As well as the abusive emails and the threatening letters that tend to follow terror incidents elsewhere in Europe, in December 2015 the center was targeted in an attempted arson attack.
But in the years since Abu Hamza’s tenure, the mosque’s management has worked hard to turn a place with such a grim reputation into a friendly and open resource.
There has been concerted efforts to reach out to the wider community in Finsbury Park, an ordinary north London neighborhood with a ragtag of kebab shops, small businesses and everything-for-a-pound outlets, with a smattering of gentrification. It’s certainly not a shariah-controlled “no-go” area, as some in the right wing press both in the UK and the U.S. may try and portray it (no such areas exist in London).
The mosque’s turnaround has focused on community outreach and public displays of transparency. As during every Ramadan, interfaith iftars were being held this year, and relations with the local Jewish community are cordial. Local and national Jewish groups rushed to offer their expressions of solidarity immediately after Monday’s attack.
The official response was also urgent and serious. Police responded within a minute of the attack, and it was deemed a terrorist incident within eight minutes. Theresa May convened a meeting of Cobra, the acronym used in the U.K. for the cross-departmental committee that responds to national emergencies, the following morning.
PM Theresa May and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid toured the site of the attack (Labour leader and constituency MP Jeremy Corbyn, who lives nearby and attended an iftar at the mosque last week, had already visited twice by mid-morning).
And as has been the case after the three terror attacks that took place in recent months – in Westminster, at a pop concert in Manchester and most recently at London Bridge – the public response has been one of solidarity. That mood was crystalized further by the horrific fire in the Grenfell tower block in west London in which dozens of people, many from immigrant and Muslim background, have died.
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do, stick together all of us,” was what a staff member at Finsbury Park wrote on the underground station’s noticeboard on Monday morning.
There has been some vile social media chatter about a “white fight back” and nasty tabloid musings that the mosque’s history meant the community had somehow brought it upon itself. But in general, the early public reaction has been very much that this is an attack on British multiculturalism and the wider society. It has also highlighted that Islamist terrorism is not the only threat the country faces.
The attack came the day after the first “Great Get-Together”, a national community-based event in memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered a year ago by a right-wing extremist.
And although Islamist extremism gets more play in the tabloids, other forms of hate crime remain a serious threat.
A quarter of referrals to the UK’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy, which aims to identify and halt potential extremists, are related to the extreme right, and these numbers have been growing. In some areas of the country, far-right referrals outnumber those related to Islamist extremism.
There has been no claim of responsibility for Monday’s attack and it’s hard to imagine that one would be credible. There is no efficient or coherent organization of far-right activists in the UK, but then as Cox’s murder and the attack Monday has shown, a sophisticated network is not necessary to wreak death and chaos.
It’s clear that the far-right and Islamists have a sometimes symbiotic relationship. Both oppose multiculturalism and feed off each other when it comes to the concept of sparking an apocalyptic religious-cultural war.
Despite the outpouring of sympathy and statements of solidarity, the violence of recent months cannot but have an impact. This is an ongoing danger that the UK must now reckon with.