Monday, May 27, 2013

Woolwich: the backlash begins

The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby has cast a pall of sadness across the nation. 

Whereas every person with an ounce of humanity has expressed utter disgust at the act, including the leaders of all the major British Muslim groups, other more sinister forces are already exploiting it. There’s evidence that far-right organisations are using the murder to provoke racially motivated unrest and an anti-Muslim backlash.

This manifested itself here in Newcastle on Saturday lunchtime. Normally busy shops put up their shutters and 1,000 officers were drafted in to police our city centre as a march by the English Defence League, expected to attract 500 supporters at most, swelled to three times that number. 

The demonstration was arranged months ago, ostensibly to protest against the Council’s decision to allow the Bishop’s Palace in Benwell to be turned into a fee-paying Islamic school for young people who want to become Islamic scholars and clerics. The redundant Victorian location is best known as the set for Byker Grove, the long-running television series that launched Ant and Dec. The EDL’s website describes the site as “iconic” and objects to its use by “an ultra-conservative Muslim group that promotes intolerant and antiquated attitudes which we believe pose a serious threat to community cohesion and to the long-term security of this country”. 

On Saturday, provoked by a groundswell of feeling caused by Drummer Rigby’s death, at least 1500 people showed up to voice anti-Muslim sentiments across our city’s streets. 

The EDL leader Tommy Robinson, speaking to the crowd in Newcastle’s Bigg Market, said the soldier was a “martyr who has started the fightback in our country against the Muslims... Our government have failed our armed forces by failing to accept that we are in a war. 

"We are in a war. 5% of this country is Muslim. Think about the chaos and carnage they are causing in this country... We must not allow this soldier’s death to be in vain. We will defeat Islamism or we will die trying.” 

Elsewhere across the country, polemic has turned into assault. Fiyaz Mughal, who runs a multi-faith organisation called Faith Matters, says there has been a “substantial spike” in the number of abuse and attacks on Muslims in the last week. His organisation, which normally receives half a dozen cases a day, has seen the number rocket to 162 since Wednesday. 

Not long ago I spent a morning with Fiyaz. He’s a gentle, charming and clever man: the adviser to Nick Clegg on the prevention of radicalization and extremism, he used to be Deputy President of the Liberal Democrats. He’s a fearless and committed campaigner for multi-faith, community cohesion. 

He believes a tide of Islamophobia is rising, provoking attacks on innocent, law-abiding, proudly British Muslims. The atrocious event in Woolwich will add fuel to the fire, inciting more right-wing extremist elements to use all Muslims as scapegoats for their racist views. Nick Griffin of the BNP visited the site of the Woolwich murder, while BNP organiser Adam Walker said that the murder “signals the beginning of the civil war we have predicted for years”. 

The language being used is similar to that coined by Hitler in the 30s, except the target of hate has changed. Nowadays these extremists don’t need marches through Newcastle – the poison spreads through the internet, with thousands of comments on Facebook and other social networks. Comments so racially explosive, they’d be illegal if voiced in public. 

But I believe there’s an even more frightening time bomb waiting to explode. Two years ago a single “lone wolf” murdered 77 people in Oslo. Although at his trial he used the same Islamophobia being spouted at the weekend, Anders Brevik’s targets were not Muslims themselves, but the government and those who believe in social cohesion – ordinary people like you and me. 

On the day of his crime, Brevik posted online a 1500 page “manifesto” that has become a bible for the far right, which can be downloaded with just two clicks of a mouse. 

It instructs people how to create their own terrorist attack in just 30 days – and carries a similar crusader logo to the ones seen on banners in Newcastle last Saturday. Anti-Muslim prejudice is as unacceptable as anti-Semitism, or hate crimes against gay or disabled people. It is down to intelligent, sane citizens like you (I assume) and me to speak out against it. 

Hate directed against any community simply because of who they are, is a poison that must never be allowed to spread.

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