Late on Sunday night, a man drove his van into a crowd of people outside two mosques in Finsbury Park. This took place during the holy month of Ramadan, and people had gathered to break their fast and carry out their evening prayers. Darren Osborne, who was apprehended at the scene, allegedly shouted “I want to kill Muslims, I’ve done my bit.”
The incident was shocking – but sadly not surprising, given the general climate of hostility towards Muslims in the UK, which manifests not just in hate crimes but in the national media. The attack echoed the tactics of recent jihadist attacks in Westminster and London Bridge and appeared to be a direct reprisal. This indicates the real danger posed by assuming collective guilt among all Muslims. The suggestion is there when, after every incident of terrorist violence, columnists and broadcasters start asking why Muslims haven’t condemned the act, or why they haven’t condemned it louder than they already have, or why they didn’t somehow stop it.
“While individuals have a right to do what they want, it is very dangerous and reductive to ask Muslims to apologise for terrorist atrocities,” says journalist Shaista Aziz, who writes on race, gender, and identity. “It means that there is an assumption that unless a Muslim says they're against what happened, they could or do support terrorism. We are guilty by association because we are part of the same faith group. People from other faiths are not expected to do this, so why are Muslims? We need to ask ourselves how these narratives are shaped and what is shaping them: bigotry and othering.”
Finsbury Park is a multicultural area, bustling and busy. Ethiopian cafes sit next to tapas bars and Arsenal-supporters’ pubs. Narges Ali, a 31-year-old doctor, grew up in the area. “I was so shocked to see the news about the attack. It was so close to home – literally and metaphorically, because Finsbury Park signifies what I love about London,” she says.
To be honest, I feel really worried about my family. You have this constant drip, drip, drip of hate – from comments on the street to the papers you see in the shop
Ali doesn’t wear a headscarf, but her mother and sister do. According to Tell MAMA, which tracks Islamophobic incidents, the majority of hate crimes against Muslims are targeted at hijab-wearing women – their clothing marks them out. Many women say they receive so many comments that they do not feel it is worth reporting them all; others speak about their families asking them to remove their hijabs after the Finsbury Park incident. “To be honest, I feel really worried about my family,” Ali says. “You have this constant drip, drip, drip of hate – from comments on the street to the papers you see in the shop – and you just tune it out. Then something like this happens and it becomes really difficult to ignore.”
After every act of jihadist terrorist violence, there is a spike in hate crimes against Muslims. Figures released by London mayor Sadiq Khan showed a five-fold increase in Islamophobic incidents since the London Bridge terrorist attacks. There has been a 40 per cent increase in reported racist incidents, compared with the average for this time of year. These spikes have a long-term effect; experts suggest that after an uptick in hate crimes, the levels drop, but do not return to previous levels, meaning they remain elevated after each spike. Expert on the far-right, Matthew Feldman told Sky News that over the last four years, there has been an attack on a mosque or Muslim community centre just under once a fortnight. “I think that would be unacceptable with synagogues, with churches, with any other places of congregation for particular minority communities,” he said.
We have a clear cultural understanding that jihadist violence is fuelled by factors including extremist material and occupying communities (whether online or physical) where such hatred is normalised. We seem to have less acknowledgement that far-right, or racist, hate is encouraged and normalised by similar mechanisms.
The corrosive impact of bigoted and inaccurate news coverage in the UK has been noted by several academic studies (in the last couple of years alone, Cambridge and Leicester universities have produced research on the subject). In 2015, after Katie Hopkins described migrants as “cockroaches” in the Sun, the UN human rights chief called for the UK to “tackle tabloid hate speech”, and in October 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance called for the UK media to “avoid perpetuating prejudice”. Of course, negative media coverage is not the sole driver of anti-Muslim bigotry – but it is certainly a part of the picture, and acts to spread and normalise bigoted views. We have seen in Finsbury Park what dangerous consequences these views can have.
“Muslims and Muslim communities are talked at, and othered,” says Aziz. “There is an us and them narrative, but Muslims are British too. We are part of this country and have been for hundreds of years. This is a diverse country, built by immigrants and made richer for their contribution.”