Saffiyah Khan doesn’t seem to think she was doing anything enormously brave in this picture.
She was, she says, "slightly surprised" when it went viral worldwide, given she’d only walked into the crowd of far right EDL activists staging a hate rally in Birmingham to stick up for another woman who seemed to have been surrounded.
And it’s true that she doesn’t look scared, so much as coolly amused; one hand confidently in her pocket, looking down at the ranting EDL activist Ian Crossland as if she can't for the life of her imagine what he's banging on about.
But that, of course, is exactly why this image spread like wildfire. It’s a portrait of a young Asian woman thrillingly sure of herself and in control, which is always cheering. But more than that it’s an example of someone fighting fire not with fire – guaranteed to produce a raging inferno – but with a nicely judged bucket of cold water.
"I wasn’t scared in the slightest. I stay pretty calm in these situations," Saffiyah explained afterwards. "I knew they were trying to provoke me but I wasn’t going to be provoked."
There’s something very soothing about seeing angry provocation met with calm self-possession, and a healthy amount of side-eye
And my God, that sounds refreshing. We’ve had months now of hate-filled, angry, borderline hysterical public discourse; of aggression meeting aggression, and ratcheting ever upwards into yet more aggression still. Social media has long been a tinderbox, a place where spats about nothing can escalate out of control within hours. But it feels as if something of the same hair-trigger attitude is now feeding into politics at the highest level, with cool heads – people whose instinct is to defuse a dangerous moment – losing ground to hot ones. Theresa May seems to spend half her life clearing up after Brexiters whose attitude to negotiating with the EU seems to be ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. Donald Trump will probably draw back from starting World War Three over Syria (Russia has warned it will retaliate if the US launches any more airstrikes against Assad’s regime) but is now busy shaking his fist at North Korea, another conflict that could all too easily spiral. The threat of conflict is nothing new in itself but what’s worrying is the sense that both Russia and America are now led by men on exceedingly short fuses; men who can't bear to back down or lose face, men over-compensating madly for who knows what deep-seated insecurities, men all too easily goaded into lashing out.
So even if it’s only on an infinitely tinier scale, there’s something very soothing about seeing angry provocation – and EDL rallies are absolutely all about provoking a reaction – met with calm self-possession, and a healthy amount of side-eye.
And that's not just about Saffiyah. The local mosque chose to respond to the rally not by holding a counter-demonstration – which could easily have turned ugly – but by throwing a tea party, complete with cake and bunting, and people chatting politely while balancing paper plates. They chose to oppose an aggressively racist idea of what it means to be English with a much older, gentler, jollier idea of Englishness and in doing so, made their point rather brilliantly. Who on earth would choose to spend a sunny Saturday skulking around in a St George's bandana spoiling for a fight, when they could be having a nice slice of Victoria sponge and a cup of tea?
And that’s the choice this picture captures. Saffiyah may not, strictly speaking, have been just an ordinary passerby (she says she was there with friends to "look out for" any Muslims or women of colour being harassed). But she looks so utterly normal, like any girl you’d see on any high street; a "real Brummy", as the Birmingham MP Jess Phillips tweeted, standing up for the values of the country in which she was born. It’s the EDL men who look like the odd ones out, the extremists, the faces that don’t fit. That's not who we are as a nation, that seething cauldron of rage and resentment. And just for a moment, everyone can see it.