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Opinion

Use solidarity to tackle Islamophobia and extremism

Muslims in the UK have been under attack since the horrific murder of a British soldier on May 22.

Last Modified: 09 Jun 2013 11:25
Shuja Shafi

Dr Shuja Shafi is the deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
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Mainstream Muslims in the United Kingdom reject criminal actions and hate towards others [Getty]

I have just returned from Muswell Hill in London where I saw the smouldering remains of the Bravanee Centre and Al-Rahma Islamic School. The building served as a hub and place of worship for local British Muslim Somalis. Police say the centre was set on fire and the words "EDL" - the acronym for the anti-Islam group English Defence League - was found daubed on what was left of the building.

The incident is the latest in a series of attacks that has taken place against British Muslim institutions since the horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, a soldier, on May 22. A sense of unease and anxiety has descended on Muslims in Britain. Immediately after the murder of Rigby, one of the assailants reportedly chanted "Allahu Akbar" - making religion the conduit for his inner rage and demons. Caught on camera, the result provoked an unprecedented wave of Islamophobic incidents that are still continuing, including 12 attacks on mosques.

Despite these attacks, British Muslims came out strongly in universal condemnation of Drummer Lee Rigby's murder. Immediately after the breaking news of the Woolwich incident, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) responded as it did with all tragedies we face: in solidarity and condemnation.

Whether it was the 9/11 crises, 7/7 and now Woolwich, the MCB has learned the importance of responding promptly and effectively so that the wider public understands the mainstream Muslim position, which has no truck with criminal actions and hate towards others.

In a press conference the following day, the message again from Muslims was to provide a balanced voice of reason. Two days after the incident, I led a delegation of community activists to the site of the attack in Woolwich to lay wreaths and pay respects and show solidarity with the deceased's family and friends.

Too often public figures resort to clumsy actions and phrases that lead to a hike in Islamophobic incidents.

After this latest arson attack in north London, as in the murder in Woolwich, the response from Britons of all walks of life to these has been heartening and assuring. In Muswell Hill, I took part in a vigil where local Christians and Jews showed extraordinary solidarity by coming to the aid of local Muslims, declaring that this attack was not in their name either.

After Woolwich, the Archbishop of Canterbury, standing alongside MCB Assistant General Secretary Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, acknowledged that the "strong response from the Muslim Council of Britain and many other organisations has rightly emphasised that these acts have no place in Islam".

There have now been about a dozen attacks on mosques including at Finsbury Park, Rhyl, Grimsby, Cardiff, Maidenhead, Milton Keynes, Braintree, Gillingham and now most seriously, the arson at the al-Rahma Islamic Centre in Muswell Hill. Yet there have been many more acts of solidarity and support for Muslims by fellow Britons disgusted at these incidents. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the virulence, hatred and Islamophobia unleashed in the aftermath of Woolwich exceeds 9/11 and 7/7. The level of obscene hate emails received by the MCB is worse than in the past.

Why is this? First, there is the need for a responsible public discourse: too often public figures resort to clumsy actions and phrases that lead to a hike in Islamophobic incidents. Our politicians, perhaps under pressure to "do something", start talking about the problem within Islam, or of Muslims themselves, of mosques, madrasahs or Muslims on university campus.

There is no evidence base to discuss whether extremism is found here, just shrill headlines. And now with Prime Minister David Cameron asking his Task Force to focus on "extremist mosques and preachers", there is the real danger that the British public will leave out the first word of that phrase.

UK's Woolwich reacts to killing of soldier

We think extremism is a problem too. And we have been here before. But a muddled conversation about what constitutes extremism over social conservatism, or disagreement on foreign policy, will not assist us in our end goal: the prevention of future attacks. British Muslims themselves are standing up and being counted in their opposition to what we saw in Woolwich. They have done so in solidarity with fellow Britons, of all faiths and none. Bottom-up approaches to countering extremism are taking place already. They need our support.

Second, there is the drip feed of stories in the media demonising Muslims in recent months. It is not infrequent to see a news items on criminal activity - for example those caught for grooming - to be juxtaposed against a picture of a mosque or a Muslim woman in niqab.

Some journalists have pooh-poohed the idea that there is a such thing as Islamphobia at all, and attribute it to Muslims' victim complex! What more evidence do they need than what is happening now on a daily basis in the cities of Britain?

The law should be applied to the clowns who make provocative statements and throw oil on the fire. The strategy of using them as honeypots so that the security authorities can identify their supporters is no longer tenable.

It is time for serious action against such crimes. We had fine and decisive words from our leaders condemning the actions of the English Defence League. Now we need a proper response from our police authorities, starting with a national response to this problem, just as it is already happening on a local level.

Dr Shuja Shafi is the deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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