In these Sour Times: Islamophobia and the Woolwich aftermath

Three days ago, a soldier was murdered in Woolwich by two Islamic extremists carrying knives and meat cleavers. The entire country went bananas. That night, there was a rally in Woolwich town centre by the English Defence League, whose status as the drunken fantasist Mr Bean of fascists hardly makes them less frightening to the local people hiding in their homes whenever they have one of their sick marches. In the past few days, there have been at least 162 Islamophobic hate attacks in the UK, and nine mosques have been targeted with knives, petrol bombs and graffiti. That’s a 900% increase, according to the tracking group Tell Mama UK. Petrol-bomb attacks on mosques are not reported as terrorism, though. Nor are individual acts of anti-Muslim violenc We are expected to understand this quasi-organised campaign of fear as something else – as a ‘backlash’.

Whatever ‘terrorism’ is, it’s up to the state to define. It’s up to the government to define whose brutality is tolerable, and it’s up to the press to define whose ‘extremism’ is a threat to national identity, “an attack on everyone in Britain” (thanks Theresa May) and whose merely an overzealous expression of public sentiment. Two weeks ago a Muslim man was murdered in Birmingham by two white men with machetes, in an act of brutal, bigoted extremism that mirrored what happened in Woolwich, but that wasn’t deemed ‘terrorism’ – it was hardly even news.  The cabinet has yet to respond to the sharp, staggering uptick in racial and religious violence; one can’t help think this might have something to do with the fact that the Tories recently took a hammering at the polls from UKIP, a xenophobic, anti-immigrant party whose core demographic isn’t miles away from the profile of EDL sympathisers.

I have written before about the EDL and how frightening they are, and how their leadership’s claim to be less than staggeringly racist is nonsensical . Right now I’m supposed to be sitting indoors writing a book about something completely different, but there’s nothing more important happening in my country right now than this throat-hardening descent into bigotry. I want to be very clear about one thing here:

I am not terrified of Islamic extremism.

I’m not terrified of it, and I refuse to pretend I am out of politeness. Nor do I consider the attacks in Woolwich a threat to the British state, any more than I would consider some poor bastard ranting in a hospital wing about how he’s the King of England a pressing threat to the British monarchy.* People do not generally overthrow their governments because a madman with a meat cleaver tells them to.  Of course, I feel sorry for the family of Lee Rigby, who are having to watch graphic reconstructions of the bloody murder of their son, husband and father plastered all over every paper. However – perhaps this makes me naive, but it’s how I feel – I am still not terrified of militant Islam. On a day to day basis, it’s something I worry about far less than I worry about being mugged or stabbed, living as I do in one of London’s knife-crime hotspots.

What does terrify me – what frightens and appalls me – is the way this country is sliding into prejudice and violence, the way that ordinary people are turning on each other whilst the state quietly blows on the coals of race hate. I am terrified of what I see Britain becoming.

I am terrified of the propaganda and the lies and the sheer momentum of the ideological shift to the right. And I am terrified of the number of angry, frightened young men whose rage is being channelled into extremism of all kinds. As actor and rapper Riz Ahmed says in his pertinent track Sour Times, which is worth watching in full:

There ain’t no super villain planning these attacks from some base. The truth is so much scarier and harder to face. You see, there’s thousands of angry young men that are lost – sidelined in the economy, at a marginal cost

The most important thing I’ve read in the aftermath of the Woolwich attacks was a Facebook status posted by my friend Ash Sarkar, a young student and activist. I repost it here with her permission:

I feel exhausted. I’ve been at work all day so the only interaction with the events of today has been through the news and social media. Like everyone else, I’m horrified at the murder that happened today. But I also feel tired, demoralised, and exhausted in advance at how often I’ll have to repeat that fact. I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed. I haven’t blocked any of you so there’s a human face attached to the group that you hate so much. You’re talking about people like me, my mother, my grandmother. I haven’t blocked any of you because I want you to know that I’m calling you out as fascists.

I hate that I’ve seen friends change their FB names to sound more anglicised: I hate that so many POC I know are rushing to assert “Britishness” as their primary identity. I hate that I feel like I have to insist on the “due process” of law (which I think is fundamentally violent and unjust anyway) because people are calling for torture. I hate trying to pretend like torture and killing aren’t things that the police do everyday anyway.

I hate that this is happening in the city where I was born, where I grew up, and that I love so much. I hate that this is occurring against a backdrop of the increasing militarisation of the urban space, the violence of dispossession and austerity. That this act of violence is seen as worse than the acts of violence that occur every day in areas left to rot, than the acts of violence committed by the British state.

Today I want to express my solidarity with Ash, with British Muslims and everyone else across the country who woke up today feeling scared and under attack, and with those organising to fight the rise of fascism on our streets. Fuck racism. Fuck bigotry. And fuck anyone who believes that violence is an answer to violence. We can be better than this – as long as we stand together.

*I’m aware, before we go any further, that people with serious mental health difficulties are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are to perpetrate it.