The Finsbury Park terror attack - the third to hit London since March - was a wake-up call to the pressing problem of Islamophobic sentiment in Britain.
The man who ploughed a rented van into a crowd of Muslims, many of whom were returning from the mosque after an evening of prayers in Finsbury Park, was a 47-year-old white male. According to witnesses he screamed “I want to kill all Muslims,” before being pinned to the ground and arrested. This terror attack - the third to hit London since March - was a wake-up call to the pressing problem of Islamophobic sentiment in Britain.
Figures released by the Metropolitan Police Service earlier this year showed a 13 per cent rise in Islamophobic offences in the capital between 2016 and 2017. London boroughs with large Muslim communities such as Tower Hamlets (59 per cent) and Newham (38 per cent) have witnessed a significant uptick in incidents. Westminster saw a 60 per cent rise in Islamophobic offences, while Richmond’s 125 per cent increase was the highest in the capital.
Tell MAMA, a charity, reported that Islamophobic abuse and attacks in public rose by 326 per cent in the UK in 2015. It pointed out that far-right extremist groups and sympathisers were becoming increasingly vocal online in promoting hatred of Muslims.
In the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also released hate crime figures. The number of daily racist incidents recorded following that attack was 54, compared to an average of 38 in 2017, while daily recorded incidents of Islamophobia rose to 20 on 6 June, compared to an average of 3.5 in 2017. This was the highest daily level of Islamophobic incidents in the capital to date, surpassing the peak that followed the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013.
This data indicates that anti-Muslim incidents have been on the rise for some time. Inaction, or insufficient action, has only exacerbated the problem. When Islamist attacks take place, the questions that immediately arise focus on how the attacker or attackers were radicalised. Was it online? Was it at the mosque? Were they inspired by ISIS? Which preachers did they listen to? What should we be asking when it comes to an anti-Muslim attacks, given how normalised Islamophobic rhetoric has become?
Paul Golding, the leader of Britain First, a far right group that campaigns against the perceived Islamisation of the UK, was a candidate in the 2016 London mayoral elections. He decided to turn his back to Sadiq Khan in protest of the election of a Muslim as mayor. Others would argue that more mainstream incarnations of anti-Muslim rhetoric include the likes of Douglas Murray, who has said Britain needs “less Islam” in order to have less terrorism.
These individuals have not condoned violence against Muslims. However, the tone and substance of their arguments, their vilification of Muslims, and the implication that all British Muslims have a responsibility for extremism, breeds a toxic environment in which Muslims are viewed as suspicious and dangerous. The notorious preacher Anjem Choudary, who was jailed in 2016, evaded the law for years by carefully treading the line between freedom of expression and hate speech. There are parallels when it comes to Islamophobic rhetoric.
The ‘cumulative extremism’ of Islamism and the far right is part of the picture. Far-right arguments about the need to militantly defend ‘traditional values’ are bolstered by jihadi violence. Meanwhile, Islamist extremists use attacks on Muslims to whip up anger about a ‘war against Islam.’ The narrative of inevitable civilisational conflict along religious lines plays into the hands of extremists on both sides.
It was reported this year that one in four referrals to the UK government’s counter-extremism programme Prevent are now for far-right extremism. The former independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation David Anderson QC described the far-right as being “as murderous as its Islamist equivalent” and warned that these extremists would be plotting “violence of their own.”
ISIS’ operational playbook, the Management of Savagery, speaks of the desire to provoke an over the top response through its attacks -- whether authorities clamping down on religious expression, or far-right groups attacking places of worship. This feeds into the global narrative of religious victimisation at the heart of the group’s worldview.
But we should be cautious that opposition to attacks on Muslims in London’s streets is not exclusively framed around the idea that such incidents ‘do ISIS’ work for it.’ While the Finsbury Park perpetrator travelled from Wales to carry out his attack, Khalid Masood drove from Birmingham to launch his March assault on Westminster. For both far-right and Islamist extremists, London’s pluralism and diversity is emblematic of a corruption of traditional values, and a ‘greyzone’ of co-existence.