by Nesrine Malik
Last week, a nail bomb partially exploded at a mosque in the West Midlands – the fourth attack in two months on mosques in Britain during Friday prayers. A suspect in one of those attacks is also being questioned in connection with the killing of Mohammed Saleem, a Muslim pensioner in Birmingham, who was stabbed to death as he returned home from prayers. The police response to these attacks has been heartening, but the silence from government, and the establishment in general, has been deeply worrisome.
When Lee Rigby was murdered, politicians of every stripe scrambled to condemn and reassure. Cobra, the country’s top emergency response mechanism, was convened under the home secretary, Theresa May. David Cameron reassured Britons that “we will never buckle in the face of terrorism”. Compare this with near-silence that greeted the recent mosque attacks. Muslims have become accustomed, almost resigned, to media double standards – there is no example starker than the wildly different coverage of Rigby and Saleem’s killings. But the failure to mobilize, condemn and reassure on the part of the political class is potentially far more dangerous.
It suggests not only that a Muslim life is less sacred than a non-Muslim one, but that Muslims do not have the same rights as others to be reassured. That attacks on them are attacks on a minority, and not on British citizens.
The significant (and some would say disproportionate) political and intelligence engagement in the wake of the Rigby murder wasn’t entirely for practical purposes. Strong rhetoric combined with a show of force is a necessary response on behalf of a government in order to calm and instil a sense of safety in its citizens. The same sense of duty and urgency when British Muslims come under fire has not been in evidence.
The job of sorting out the backlash has been left to policing – of English Defence League rallies, mosques, and the investigation and following up of crime. It’s as if Muslims were only a troublesome minority to be protected at the begrudging expense of the taxpayer. It has been local community leaders, and Muslim MPs, that have anchored the response, thanking the police and appealing for calm. This is not enough.
While policing may be practically effective, the failure of senior politicians, ministers, and No 10 to add to it the soft power of language, to denounce assaults and comfort Muslims as British citizens, is inimical to the cause of integration. It serves both to aid radicalization of Muslim youths, a state brought about by a sense of otherness and marginalization, and to instil the feeling that Muslims are Muslims first, and Britons second. This not only alienates Muslims, but entrenches the view that they are second-class citizens – effectively fair game.
The extent of Cameron’s engagement as head of state reaching out to a concerned populace has been to comfort others vis-a-vis a Muslim threat, something for which he has been applauded.
Muslims are not members of a minority that should be grateful Cameron magnanimously declares it not a threat. They are British citizens who are increasingly under more urgent and immediate risk of terrorist attack than others.
These are not the everyday hate crimes that we have sadly become inured to, and which are faced by all religious minorities. Jews in the UK, for example, have for years experienced antisemitic attacks including desecration of holy sites and abuse of religious figures. In this most recent wave of targeting Muslims, however, we are not simply talking severed pig’s heads and swastikas, but violent terrorist crime that aims to maim and claim lives. To some extent the dis-proportionality of the response can be attributed to the fact that Britain has suffered a scarring terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslims, and foiled others in the making. But the government is there to serve its citizens equally. Do we have to wait until it is too late, until scores of Muslims have died in a counter-attack, before the political class turns the juggernaut of complacency around?
The constant refrain is that Muslims are an insular minority that poses an integration challenge, existing on the fringes of British life. But when they are consistently treated by different standards in terms of their rights as citizens to security and succour, it only confirms that the fringe is where they belong.