Debating the anti-Muslim backlash to Britain’s Woolwich attack

Debating the anti-Muslim backlash to Britain’s Woolwich attack

Two weeks ago, the dramatic murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in broad daylight on a London street gripped the world. But what has attracted less attention since the grisly killing is a reported increase across Britain in violence, vandalism, and slurs against Muslims. Just yesterday, a mosque and Islamic community center in London burned down in a suspected arson attack. Investigators found the words EDL — an apparent reference to the far-right English Defence League — written on the side of a building on the site (the EDL has denied involvement in the fire).

The spike in incidents has been widely interpreted as a response to the fact that the two main suspects in Rigby’s death are Muslims who claimed to be exacting revenge for Muslim deaths at the hands of British soldiers. But others have questioned just how substantial the anti-Muslim backlash to the Woolwich attack has been.

Tell MAMA, a British group that fights prejudice against Muslims, notes that there have been more than 200 anti-Muslim incidents since Rigby’s killing on May 22, including roughly a dozen attacks on mosques as shown in their map below. A joint statement with the nonprofit Faith Matters called attention to a "huge rise in hate incidents reported against Muslims" since the Woolwich attack.

View Tell MAMA in a larger map


According to Tell MAMA’s leader, Fiyaz Mughal, 17 incidents have involved physical abuse such as throwing objects at Muslims or attempting to pull off Islamic clothing. Many of the other episodes tracked by the group have involved statements made online.

But some Britons are questioning the narrative of a massive anti-Muslim backlash stemming from the Woolwich attack. The Telegraph‘s Andrew Gilligan, for instance, has argued that most incidents have been non-violent, and that they’ve paled in comparison with the retaliatory violence that followed the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005:

Tell Mama confirmed to The Sunday Telegraph that about 120 of its 212 "anti-Muslim incidents" – 57 per cent – took place only online. They were offensive postings on Twitter or Facebook, or comments on blogs: nasty and undesirable, certainly, but some way from violence or physical harm and often, indeed, legal. Not all the offending tweets and postings, it turns out, even originated in Britain.

Tell Mama has no written definition of what it classes as an anti-Muslim incident, but has in the past adopted a wide definition. Last November, the cross-bench Asian peer, Baroness Flather, told a newspaper it was "pointless for the Conservatives to chase Muslim votes. They are all on benefits and all vote Labour". Tell Mama added this admittedly crass and untrue remark to its database as an "anti-Muslim incident," though it said it had deleted it following an explanation from Lady Flather….

What the data broadly show, in short, is that Drummer Rigby’s killers have failed. The breakdown in community relations has not come. There has been a rise in incidents, but it appears to be very short-term, overwhelmingly non-violent and even then almost entirely at the lower end of the scale.

The counterterrorism chief for London’s Metropolitan Police has drawn similar conclusions. "Every single incident is horrible," she told British lawmakers this week, "but compared with previous times we have had slightly less" hate crime.

Still, Britain has undeniably suffered a series of mosque attacks recently, with this week’s fire at a London mosque just the latest incident. On May 23, the day after Rigby’s murder, someone lit a bottle and threw it onto the roof of a mosque in Bletchley, northwest of London, while a function took place inside the building (members were able to climb onto the roof and extinguish the fire). Police arrested a man in Braintree for walking into a mosque with a knife and an incendiary device, and found "Islam=Evil" scrawled on a mosque in the northern town of Bolton. The chairman of a mosque in the seaport town of Grimsby told a local newspaper that members were "discussing how to thank our neighbors for the support they have shown us over the past few days" when they heard a bang and had to extinguish fire bombs thrown at the mosque’s door.

Meanwhile, the far-right English Defence League has organized marches across the country. On the night of the Woolwich attack, more than 100 EDL members gathered near the scene, chanting "no surrender to the Muslim scum," and clashed with riot police.

Prime Minister David Cameron, for his part, has sought to distinguish the Woolwich suspects’ invocation of Islam from Islam itself and denounced the backlash. "Just as we will not stand for those who pervert Islam to preach extremism, neither will we stand for groups like the English Defence League who try to demonise Islam and stoke up anti-Muslim hatred by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities," he said in a speech to Parliament on Monday.

Cameron noted that he has created a task force on tackling extremism and radicalization in the country, which will ask questions like "whether we do enough to help mosques expel extremists and recruit imams who understand Britain." But he quickly added another objective for the task force — one that seems appropriate in light of the events of recent weeks: "We will also look at new ways to support communities as they come together and take a united stand against all forms of extr
emism," he pledged.