It was unsurprising that little more than a few hours after yesterday’s horrific murder, the far-right arrived in Woolwich. Emboldened by the afternoon’s events, the English Defence League’s (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson announced:
They’re chopping our soldiers’ heads off. This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today … Islam is a religion of peace. It’s not. It never has been. What you saw today is Islam. Everyone’s had enough.
At about the same time, arrests were being made in Essex and Kent following attacks on two different mosques. Similarly, there was a sharp increase in the number of incidents being reported to the government-funded service, Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks).
Before yesterday’s events, indicative data made available by Tell MAMA suggests that more than half of all recorded anti-Muslim incidents are perceived by victims as being perpetrated by people active within, or sympathetic to, various far-right groups and organisations.
Having researched anti-Muslim hatred for more than a decade, I am not shocked by the fallout from Woolwich. Events such as 9/11 and 7/7 have been shown to trigger anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic expression and feeling. Socially, this has led to higher levels of mistrust that have resulted in many being concerned about the role and presence of Muslims and Islam in society.
It has also triggered an indiscriminate backlash against ordinary Muslims that has taken the form of verbal and physical abuse and attacks on mosques.
It was these events that triggered the formation of the EDL by apparently giving credence to their hate-fuelled ideologies that, like the British National Party (BNP) before them, seem to solely focus on Islam and Muslims.
Where such events are most problematic is in the fear and anxiety they create. As I wrote a few years ago, fear and anxiety quickly feed each other thereby creating the disposition to speculate and exaggerate about ever greater fears and threats that seem to be lurking just around the corner.
With today’s newspapers carrying the headline, “You people will never be safe”, it becomes very easy for people who are scared and anxious to consume this as an unquestionable reality.
For the EDL – whose Facebook page has seen its supporters increase threefold overnight to more than 75,000 – that indeed is an unquestionable reality. In echoing the rhetoric of Norway’s Anders Breivik, not only will “we” never be safe from Islam and Muslims, but we need to “wake up” to this. Last night, a new Facebook group was being circulated called England Wake Up.
In these extremely tense and anxious times, there is little time and space for reflection. Because of this, it is critical that we don’t allow those who are themselves fuelled by hate to exaggerate and exacerbate perceived greater fears and threats lurking just around the corner.
Whether on the streets of Woolwich or shared via Facebook, those messages of hate and division have to be challenged and countered.