A party at the British Library in London on a warm Friday night in June. For three hours, young poets from all corners of the British capital, mainly of African and Caribbean descent, came on stage to recite their best verses on a variety of topics, from politics and identity to sex and religion. Hip-hop music was played between the acts. The weather was balmy, the place was packed, everyone was having a good time. In the pristine and imposing setting of that quintessentially British institution, a young Muslim woman wearing a full green abaya was dancing carefree with her non-Muslim friends—to none other than UK grime superstar Stormzy. I stood there smiling like an idiot, thinking to myself that I live in the greatest city on Earth.
For the past four months, however, this inclusiveness so characteristic of London, this way of life we cherish so dearly, has been challenged in more ways than one.
On June 19, shortly after I came home from a night out with friends, my phone started buzzing. “One person arrested and ‘a number of casualties’ as a vehicle hits pedestrians in Finsbury Park, London,” said the BBC. “Police declared a ‘major incident’ after a van hit pedestrians in north London,” alerted The Guardian. No news outlet was yet using the word “terrorism,” but I knew that’s what it was. Most Londoners did.
The method was the same as the one used by terrorists on London Bridge a month earlier, and Westminster Bridge in March. In this latest tragedy, though, the perpetrator was not the type of person the British public is used to seeing on the news in such a context—much less his victims. The man behind the wheel of the van that plowed into a group of worshipers leaving a mosque after breaking their Ramadan fast was Darren Osborne, 47, a white British father of four. Osborne made sure the world knew what he came there to do: “I’m going to kill all Muslims—I did my bit,” he shouted. Osborne has now been charged with terrorism-related murder and attempted murder.
The attack has woken Britain to the fact that terrorism is a two-way street; its perpetrators and victims come in all shapes and colors. That narrative is one most people in this country, especially the media and the political establishment, are struggling to comprehend—unless, of course, you are one of the 3 million Muslims living here.
According to the anti-hate monitoring group Tell Mama, Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise in Britain. In London alone, 1,219 hate crimes against Muslims were reported last year, a 17 percent increase on 2015 figures. Add that to a sensationalist media and reactionary politics, and what happened in Finsbury Park seems almost inevitable.
It was the fourth attack on British soil this year. The perpetrators of the first three all claimed to be followers of a version of Islam I found no evidence of while visiting mosques in London, Birmingham, and Manchester for the past few months. What I did find was a significant number of British Muslims who feel displaced and marginalized, even though they were born and raised in this country.
“You can’t paint everyone with the same brush,” Shazad Ahmed, a young Muslim who worships at the Birmingham Central Mosque, told me back in March after Friday prayers. That week Khalid Masood, who last lived in Birmingham, had driven a car into a crowd on Westminster Bridge, killing four people and injuring dozens of others. “I would say 99 percent of Muslims are totally opposed to that, but then you have that 1 percent who are out there and they do what they do in the name of Islam and that’s totally wrong,” Ahmed said.