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.
Birmingham is home to Britain’s second-largest Muslim population. Worshipers spoke openly to journalists who descended on the Central Mosque’s parking lot, but they also challenged a media narrative that they see as peddling lies about their religion. “No chopping and changing, yeah,” one of them shouted at reporters. “I know that’s what you guys like to do.”
White middle-class journalists are sent by editors to report on these communities with no clue about what their world is like and apparently little interest in getting to know it. In the mad rush to beat the competition, accuracy is expendable, urgency emphasized. In Manchester, covering the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert, I was one of the few black reporters among the pack touring mosques in the city. Outside Didsbury Mosque, where the attacker Salman Abedi is believed to have worshiped, journalists were getting impatient at the lack of information from officials. In desperation, two of them turned to me. “Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque? Can we ask you a couple of questions?” they asked. “What about?” I replied. “Well, you are a Muslim, right?” I laughed. They walked away.
Shortly after the Finsbury Park attack, the Mail Online, one of the most visited news websites in the English-speaking world, described the site of the incident as the mosque “where hate cleric Abu Hamza once preached.” The article was not just factually wrong (Hamza used to preach at the Finsbury Park Mosque, whereas the attack took place outside the nearby Muslim Welfare House), but seemed to imply that Osborne had legitimate reasons to do what he did.
The presence of Islam in Britain stretches back to the Middle Ages. Fast-forward 500 years, to when the country’s postcolonial need for industrial manpower was at its peak, and thousands of Muslims from far-flung corners of the Commonwealth flocked to the motherland to work in its factories and ports. Muslims formed communities in Britain’s major cities. They stayed, they worked hard, they raised families. They became British. Today Muslims comprise 4.8 percent of Britain’s population.
“Some people in this country like to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi, from Manchester’s Victoria Park Mosque, told me. “I would like to remind you that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this country.”
Since 9/11, Muslims here have come under increasing pressure to root out extremists from within their communities. After the London Bridge attack in May, Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech to the nation. “While we need to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online, we must not forget about the safe spaces that continue to exist in the real world,” she said. “There is—to be frank—far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.”
What those in positions of power fail to understand is that Muslims in this country also go to the mall and out for drinks after work with their colleagues. Many were at that Ariana concert in Manchester on that tragic night. Terrorists don’t tend to choose their victims.
“I would be the first to report my own child if I had to,” Saima Alvi, vice chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre, told me when I spoke to her in Manchester. “We have to think of protecting ourselves, and our communities, and our country. From the communities I mixed amongst, there’s absolutely no hesitation in reporting somebody if they think they are a suspect.”
There is a well-established system in place to report terror suspects in this country. In theory, the government’s anti-radicalization strategy, Prevent, aims to encourage community leaders, teachers, doctors, and others to refer any suspicions to the authorities. An assessment is then made about whether further action is needed.
In practice, however, the initiative has proved toxic and polarizing. Muslim leaders and community elders I have spoken to while traveling the country have called it divisive and leading to a breakdown in trust. They also claim the strategy almost exclusively targets young Muslims.
“Young Muslims are afraid to speak in schools,” said Alvi. “Free speech is actually being shut down because they are afraid of being accused of terrorist thoughts. They might just have questions, they might be exploring, but unfortunately because of the climate, if they had a question they might be accused of being on the fringe of radicalization.”
Introduced in 2003 by the Blair government, Prevent is one of the four Ps in Contest, the government’s umbrella anti-terrorism strategy: Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers, and Prevent radicalization. But 14 years ago there was no Islamic State, no civil war in Syria, no social media. As the enemy’s methods have evolved, so too has Prevent’s remit. In the wake of the 2005 London bombings, the government threw millions of pounds at the scheme. Today the strategy is to identify people who may be vulnerable to radicalization and provide them with support to stop that from happening.
There have been embarrassing moments along the way. In 2010, it was revealed that CCTV cameras, 72 of them hidden, were put in Muslim neighborhoods in Birmingham, paid for with funds earmarked for counter-terrorism strategies. Trust between British Muslims—especially the young—and the police hit a new low, from which it has not recovered. Last year, a 10-year-old Muslim boy who misspelled a word during an English lesson found himself in custody being questioned by officers for hours. The child, from the northwest of England, had written that he lived in a “terrorist house”; he meant to write “terraced house.”
Jahan Mahmood is a historian and counter-extremism expert who used to be part of Prevent, but resigned over its counter-terror strategy. He now travels around the country giving counter-extremism talks—an initiative, he says, that has successfully put young men off from going to fight in Syria. But because of the damage done by the government, Mahmood told me, he now has to tread carefully: “I can’t be seen going around giving these talks too often. People would start asking questions, wondering if I had an agenda and who I was working for.”
Embarrassing mistakes and errors of judgment aside, Prevent’s overarching problem is that it lumps together all the Muslim who live in Britain, regardless of country, ethnicity, and language, stripping them of their individuality and agency. “The people inside Prevent need training, because many of them don’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, a convert and a born Muslim; they don’t have a clue,” said Ismael Lee South, who works with young Muslim boys in the South Manchester area. “Prevent needs to be rebranded and it needs to be something that fights Islamist extremism, far-right extremism, and animal-rights extremism—all forms of extremism.”
It would obviously be naive to dismiss the threat of Islamist extremism in Britain. In the wake of the Manchester bombing, it emerged that intelligence officers have identified 23,000 jihadi extremists living in this country, but the counter-intelligence and security agency MI5 is only equipped to deal with 3,000 suspects at a time. While money has poured into Prevent, police and security services have been hit with deep budget cuts.
On May 20, 2015, when Police Federation members warned then–Home Secretary Theresa May about the effects of the cuts, she defiantly told them to stop “scaremongering” and “crying wolf.” After the London Bridge attack, May proposed new powers for the security services, as well as longer prison sentences for known fanatics and new measures to remove Internet “safe spaces” for extremist sympathizers—but no new funding for police on the front line.
If the state’s domestic response to extremism has been divisive and inadequate, Britain’s foreign policy has also helped to feed radical Islamism. Young British Muslims who were still in diapers at the time of 9/11 are well versed on the wars the British government has helped wage throughout the Middle East over the past 15 years. Four days after the Manchester bombing, outside Didsbury Mosque, a young Muslim man asked a pack of hungry journalists: “Tell me, what’s the difference between someone going into a concert and blowing themselves up and a British plane dropping a bomb on a school in Syria?” He got an instant reaction from one of the reporters: “Do you support terrorism, then?”
Few in the political establishment have been bold enough to admit that link. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested in a speech that there are “connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home,” he was roundly denounced as a terrorist sympathizer. A few days before the June election, Christopher Clarkson, a Conservative councilor from Salford, explained to me the difference between May and Corbyn as he saw it: “One wants to defeat terror and keep Britain safe, while the other wants to sit down and have a cup of tea with terrorists.” From Labour under Tony Blair to the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats under David Cameron, no one has been willing to discuss the elephant in the room. Theresa May’s government, which only last week entered a coalition with Northern Ireland’s ultraconservative Democratic Unionist Party, is not about to start that conversation.
Meanwhile, in Britain’s mosques, the work to clean up Islam’s tarnished image continues. “Where do we take our Islam from?” Imam Christi asked worshipers at the Victoria Park Mosque four days after the Manchester bombing. “The Quran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Quran is being described as bloodthirsty? Yet that same Quran is being abused to justify terror and violence?”
On the eve of Ramadan, Imam Christi was playing host to some of the world’s media, once again going out of his way to reassure outsiders that any suspicious activity within his mosque will be reported. “My message to anybody is that, according to the words of the Prophet, it is our responsibility to keep all other people safe,” he said when asked about what Muslim communities are doing to fight terrorism.
In the wake of every act of Islamist violence, investigators are faced with two piercing questions: What makes some Muslims commit mass murder in the name of their religion, and are they being abetted by a wider network? Usually, the authorities’ first instinct is to turn to the mosques. But 16 years after the West declared the now infamous so-called war “on terror,” those answers remain elusive.
For those working with kids at the grassroots, however, this focus on mosques as a breeding ground for extremism is not just ineffective, but misguided. “We are living in a time where young people are not learning Islam through the conventional way,” Ismail Lee South told me. “They are learning it on YouTube or via Facebook, and on YouTube and Facebook we have got a large number of hate preachers.” A former rapper from London, South, 43, converted to Islam from Christianity 20 years ago. “I started reading about Malcom X and Muhammad Ali,” he told me. “Also some of the most popular hip-hop groups at the time, such as Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan, kept referring to Islam in their songs. I said, ‘OK, that makes sense.’ It wasn’t a sudden thing at all. It was very gradual.”
These days, South is busy running The Salam Project out of Moss Side, a multicultural but deprived area in south Manchester. The initiative, founded in 2005, is totally dependent on private donations, and focuses on gang violence, gun crime, and extremism in the Muslim community. In postwar Britain, Moss Side became home to thousands of migrants, mainly from the West Indies and Asia. In the late 1980s and throughout the ’90s gang violence was so rife that it led to the city being dubbed “Gunchester.” Today, still reeling from years of neglect by successive governments, more than 20 percent of Moss Side’s working-age population remains unemployed.
If one wants to witness what half a decade of austerity policies can do to a neighborhood that was already on its knees, Moss Side is the perfect microcosm. Across the UK, some 600 youth centers have been shut, 3,650 youth workers have lost their jobs, and 139,000 youth places have been axed since 2012. South told me those cuts have had a devastating impact on the lives of the kids he works with: “They have shut down many youth clubs in South Manchester, so a lot of young people don’t have nowhere to go.”
Politicians know there’s deep anger simmering in these communities. May was quick to respond to the Finsbury Park attack, describing Islamophobia as extremism, and pointing out that it was “every bit as destructive of our values and way of life.”
But words are not enough. Almost 200 years after the abolition of slavery in this country, ethnic minorities continue to suffer at the hands of fundamentally racist and xenophobic institutions.
In the Britain I’ve come to know, Muslim boys and girls only seem to be embraced when they are out in the world winning Olympic gold medals, or coming first in national baking competitions. As long as that’s the case, some of them will continue to be unsure about their place in society and, in the process, become easy targets for radical Islamic preachers, eager to fill the void left by the state.
For people like Alvi, however, there is no question. This is where she belongs. “I’m a British Muslim,” she told me proudly while wearing an abaya. “This is my country. I love fish and chips, I love the Queen. We love the flag.”