On June 19, the day after a forty-seven-year-old man from Wales, Darren Osborne, drove a van over a group of Muslims near a mosque in Finsbury Park, north London, leaving one person dead and nine injured, I went for a swim in a municipal pool a few miles from where the attack took place. The pool is a popular amenity in my community, and the diversity of those who frequent it—all races, ages, and backgrounds seem somehow represented—reflects the world city that London has become.
Arriving a few minutes before the doors opened, I fell in with four regulars, all of them non-Muslims, just as the conversation turned to the attack. Rather than express sympathy for the victims, the comments of my fellow-swimmers suggested they felt justice had been done. “What did the Muslims expect?” asked one woman. “After everything they’ve done to us,” agreed another. The only one in the group who demurred was an evangelical Christian; he argued that it was wrong to kill worshippers.
For all the gestures of inter-communal solidarity that have been given much publicity since the June 18 attack, the more significant and ominous sentiment has been one of vindication. This feeds off the logic that the actions of Darren Osborne were an inevitable and perhaps necessary response to the attacks by unhinged Islamists that have taken place in London and Manchester in the weeks before the election, in which at least thirty-five were killed.
Starting with Osborne himself, a lot of blame for the Finsbury Park attack has been heaped on the victims. “This is for London Bridge” (where the most recent jihadi attack took place, on June 3), the assailant is reported to have yelled. Richard Gear Evans, whose father’s company had rented Osborne his van, publicly regretted that Osborne hadn’t had access to “steam rollers or tanks.” (Evans has since been arrested on suspicion of stirring up racial hatred.) A far-right rabble-rouser, Tommy Robinson, who had called Osborne’s actions a “revenge attack,” made a sensational appearance on a morning television program during which he held up a Koran and declared, “There will never be peace on this earth, so long as we have this book.” Robinson’s own autobiography has since soared up the Amazon charts.
These ideas are not confined to the fringe; they appear to be held by a substantial minority. Anecdotal evidence, the prevalence of online Islamophobia (much of it untraceable owing to the use of VPNs), and a spike in cases of anti-Muslim taunting in the street suggest that many Britons, from small towns in southern England to depressed, working-class areas in the north, feel that “they” had it coming.
Over the past three months mainstream politicians and community leaders have repeated the platitude that ISIS wants to turn communities on each other, but in truth it is immaterial whether civil war between Europe’s Muslims and their non-Muslim “hosts” is an ISIS objective. (The group’s propaganda concentrates on the desirability of Muslims killing infidels, not the other way around.) If the likelihood of communal strife has increased as a result of the Finsbury Park attack, this is because vengeful thinking is spreading across society.
The main cause of this is, of course, the terrorists themselves, but in some politicians and media figures they have found eager abetters. Following the bombing of the Manchester arena on May 22, in which several young girls were killed, there were calls for interning suspected Islamic radicals; and the prominent broadcaster Katie Hopkins demanded a “final solution.”
Against this already troubled backdrop, the significance of Darren Osborne is that he is the first Briton to have turned on Muslims indiscriminately—and using the jihadis’ trademark weapon of the rented van. This sets him apart from Thomas Mair, the white supremacist who assassinated the Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox in June 2016. Cox was herself a white non-Muslim—she had earned Mair’s hatred for her liberal stance on immigration—and so no community existed to retaliate on her behalf.
Finsbury Park was the first time the United Kingdom has experienced tit-for-tat communal killings since the Irish Troubles. The country’s proud self-image as a refuge of tolerance and judicious multiculturalism, usually held up in contrast to France’s less flexible notions of national identity, is dissolving. The government may not possess enough vision, empathy, and authority to lead people back to relative serenity. Theresa May’s new administration is already damaged by questions over its own survival, and will spend the whole of its (probably brief) life preoccupied by Brexit negotiations. In her policy statement for the new parliament, May promised to set up a commission that will “support the government in stamping out extremist ideology in all its forms.” That the government is taking radical right-wing ideologues more seriously is encouraging. But the foundation of the country’s anti-extremism strategy is the assumption that Britain’s three million Muslims (the number has doubled since 2001) are potentially untrustworthy.
Since 2015, public bodies including universities and hospitals have been legally bound to monitor the people who come through their doors for signs of radicalization, causing understandable resentment among some Muslims who have been unjustly profiled and a marked reluctance on the part of many others to express themselves. “Moderate” Islamic groups cultivated by the government have been weakened by the perception that they are stool pigeons; all the while communities that are socially very conservative, but otherwise orderly and law-abiding, have been the object of attempts to entrench liberal “British values,” increasing the perception that Islamism isn’t the problem—Islam is.
It isn’t by banging them over the head that the members of these often insular communities will be induced to engage with mainstream British culture; reminding them of the Prophet Muhammad’s thirst for conquest, as many popular commentators are doing nowadays, is unlikely to lead them to reconsider their faith. These measures will, on the contrary, turn many Muslims further in on themselves. A recent book on British Muslims, Al-Britannia, by James Fergusson, found that the mood among them is colored by “fear, paranoia, anger and confusion.”
The example of the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, and the savagery with which Serbs and Croats turned on their Muslim neighbors, shows how rapidly co-existence can turn to violence. Britain, of course, is not the product of a partition, as Bosnia was, nor are its institutions those of a failed state. All the same, it suggests the low esteem in which the country’s figures of authority are held that the most vital contribution to communal harmony in recent days was made not by the government, the police, or London’s mayor, but by a mosque imam who used his authority to prevent Darren Osborne from being lynched after he was seized by the crowd he had tried to kill. In that moment of terrifying clarity, as they formed a cordon around their would-be assassin, it’s as if Mohammed Mahmoud and a few of his co-religionists saw the abyss opening at their feet, and straining, perhaps, against their own instincts, forced it shut again.