There are many shocking aspects of the murder of soldier Drummer Lee Rigby in the streets of Woolwich in south London.
The targetting of a soldier by his British-born fellow countrymen. The murder taking place in broad daylight of a Wednesday afternoon. The ritualistic aspects of beheading with a machete.
Perhaps most chillingly of all, how the killers made no attempt to escape, but instead stood around the body, then grabbed passengers who got off a passing bus and, with bloody hands, asking them to video on their mobile phones the “message” about their motives.
Clearly, the act shocked because it was designed to shock. If motivated by an atavastic ideology, or a literalist perversion of the Islamic faith, the killers showed an unfortunately strong intuitive grasp of modern media culture, and how to use it to spread a message of hatred, fear and division. Of course, it is the responsibility of the media to report the news, however gruesome. What was unfortunate was the sense that some front-pages – “You will never be safe” blared the headline of the machete-wielding man with bloody hands on the usually thoughtful, liberal Guardian. It looked uncomfortably like the poster front-page that the killers would have designed themselves.
Britain also found a quiet heroine in Woolwich. Scout leader Ingrid Loyau-Kennett talked calmly to the killers, seeking to protect others, before the police and emergency services arrived. One of the killers told her “we want to start a war in London tonight.” Her reply: “It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose.”
London is the last place on earth you would win public support for starting a faith or ethnic war. This is the city most confident about Britain’s fast-growing diversity. It took pride in its solidarity after the 2005 killings, and in its Olympic story of how Britain’s global history has brought the world to London.
Outside London, there is considerably more anxiety about both immigration and integration. That has been reflected in the rise of the Eurosceptic UKIP party, filling a gap which David Cameron’s moderate Conservatism is seen to leave open. Yet UKIP party seeks to be a mainstream populist party, not an extreme one, though it has had some embarrassing difficulties with the racist and anti-semitic views of some newly elected local councillors, some of whom were quickly sacked. So UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage quickly appealed for calm, while the racist British National Party and English Defence League, much weaker today than in 2005, tried to stir up hatred and division. The EDL took a small mob onto the Woolwich streets on the evening of the killing and ending up throwing missiles at the police outside a pub. It struck most people as a most eccentric way to protect the British way of life on a night like that. There were reports of isolated attempts to attack mosques, again involving the tiniest of extreme fractions.
British public attitudes to diversity are often more nuanced than headlines suggest. Immigration has again been rising up the political and the media agenda and yet, on the morning of the Woolwich killing, the front-page headlines in the newspapers had been about the British government conceding to a popular pro-immigration campaign – belatedly accepting the need to offer asylum to those who had worked as interpreters for the British army in Afghanistan.
Polling showed that the demand for asylum for the interpreters had public support. It was a popular call with the voters of every major party, except that UKIP voters split narrowly against. But few seemed to make the link that these brave Afghan translators, to whom Britain owed a debt of honour, were mostly Muslims too.
The hearts of the vast majority of Britain’s three million Muslim citizens will have sunk on hearing the news of the Woolwich killing. The condemnations came quickly, yet many were also scratching their heads wondering how Britain’s Muslim majority could ever get their voices heard more powerfully than the dramatically newsworthy preachers of hate.
“This terrible killing was shocking and newsworthy. It is much more difficult to project the sensible sentiments of the vast majority of Muslims who want to get on with their daily lives, and have their children grow up in a society that is free from hatred,” said Dilwar Hussain, President of the Islamic Society of Britain. But he detects a growing desire among British Muslims, particularly the younger generation, to find more powerful ways to voice a home-grown Islam that is confident about claiming its place in British society.
Yet that impotence is not only felt by Britain’s Muslim citizens. In discussions on social networks like twitter, several Londoners noted how, after the 2011 riots, people came together in clean-up campaigns, and wondered what type of positive response might be appropriate now. After the initial shock subsides, expect the real London to find the inclusive voice that the moment demands.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, a non-partisan think-tank addressing identity and integration issues. www.britishfuture.org