So what do we know about the Finsbury Park terrorist attack? We know that the suspect in custody is named Darren Osborne. We know that he had come to London from Cardiff and had expressed previously statements that were anti-Muslim in nature, according to people who knew him. The father of four was also, it seems, someone who was prone to lose control and who was capable of “flipping his lid”.
Just 48 hours before he was allegedly involved in mowing down worshippers who had come out from late night Taraweeh prayers and after a long day of fasting, my colleagues and I from Tell MAMA had been at the Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, telling congregants that they needed to report in anti-Muslim hatred and to be aware of their surroundings at a street level. Many in the congregation were people who had little and who opened their fast in the mosque. They came from North and West African countries, looked tired and may well do the hard-manual jobs that keep London going as a City. It was such people that the attacker attempted to kill as they waited outside the junction of Seven Sisters and Fonthill Road a few days ago.
The location of the attack may have opportunistic in nature, though there is a niggling doubt that this location may have been chosen. Obviously, investigations are still ongoing though let us not set aside the constant narrative which far right extremists and Muslim haters put out on social media, that the Finsbury Park mosque is ‘Jihadi central’, a ‘mosque of hate’ and the ‘Abu Hamza mosque’. Colleagues in Tell MAMA regularly are sent such material from members of the public alarmed at what is out there in cyberspace and how the material describes the mosque. These members of the public genuinely fear for staff at the mosque because of the online material they come across.
Forget the fact that Abu Hamza physically intimidated trustees of the mosque when he took it over for his rhetoric of Islamist extremism, or that nearly a decade has passed since he was associated with the mosque. To Muslim haters and far right ideologues, the mosque still remains in a static medium of extremism, which is so very far from the truth.
Under the leadership of Mohammed Kozbar, the mosque is open to anyone, holds interfaith meetings and is instrumental in being a point where the poor can get some food and access to peace and solace in a world that seems to have left them behind. That is what the mosque has become, the complete opposite of what Muslim haters want you to believe. Yet, in the minds of those reading hate blogs, social media posts and texts which promote a fear of ‘Muslims taking over’, Finsbury Park has become synonymous with Islam, Muslims, extremism and Abu Hamza and after the terrorist attack, it is now imperative that these false epithets are actively challenged. We need to challenge these links since they may well cost lives and that is the last thing that we need after four terrorist attacks this year alone.
Let us also not forget that even after the worshippers were deliberately run over, the Daily Mail ran a headline linking the mosque to Abu Hamza. Readers would have had images of extremism conjured up on the basis of a click-bait headline where it seems Abu Hamza was inserted as an afterthought in order to generate more readers. It is these casual but deeply damaging associations that add to a climate of mistrust between communities, smear law abiding Muslims and which some papers have become adept at rehashing.
So what can we do? Firstly, we need to challenge inflammatory headlines and assumptions that are made and casually inserted into statements where Muslims are involved and which have nothing to do with the story in question.
Secondly, we have to call out and hold to account social media companies, who for far too long, have done little if anything in shutting down anti-Muslim extremist accounts. I know, since for four years, I was targeted by such an individual and when I reported material into Twitter, they failed to act responsibly.
Additionally, when accounts repeatedly have been reported to Twitter and other social media companies by Tell MAMA staff, there has been little or no action. Switch over and when Islamist extremist accounts have been reported in on occasion and as part of our civic duty, the reactions from social media companies have been quick and effective. It has been as though one form of extremism gets them to act whilst the other falls into a space of inaction. We therefore need to continue to hold the Government to its pledge of fining social media companies if they fail to remove illegal hate material when they have been notified by organisations.
Thirdly, the Government runs the Extremism Analysis Unit which looks at extremist groups in the online and offline world. This unit is well resourced and has the capability to look at emerging threat and risks in real time. This unit also needs to come into its own and start to really engage with and be pro-active in learning from community and voluntary organisations, many of whom are at the front-line of receiving material from members of the public who may flag up individuals who are a public risk. After four terrorist attacks in a year, we need to get far more assertive on anti-Muslim hatred, something that I have been saying for many years now.
Simply put, my colleagues and I knew two things. We knew that a possible attack against Muslim communities may well happen within the bounds of a mosque, given the data of what we were seeing from cases reported in. Additionally, since May 2013 to September 2016, Tell MAMA staff recorded over 100 anti-Muslim hate incidents against mosques.
Secondly, we knew that visibility is linked heavily to the targeting of people and communities. Many more Muslim men and women wear clothing that marks them out as Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan, thereby increasing risk to congregations. Put the two together and we knew that a major incident would likely to have taken place during Ramadan against a mosque. That is partly why Tell MAMA staff visited as many mosques as possible this month and why we always asked for vigilance from congregation members whilst allaying some of their more imaginative fears. Sadly, these two elements are found within this terrorist attack. Which means that now more than ever, we have to get to grips with an issue that has already taken two lives before. Mushin Ahmed from Rotherham and Mohammed Saleem from Birmingham were murdered because they were Muslim. Let us hope that at the very least, we redouble our efforts in tackling a hatred that is real, deadly and which must be tackled.