Attack at London Mosque Comes as U.K. Muslims See Surge of Hatred

6 minute read

At least nine people were injured after a van drove into worshippers by the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London just after midnight on Sunday night. The incident, which took place nearly a year to the day after British Labour Party politician Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist, is the fourth fatal terrorist attack on U.K. soil this year.

Although little can be reported about the 48-year-old chief suspect, who is white, eyewitness reports suggest the targets of the attack were chosen deliberately. The method was the same used by terrorists on London Bridge earlier this month, and Westminster Bridge in March.

One thing is increasingly clear: The attack on practicing Muslims breaking their Ramadan fasts comes at a time when Muslims living in the U.K. are reporting a huge spike in hatred directed towards them, leaving them fearful of more such assaults on their communities and places of worship.

Figures released by Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) show that verified reports of instances of anti-Muslim hatred increased by 530% in the week following the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on May 22, compared to one week before the incident. The organization also said there was a 240% increase in verified instances of anti-Muslim hate in the seven-day period following the London Bridge attack on June 3. The Mayor of London’s office also recorded a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks after the London Bridge attack.

The instances reported to Tell MAMA can range from violence to general abuse including name-calling and intimidation, says Fiyaz Mughal, the group’s founder and former director. “Whenever there’s a major terrorism incident there’s a big sharp rise in anti-Muslim hate that’s reported to us,” he says. “We noticed very similar trends after the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 and the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in 2015.”

Mughal ran a hate crime awareness session on Friday at the Muslim Welfare House mosque in Finsbury Park, around 20 yards from where Sunday’s incident occurred — just 48 hours before the attack. “It was just a matter of time,” he says. “It was not a matter of if, it was when.”

Mughal said around 70 people attended the session, during which he made various recommendations, including: text someone to tell them if you’re going down to the mosque, don’t cluster near the entrance of your mosque and avoid standing in large congregations. “We will continue to run these sessions,” Mughal says. “We’ll keep saying to mosques ‘you don’t have to put up tents, don’t have to put up guards, you just need to make people aware of their surroundings’.”

The rise in hate crimes directed at Muslims can be linked to increased violence among far-right groups in the U.K. Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at Hope Not Hate, an advocacy group that aims to challenge mistrust and racism through research, education and public engagement, tells TIME that the British far-right is “going through a period where it is more violent than it has been in some time.”

According to Mulhall, there are around 40 small but quite extreme far-right groups in the U.K., which do not fall under one umbrella organization as they have done in the past. “You get lots of groups that completely condemn violence but they contribute to an eco-system where violence becomes more legitimized, especially towards Muslims,” he says.

Last Sunday, an anti-Muslim demonstration titled U.K. Against Hate took place in Manchester — the scene of an attack on May 22 — attracting around 2,000 people. “It was the largest such demonstration that’s taken place in the U.K. for a number of years,” Mulhall says. “There’s clearly a huge amount of anger at the moment in the wake of these Islamist attacks and there’s people willing to try and exploit that.”

Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech on Downing Street Monday morning that extra police resources have been deployed “to reassure communities” following the Finsbury Park attack, adding that officers are assessing the security needs of mosques and will “provide any additional resources needed.”

To Mughal, more police is not the answer. “We don’t want to see visible policing outside mosques – we don’t want to divide communities from other communities,” he says. “I think the Jewish community’s answer is the best one – they ask volunteers from their own community to hang around outside synagogues and be a nice, smiley presence there as people come in and out. We haven’t even got that. In some mosques there’s absolutely no security. No one will even ask me who I am.”

But others say they would welcome a more visible presence by authorities in the wake of the attack. Sajda Mughal, executive director of the JAN Trust, an NGO that supports black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee women and young people, said she would like to see more of a police presence outside mosques, as well as in areas with a high proportion of Muslims. “What I’m hearing on the ground particularly from locals is that they’re concerned,” she tells TIME.

Mughal, who says she has been personally targeted by far-right extremists in the form of hate mail, death threats and vandalism to her property, said her organization has recorded a 31% rise in Islamophobic hate crime directed at Muslim women in 2017, compared to 2016. She believes women are specifically targeted both because they are often more easily identifiable as Muslims and also because they tend to be depicted as weak, meek and vulnerable targets.

A number of the women who contacted the JAN Trust were victimized while carrying out their everyday activities such as taking their kids to school. Mughal said as well as receiving a spike in reports from Muslim women, the organization is receiving increasing numbers of reports from their children. “When Muslim women suffer, their children notice and then ask a lot of questions. I saw this in Finsbury Park yesterday – there was a lot of tension there,” Mughal tells TIME. “We cannot let these attacks divide the community in any way because that’s exactly what they want us to do. If we do, we will be feeding into the extremist narrative both on the far-right sight of things, as well as on the Islamist extremist side of things.”

Fiyaz Mughal echoed her comments. “Islamist extremism loves the victimization narrative – it thrives on Muslims feeling victimised,” he says. “As well as providing some kind of safeguard, the best thing we can do now is to make Muslims feel empowered.”

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Write to Kate Samuelson / London at