As it turned out, those who murdered drummer Lee Rigby were about as nondescript as you could get. The horrifying video of Michael Abedolajo holding blood soaked blades indicated he was wearing nothing more extraordinary than blue jeans, a hoodie and running shoes. A photograph of his counterpart showed he was similarly difficult to spot in a crowd: he wore a khaki jacket which looked like it had been acquired from a discount store.
The focus of most media coverage is rightly on Lee Rigby, his undoubted character, his achievements and his family’s terrible grief; that said, the immediate reaction of the authorities said much about how they behave under stress. This response was counterproductive and hints at an official view of Muslim citizens as separate from the general population.
Let’s review: shortly after the attack, Nick Robinson, correspondent for the BBC, quoted a Whitehall source which said that the perpetrators were of “Muslim appearance”. Robinson was quickly upbraided on social media for using this term, which in the end proved not to be his own. The phrase itself, issued at a point when the news was hot and passions were burning brightly due to the shock and revulsion that the public rightly felt, was cack-handed at best, malicious at worst. The moment it was uttered, it added to a lingering and pernicious narrative of the Islamic world as the source of terrorism, although as ETA in the Basque lands and the various factions in Northern Ireland prove, terrorism has neither an ethnicity nor a religion. Such a statement could only help stir up mindless racists such as the English Defence League, who immediately descended upon Woolwich: they clashed with police at Woolwich Arsenal station. Also, a man was arrested after coming into a mosque in Braintree armed with knives and an incendiary device.
No doubt it would have emerged that the killers of Lee Rigby believed themselves to be followers of Islam and were motivated by “jihadist” causes. Regardless, it was incumbent upon the authorities to be cautious in the language they used, not utilise a phrase like “Muslim appearance”, particularly since the photographs taken in the aftermath indicated that this simply wasn’t true. What perhaps made this cold blooded murder all the more horrifying was how commonplace the alleged perpetrators looked: they could not be picked out walking along Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. There was nothing extraordinary about their dress or looks, certainly nothing that obviously said they were extremists.
So why did the Whitehall source say to Nick Robinson that they were of “Muslim appearance”? Could it have been a mere poor choice of words: were they trying to suggest that they believed the crime had “jihadist” motivations and expressed this badly? Or is it a symptom arising from the subconscious of the bureaucracy and political class that is willing to assign a Muslim character to a crime such as this?
The superego of the state kicked in, obviously, and all political leaders have been quick to say, rightly, that this crime is contrary to both the letter and spirit of Islam. However two contrary impulses can exist simultaneously: a political leader may know that Muslim citizens are deserving the same protections as any other, and we should be equal before the law. However, the same political leader may have gut instincts which exist in diametric opposition to what he knows. Sometimes, if not often, emotion lashes out more quickly than reason has the ability to get hold of it and we are left with the aftermath of phrases like “Muslim appearance”.
I live in Bradford; though I am not a Muslim, many Muslims also call this city home. There are plenty of Christians, Sikhs and Hindus who reside here as well. Although there are particular “neighbourhoods”, in suburbs like mine, we live side by side in our homes, working, paying taxes, tidying lawns and washing our cars on the weekend. By and large, this works, because we operate in an atmosphere of quiet tolerance and respect. “Tolerance and respect” in extremis means that if a Pakistani man is killed in Birmingham by a white person, that my Muslim and Sikh neighbours don’t assign this malicious deed a “Christian appearance”; it means that the dreadful murder of Lee Rigby is not assigned a Muslim character by the authorities or myself. Rather, it means that both my neighbour and I look at both murders with mutual outrage and shock: we are thus united, rather than divided, by revulsion and a demand for justice. The authorities’ response indicates an intellectual understanding of the principle, but not an intuitive nor instinctual predilection to act in accordance to it. This gap creates a space for the pernicious weeds of bigotry to grow.
This void also offers opportunities for those who profit off of division: UKIP proclaims it is “non-racist” or “anti-racist”, but its attacks on immigration chime in a particular way to those who wish to remove influences seen as “foreign”. The English Defence League is an outlet for the anti-intellectual and disenfranchised who despise the world as it is and seize upon the simplistic expedient of blaming the “other”; they too find oxygen in such a space, as their world view is lent some credibility by those who govern us. On the other hand, the preachers of hate and intolerance can also point at the authorities and say that Muslims will never be full citizens in a land that perceives them as alien, and indeed, such a state is anathema and will never dispense true justice until it espouses their faith.
Most people, regardless of individual religious belief, regard the avatars of extremism as cranks and loonies; nevertheless, as the killing of Lee Rigby shows, it only takes a few to wreak terrible damage. It is incumbent on all citizens to squeeze the space in which hatred flourishes into as cramped quarters as possible: it means that the public will need to turn its face away from the subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos dished out in the media, assorted demagogues and by certain political parties. It means using reason to combat passion and emotion, which often cannot contend with complexity. It also means the authorities as well as citizens will need to feel (as well as think) that all who live here are of equal worth and that murder has no religious character whatsoever, rather, it is the mark of madness.