THE BLOG

The Second Tragedy of Woolwich

05/06/2013 10:26 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST

On 22 May a soldier was killed by men armed with machetes and meat-cleavers in Woolwich, London. The tragic event took place in the middle of a street in full view of members of the public, and was a horrific, unprovoked attack on an ordinary citizen. Once it was discovered that the men who claimed responsibility for the savage attack did so under the guise of service to Allah and Islam, many people and the press have taken the tragedy and subverted it to vent their own Islamophobic intolerance and propaganda.

Immediately after the attack took place, as with the recent Boston Marathon bombings, all press coverage seemingly attempted to vilify all Islamic peoples, even before the will or purpose behind the attacks was known. In Boston, the primary suspect was initially a Saudi Arabian national injured in the blast, the only one of a hundred and seventy-six people hospitalised to have his apartment searched by police as a suspect. The same vilification, the same suspicions, surfaced in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the killing: the BBC reported that the suspects were "of Muslim appearance" and thus before any evidence to support the claim surfaced, the notion that it was a Jihadist terror attack was already born.

The men who claimed responsibility for the attack claimed it was in Allah's name, and because of this the attack was used to demonize Islam, and Muslims everywhere, and associations were drawn to label them as "Jihadists" and "Terror Fanatics". My point is this: if the circumstances were reversed, the man's religion and race would not have been mentioned whatsoever, i.e. if a white British citizen had killed someone with a machete, they wouldn't be described as being "of Christian appearance", and their race wouldn't have been considered a factor. But because the claimants were Muslims, and because they aren't white, the tragic event was referred to as a "terrorist" attack by a man "of Muslim appearance" rather than being treated as an isolated incident in itself. What a "Muslim appearance" is, I'm not really sure; it's quite non-descript as a phrase, attempting to generalise the appearance of 1.4 billion ethnically diverse people.

The focal point of the media's attention was on the attackers' religion, and the significance of this is how it demonstrates the permeation of Islamophobia in British society, as well as how this has been seized upon by ordinary people. A Facebook page, RIP Woolwich Soldier, exemplifies this most clearly. As of 25 May, the page has approximately 1.5 million likes, and here is a select few of the kind of comments that litter the page: "If you love Islam so much then fuck off to an Islamic country you scum", "Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion. WHAT A LOAD OF BOLLOCKS. They integrate with other societies like oil mixes with water". One comment even came up with an "answer" to the "problem": "the answer is quite simple; change the immigration policy...stem the flow of ethnic migration, particularly Muslims...they cause alot [sic] more problems in western societies than alot [sic] of high and mighty people might come to admit ... ship them back to the shit holes they came from".

All the comments I've quoted above received a very concerning amount of 'likes'. The idea that a man has died seems not to have even factored into their arguments; instead the page seems to be an excuse to vent streams of racist and Islamophobic hatred. The fact that this intolerance is continually surfacing is alarming but not all that surprising, considering first the growing popularity of political organisations like the EDL, BNP and UKIP, but also the treatment of Islam in the popular press.

Even with a quick look at the headlines of papers today, it is evident how Islamophobic attitudes are supported and sustained by the media: from the Guardian's 'You people will never be safe', and the Daily Telegraph's 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We won't stop fighting you until you leave us alone', to the Daily Mail's 'Blood on his hands, hatred in his eyes', none are the appropriate response to the inexcusable attack. By not stressing that the men have been detained and arrested, and instead repeating their threats the papers not only demonize the attackers, but also the religion they claim to be representing. It is akin to suggesting the Westboro Baptist Church, or other extremist Christian organisations, or solo Christian fanatics, represent the whole faith as a whole, which is obviously a completely false and unjustifiable accusation that irresponsibly breeds fear and ignorance. So the question remains, why is there a double-standard towards Islam?

Some people say Britain is a responsible, tolerant country, proud of its multicultural heritage. I don't see it. I see the national press and an alarming amount of people willing to demonize the faith of 1.4 billion people because of the actions of a very small minority. When Islamic students are warned not to leave their homes for fear of repercussions, when ethnic minority people are all labelled together and attacked jointly, when the BBC can throw around the term "Muslim appearance", and when torrents of Islamophobic abuse penetrate popular culture and social media, I see dangerously ignorant people, with scarily xenophobic and intolerant attitudes, brimming beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity like this.

There is, of course, no excuse for the despicable actions of those who killed Drummer Rigby but their actions are in no way representative of anyone but themselves, certainly not a whole religion. The truth is very simple: two tragedies have occurred. The first tragedy was in Woolwich, where a man was killed. Not a soldier, a Brit, a white man, or a hero, but the savage killing of an ordinary citizen was a tragedy in itself. The second is how his death has been hijacked to vent religious intolerance and hatred, rather than respect being shown for the dead.