THE BLOG

We Have Much to Thank the Rain For

03/12/2015 10:46 GMT | Updated 02/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Our local mosque has just been saved by the rain. A young man in a white hoodie tried to set it ablaze. He was captured on CCTV tossing a gallon of fuel and a lighted torch paper into the grounds and then escaping on a moped.

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"This was a barrel not a bottle. Whoever threw it was determined to cause huge destruction," the mosque's chairperson, Mohammed Kozbar, told reporters on 28 November, the day after the attack. "Luckily it was raining so it didn't explode."

We have a lot to thank the rain for. The mosque, in Finsbury Park, is bounded on both sides by residential accommodation, and faces houses on the opposite side of the street. Had the homemade firebomb been ignited, the conflagration could have engulfed the neighbours as well.

A chilling message of hate

Whoever attacked the mosque was not concerned about that. There can only have been one purpose for torching this place of worship. It was to send a chilling message of hate to the Muslim community in London, and possibly to all Muslims in Britain and beyond. Detectives have called the attempted arson an "Islamophobic hate crime".

Perhaps the attack was the arsonist's "holy war". Perhaps he was avenging the deaths of all those who have died at the hands of the death-cult ISIS. He was fighting fire with fire, terror with terror. Had the rain not frustrated his plans, it is horrifying to think what the consequences would have been.

On the other hand, we are already living through the consequences of this kind of thinking. This assault is part of what is engulfing us all. It is an age-old tale of the cycle of violence. It has been justified - even glorified - throughout history. Perhaps the young man in the white hoodie thought of himself as a lone hero - defending his faith, his culture and his nation against a real and present threat, against the infidels.

Perhaps he was inspired by Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old who shot dead nine worshippers in a Bible study class at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June this year. He was white; they were black. His declared intention was to start a race war. Having unloaded 77 bullets into his victims, none of whom he knew, he told one of the survivors: "You're taking over the country. I have to do this."

Monumental history of violence

In his monumental history of violence, The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker underlines the cumulative effect of our resort to arms:

"To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness... It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred. But the numbers are not in the hundreds, or the thousands, or even the millions, but in the hundreds of millions - an order of magnitude that the mind staggers to comprehend, with deepening horror as it comes to realize just how much suffering has been inflicted by the naked ape upon its own kind."

Others disagree. "Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred," argues political philosopher John Gray, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.

Indeed, what we regard as "normal" - reflected in our blurring of the definition of peace and war - plays a significant role in determining what we are prepared to accept and what we regard as "beyond the pale". It can also extend to the subtle, but all important distinction between "hate crimes" and "acts of terror."

For example, let us suppose that the arson attack had been on almost any other non-Muslim place of worship, and that the CCTV footage had showed a young man possibly of Middle Eastern origin. Is it not reasonable to imagine that at least some media would have denounced this as a terror attack in the centre of the nation's capital? The building would be ringed by heavily armed security forces to reassure the public.

But the "lone wolf" responsible for this horrific attack did not fit that profile. When I walked in the rain to visit the mosque the next day, it was silent, the front gate padlocked. No security personnel in sight. What we were told in brief media reports was that the attack was being investigated as an alleged hate crime.

Is this reassuring?

Is this low-key approach any the more reassuring? Is the attempt to burn down what I now think of as "my mosque" simply another in the growing litany of hate crimes - like the desecration of synagogues and xenophobic attacks of all sorts - that are massively under-reported because they have have become a "normal" part of what we call "peacetime"?

"We have had offensive letters, emails and abusive phone calls," says Mohammed Kozbar in a letter posted on the mosque's website. "Our community members - women and men who attend the mosque - have been physically attacked. I have female members of the congregation here who say they are afraid to walk alone or to go shopping or take public transport in recent weeks."

Perhaps the young man whose image flickers briefly at the wall of the Finsbury Park Mosque in the rainy CCTV footage was influenced by a far more pervasive message that we are now hearing from civic and national figures around the globe.

The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, who blocked Syrian refugees from entering his country this year by ordering the construction of a 175km-long razor-wire fence, told a news conference, "We do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country." His remarks have been echoed by states such as Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Slovakia made its stance even clearer when it anounced that it would only accept Christian refugees - an approach adopted by the mayor of the French city of Roanne, and two of the US Republican Party's presidential contenders, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. Donald Trump is advocating the registration of all Muslims in the United States and surveillance of all mosques. Rival Ben Carson said allowing Syrian refugees into the US would be akin to exposing a neighborhood to a "rabid dog".

Millions think otherwise

I know that I am not alone in my deep concern at what we are witnessing. We have been here time and again throughout history, always with the most appalling of consequences.

Millions upon millions of people around the world know this, and want an end to the global fire of hatred that is burning all around us. They know that we have to find a way out of this deadly cycle of demonization.

What's different this time around - and this makes all the difference - is that this particular cycle of hatred has not reached its ultimate devastating phase. The outcome is still an open question. There is still time to alter the trajectory. And, this time around, we have the ability to express the collective conscience of humanity as never before.

We have much to thank the rain for in our part of town. It has given us a short breathing space. We need to use that to come together in a positive, shared, inter-communal and interfaith demonstration of visible solidarity, not just with our mosque, but with people of all faiths and of none. It would be one way of putting into practice the prophetic words of Martin Luther King Jr:

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."