Around six months ago, on the 19th June 2017, the 48 year old Darren Osborne is accused of having driven a van into a crowd of Muslim worshipers outside a mosque, injuring nine people and killing one 58 year old man. Though the suspect has not yet been convicted, the tragedy has opened the eyes of the public to the urgency of the problem of combating Islamophobic propaganda and of rethinking the way in which a narrative can be created about a community that is not only divisive, but potentially deadly.
Though it might have been Osborne who is responsible for the tragedy, this should in no way detract from the bravery of the victims, in particular that of the imam Mohammed Mahmoud who prevented any retaliation by shielding him from a crowd beginning to show signs of shock-induced aggression. Despite being lauded as a perfect example of someone loving their enemies and even being labelled as the ‘hero imam’, though, Mahmoud rejects this characterization on the basis that it implies that he is the exception to the rule. In an interview for The Guardian, he eloquently explains:
“We can’t escape the fact that Muslims are portrayed in an unfavourable light in the media…to conclude or theorise that [Osborne] would have been killed if [I wasn’t] there, that’s based on a narrative that’s put forward that Muslims are savage and don’t respect the law”.
Instead, he calls attention to the fact that he was helped by many others, that aggression is the natural response to such a barbaric act of cruelty. The London mayor Sadiq Khan similarly spoke out about the horrific events, asserting:
“This is a good community. They pull together, they work closely with each other and the actions of Imam Mohammed are what I would expect from a good faith leader and a good Muslim leader.”
Why, then, must it take a disaster such as this for people to recognize the power of common moral principles, of shared dignity and humanity? Why must it be necessary for a tragedy such as this for a Muslim man to be called a ‘hero’ for the work he does and for the outpouring of support that came in the wake of the attack even though Islamophobia is increasingly being felt by British Muslims on a daily basis? The Independent has published figures that show that instances of anti-Muslim hate crime targeting mosques have more than doubled between 2016 and 2017, Sadiq Khan also pointing out that Islamophobic attacks have increased fivefold since the London brige attack.
Undeniably, the media has a huge role to play in the unfair demonization of Islam, the press being responsible to much of the kind of hateful, extremist content that motivated this act of terror. Osborne’s partner, Sarah Andrews, described to the BBC in an interview how “He seemed brainwashed and totally obsessed with the subject [of Muslims]” prior to the attack. She cites programmes such as the BBC’s Three Girls and the social media accounts of nationalist parties such as Britain First and the English Defence League as contributing to his paranoia, it being fair to say that a clear line can be drawn between hate crime and the way that Islam is presented in the media. An article in the Guardian draws attention to graffiti on the Sutton Islamic Centre which reads “Terrorise your own country”, ironic when the terror suspect in this instance is British and attacking fellow Brits.
This kind of bad press disproportionally targets and affects those most vulnerable, it being convenient to create a scapegoat for society’s ills that can shoulder the blame for everyday hardships. It dehumanizes entire communities and encourages a tribal way of thinking where those who may be of an unfamiliar race or religion do not ‘belong’, or even pose a threat to the existence of one’s own tribe, even though this is an entirely ludicrous and unhealthy way to look at the world.
All of this only highlights the growing need for the government and the police to combat Islamophobia and to put the same kind of efforts into eliminating the issue as they do towards extremist Islamic propaganda. Both of these are terror-related, and must be treated with the same degree of urgency and dedication for they both pose a threat to what we might like to imagine a peaceful Britain to be . It seems completely absurd that schools might summon a boy who simply converted to Islam into a meeting to check if he was being targeted by Islamic State (as they did at mine) but authorities wouldn’t investigate a man (Osborne) who had made inflammatory and threatening statements at a pub – “I’m going to kill all the Muslims, Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands” – and publicly announcing his intentions to kill members of the Labour party such as Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn.
Fundamentally, the debate comes down to issues of identity and belonging, Osborne harboring the ideology like many others that those of other ethnicities, cultures and religious faiths don’t ‘belong’ in Britain. At the heart of this is a certain dangerous conception of what Britain was and should be i.e. a predominantly white and Christian country. Though this Britain may never truly have existed, as this country has for thousands of years been composed of countless different cultures and ethnicities, the dream persists, more accurately described as a nightmare for the potential hatred and division it feeds and facilitates. I for one would rather belong to a community made up of members who honour justice and mercy, such as Mohammed Mahmoud, than those who take the law into their own hands and fail to recognize the humanity of others as Osborne has demonstrated. Now, rather than divide us, this tragedy should teach us that we must actively nurture compassion and understanding rather than hatred and division, or the society that we would like to live in might never come to fruition.
“If you have unshakable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” so said the said the Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. After listening to an inspiring interview of Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I felt compelled to do a little digging into the country’s history to observe her path to becoming Africa’s first woman in the presidential office, a journey made possible by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the single mother Leymah Gbowee. I am ashamed that I was ignorant of so monumental a peace movement, run by ordinary women, what would have such far-reaching, lasting consequences not only for Africa, but for the international political community as a whole.
It is worth here giving a brief outline of Liberia’s history, the West African country emerging from a colony of American ex-slaves in the 19th century, only to gain its independence as the Republic of Liberia thirty years later. For decades, the political sphere was dominated by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves that migrated there decades before, leading to growing tensions among the indigenous community who felt they were being neglected and cheated by the ruling class. This state of affairs continued until the president William Tolbert was killed in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, whose leadership – the result of a fraudulent election – was violent and bloody, swiftly publicly executing members of Tolbert’s cabinet after his rise to power. During his rule, another uprising occurred, led by Charles Taylor sparking a long and bloody civil war, after which he was elected president. Throughout his leadership, he was accused of supporting the perpetration of the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of innocent citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes, the principal victims being women and children.
It was this 14 year long civil war that compelled Leymah Gbowee to action, herself a single mother and social worker working with UNICEF to counsel those who had been traumatized by war, putting her into contact with some of the most vulnerable members of Liberian society, some of whom were ex-child soldiers. In 2002, she reported having a dream in which God spoke directly to her, telling her to gather the women of Liberia together to lobby for peace and an end to the fighting and hostilities that had caused untold suffering and devastation to thousands or innocent, ordinary people like herself. She begun at her Church, forming the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace whose supporters demonstrated continually at a local fish market with signs and placards, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, strategically choosing the route they knew the president to take everyday on his way to and from work. Significantly, Muslim women made up a large part of the assembly, Gbowe credited with uniting women across cultural divides in the name of peace and prosperity for Liberia and the future of their children.
Suffice it to say, the movement grew to encompass thousands of women, eventually succeeding in making direct contact with the president when Gbowee issued a speech to Taylor, refusing to turn her back to him, where she declared “We [the women of Liberia] are tired of war. We are tired of running…We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children”. Later, peace talks would be held in Ghana following pressure from the international community as well as the women’s movement, an event attended by many supporters of Gbowee’s cause. After weeks of seeing little change, the women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace where they prevented anyone in attendance from leaving until a satisfactory outcome had been reached, Gbowee resisting arrest by threatening to strip naked as, in her words, “You [they] have taken all of this from me, I’m giving you [them] the last bit of my pride”, whereupon they released her. Not long afterwards, a peace deal was reached and Charles Taylor was exiled and imprisoned in Nigeria charged with crimes against humanity throughout his six year presidency.
Many argue that is was largely the work of these brave, inspiring women that facilitated the election of Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often credited with stabilizing a country that had for years been in the grip of violence and corruption.
Sirleaf is herself another inspiring woman in Liberia’s political history; a victim of an abusive relationship and imprisoned twice for opposing the government Johnson Sirleaf still managed to ascend to the presidency through democratic election, going on to implement free primary education for Liberia’s children, attract valuable foreign investment, promote equal rights for women and stabilize a country long at war, though she has been the recipient of fierce criticism for tolerating corruption within the presidential circle as well as nepotism. It is unsurprising, then, that both Sirleaf and Gbowee are recipients of the Nobel Peace prize for their work in fighting for social justice and peace for their country despite all of the odds that seemed to work against their favour.
These women provide us with clear proof of the strength and grace of ordinary women, show us that women wield extraordinary power both as individuals but, more importantly, as a unit. When women put on a united front, there is little they cannot achieve, as Liberia’s Women’s movement demonstrates. Ladies, stand up.