When British Prime Minister Theresa May responded to the London Bridge terrorist attack this month with the words “enough is enough,” it wasn’t just campaign rhetoric.
It sums up a wearing down of patience across Western Europe, which has born witness to over a dozen major terrorist attacks in 30 months.
Britain had been spared the barrage, much of it inspired by the so-called Islamic State, until it shifted to the British stage this spring, with four attacks since March. The first three were perpetrated by Islamist extremists in the name of religion, taking the lives of innocent victims commuting from work, out walking, dancing at concerts, or celebrating. The youngest was just 8 years old. The latest was carried out Sunday night against Muslims worshiping at a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan, confirming the dread that many have felt amid a fraying of nerves: that “enough is enough” will give way to the most violent forms of Islamophobia.
In the middle stand community groups and faith leaders, who are trying to foster dialogue and counter the hotheadedness that threatens to roll back years of work on co-existence. “In the current climate of the world we live in, there’s a need for more understanding,” says Imam Yunus Dudhwala, the head of chaplaincy at Barts Health NHS Trust, a group of hospitals serving East London.
He was speaking at a recent “sunset walk” – after the London Bridge incident and before the latest attack – that started on the sun-dappled steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and ended at the East London Mosque. “The more we meet, the more we have dialogue and events together, it’s an opportunity to understand each other,” he says. “It breaks the barriers of fear, of the unknown.”
Standing beside the imam was Jonathan Baker, the Bishop of Fulham. “It’s hugely important that we all witness the fact that we stand together as citizens of the one city,” he says. “We all want to live in peace, in safety, in mutual respect with one another.”
'Not comfortable in your own area'
That can seem a lofty goal these days, with mistrust running high between communities across many quarters of Europe.
The suspect of Sunday’s attack near the Finsbury Park Mosque was named as Darren Osborne, a resident of Wales who allegedly said at the scene that he wished to “kill all Muslims” as he drove a van into a crowd. One person was killed. It immediately generated more shrill reaction, with some right-wing extremists calling it revenge for jihadi violence, while Islamic extremists called for a “wake up” in the Muslim community. The attack was all the more contentious amid media reports that the mosque, once the stage of radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, had recently been recognized for its efforts to fight extremism.
It comes as hate crimes are on the rise. In the week following the London Bridge rampage, reported attacks against Muslims increased by fivefold, according to figures released by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Nida Mumith, a teen volunteer with British nonprofit Muslim Aid, which sponsored the sunset walk, says she and her friends are frightened by such statistics. “It creates this sense of not being comfortable in your own area – wherever you go you’ll hear about someone being beaten up because they’re Muslim, or [about] hateful comments thrown at them,” she says.
Taking part in the sunset walk, which was initially organized to raise funds in support of Syrian refugees but expanded to condemn extreme religious violence in Britain and around the world, is her way of helping to counter intolerance. “We’re all here to show unity. Everyone is sympathetic to each other’s beliefs and differences,” she says.
Tensions in Britain are high, but the strains are felt everywhere. As London was reeling Monday, a car crashed into a police vehicle on Paris’s Champs-Elysees, what authorities call a probable terrorist attack. Such incidents barely dominate the news anymore – after three major attacks in France have left 231 dead and hundreds injured since the first on the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015.
Muslim groups have shown the same degree of exasperation over what are starting to feel like incessant strikes. The London-based Quilliam Foundation released a stern statement following the early June attacks in the British capital, seeming to align with Ms. May’s sentiment.
“Enough is enough – we need action now and not tip-toeing around the issue,” Quilliam Foundation CEO Haras Rafiq said. “The [terrorists’] ideology has its roots in Islamist-inspired Salafi Jihadism and we must all admit the problem before we can attempt to challenge it.”
Meanwhile, Muhammad Manwar Ali, a former jihadist fighter who now combats Islamic extremism through his organization JIMAS, tweeted in support of the British government’s controversial anti-radicalization program, PREVENT.
Grassroots or state-led efforts?
Still, many fear such programs are counterproductive to trust.
"Basically the state is asking people to spy on each other, and that’s really not conducive to an atmosphere of trust”, says Amina Yaqin, a senior lecturer in postcolonial Studies at SOAS-University of London. “It also gives groups like ISIS a real opportunity to say, ‘Look, you’re mistrusted anyway, so come over to our side.'"
She says interfaith and grassroots initiatives are generally more effective than state-led programs in fostering the kind of mutual vulnerability that engenders cooperation – the kind on view as the two-mile sunset walk ends at the East London Mosque on a recent Saturday. Here the evening meal, or iftar, to break the fast of Ramadan, is distributed in yellow styrofoam containers. But first a group of speakers reflects on the challenges ahead, even more important after the attack Sunday on the Finsbury Park Mosque, just a few miles away.
“How do we respond to bombs and murder in Tehran, Syria, Manchester, London? By refusing the fragmentation and the fear that these killers wish to instill into our open society,” says the Rev. Alan Green, rector of St. John Church on Bethnal Green and chair of the Tower Heights Interfaith Forum. “In the face of fear, murder, and ignorance, we continue to proclaim that we are better together and have no place for hate…. In the end, the way we will defeat those who seek to divide us – we do it simply by talking and listening.”
• Sara Miller Llana contributed reporting from Paris.