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7/7 and Beyond - a South Asian response to the London Bombings 

Leicester: A case study in response to the London bombings

By Canon Dr Andrew Wingate
Bishop’s Inter Faith Adviser, and Director of the St Philip’s Centre, Leicester
(after consultation with Shaikh Ibrahim Mogra, who will be co presenter.)

The 6th of July was a day of great inter faith rejoicing in Leicester, as elsewhere. It was as if the Olympic games were coming to our city, and everyone was talking about London 2012. It was a day of United Leicester in celebration. I drove to Northampton the next morning for a meeting, and the radio was full of interviews from London about the games. My meeting finished at noon, and I automatically switched on Radio 4. I found that the news appeared already to have started an hour earlier. The awful reality of what had happened in London only gradually dawned on me, as I heard reporters speculating on how many had died on London transport. The day of terror had followed the day of jubilation. My reaction was like so many- disbelief, sadness for London, thanks that two of my three children who live in London were overseas, and the third worked in South London, anxiety as to whether the terrorists would strike in my city of Leicester next. We all probably remember where we were on the morning of 7/7 as it soon became, just as we remember where we were when Diana, Princess of Wales, died, and when those extraordinary pictures came in from New York on 9/11.

By the time I got back to Leicester, my thoughts had turned to what were we going to do in Leicester. Since 9/11, we had established structures to respond to just this kind of emergency. The scenarios were either if there was a terrorist attack in Leicester, or, not surprisingly, in London, what would we do? Leicester is a city of 289,000 people (with about 500,000 including the contiguous areas of Leicestershire. It is the most multi religious city outside London, with very large Hindu and Muslim populations, and significant numbers of all other faiths, especially Sikhs. There had been previous scares of arrests for terrorism from time to time, none of which had added up to much in terms of community relations- immigration cases, other offences, a couple of convictions of North Africans who were not related to the main Indian, Pakistani or Somali Muslim populations.

The first action was that faith leaders were called to the police headquarters in Enderby at 6 pm that evening. This was not a panic reaction; we had already established processes for just this kind of emergency, and agree to meet within 24 hours. The police were very clear in their briefing of us, and they shared also a risk assessment of whether such attacks might happen in Leicester in coming days. The police leadership said they wanted to listen to faith leaders and their assessment of how their communities were reacting. In this city, this probably means half the population. I had come armed with a statement which I had written on behalf of the Faith Leaders, and the Council of Faiths, which I read out for their approval. This is a task I regularly fulfil at the Faith Leaders’ meeting, but rarely at such short notice. It was received positively by all, and the police asked permission to release their own statement the following morning, along with our statement, to show solidarity. We are fortunate in Leicester, also, to have a very responsible local media, both with Radio Leicester, the Asian Network of the BBC based here, MATV, the national Asian TV station, and above all, the Leicester Mercury. The editor of this important local newspaper, convenes a regular panel on ethnic and cultural affairs, and does all in his power to enable his newspaper to print good stories from faith communities, and to respond actively and constructively to news such as that just received.

The next step was to call the Faith Leaders to a meeting at the Bishop’s House. This meeting has met every couple of months since 9/11 (in the immediate aftermath it met every week). It is complementary to the Council of Faiths, an important statutory body which has been in existence now for 20 years, which does not normally involve in political issues. We can call the Faith Leaders meeting at short notice, and we agreed there should be just one agenda item, reactions to the bombings and their aftermath, and how we should respond in Leicester. The attendance was high from all faiths, and we included, as we always do, representatives of the police, and the local authority. As we arrived we heard news that some of the suicide bombers had been traced to Leeds and Dewsbury. Further anxiety- if these places, why not also Leicester? This was heightened later when Birmingham, South London, Aylesbury were also connected with the 21 st July bungled attempts at a further attack. Could we continue to say, as we are often in danger of doing, this couldn’t happen in Leicester!

The meeting was a memorable one. The Muslims present were all invited in turn to express their feelings, and they were unanimous in both their shock and condemnation. Others then spoke from the many communities, and I felt the most striking contribution was from the Chief of Police, Matt Baggott, who is a practicing Christian, and spoke out of role in a profoundly theological way. Two things were agreed by the meeting- that the question of disaffected youth of all communities were our greatest concern, especially, of course, from Muslim communities on this occasion. We pledged to do more in this sphere. More immediately we unanimously agreed to support the initiative of the Federation of Muslim Organisations, an umbrella body of nearly 100 such organisations, including all mosques but also numerous other community groups, in organising a rally in the largest park in Leicester, Victoria Park, the following Saturday, just a few days ahead.

More immediately, a public meeting was called in the market place. Two minutes silence was kept as trading stopped, and the Chair of the Council of Faiths spoke on behalf of all communities, in condemnation of the evil acts perpetrated in London. The media were present in force, and concentrated on the visible unity between faiths.

I was fortunate enough to be in London and witnessed the Trafalgar Square rally, with its theme of London United, and its extraordinary breadth of participation. Our Leicester meeting reflected our own local context, and our slogan became United Leicester, one City, One Community. Chaired by the Chair of the Federation of Muslim organisations, there were speakers from all faiths, including the Sikh Chair of the Council of Faiths- and it was good to see the Bishop being called to speak by a Muslim lay person!- but also included the MP of that area, the Editor of the Mercury, the head of the city council, the chief of police and others. The 1000 people present on that hot July afternoon represented so many others who were there in spirit. What was particularly impressive was the organisation of the FMO, a hard hitting speech from a young Muslim mother, with no holds barred about the shame she felt for her whole community, and placards held by Muslim women and children, with slogans such as ‘Muslims are not killers’, ‘Islam is a good religion’ etc.

A further structure that has proved its importance in these days after the bombings has been the two Muslim-Christian dialogue groups. One is mixed, Imams, clergy and lay people, and while it is majority male, includes some women. It has been meeting for five years, every six weeks. The other is the women’s group, meeting now for over three years. They meet for discussion on a wide variety of themes, theological and scriptural, and a wide range of engaged topics. They also take appropriate actions together.

Three meetings were held in the weeks after 7/7, during a period not easy to organise from the Christian perspective since it was the holiday season. The first also included response to the controversial Panorama programme, with its explicit attacks on the leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain and on the Islamic Foundation in Markfield just outside Leicester, members of whom are well represented in our group. It was also after a visit of the government Home Office minister Hazel Blairs. In her consultations after 7/7, she visited Leicester, and met nearly 100 members of the community. These were mainly Muslims, and a few persons of other faiths. I pointed out that there was just one Hindu, representing about 50,000 Hindus. Such under representation only creates feelings that the government is only interested in consulting Muslims. The response that Hindus also are affected by the bombs, and also, like most Muslims, want to cooperate with the authorities in helping to ensure future safety. The need for balance at all levels is especially apparent in Leicester, the Hindu capital, where there is also a large Sikh community. I have heard comments like, ‘We do not cause trouble, and so we are not noticed.’

At this first dialogue group, we agreed that we should hear about feelings, particularly from Muslim members, and then move onto actions later. Here are some of those voices:

  • A young Muslim mother: We are only asking to be treated equally, as we have always been, for example, at the school gate. Now we feel suspicion; we hear voices talking of ‘your community’, not ‘our community’. I want to say that ‘our community’ is the British community, it is not Pakistani, even if that is our family history.
  • The actions of the bombers were criminal and totally to be condemned. But the whole community should not be blamed.
  • We are being asked to control our youth- but what more can we do? They need places where they can express themselves safely, and be able to protest peaceably.
  • Banning groups of extremists will only help such people. The community itself is about to isolate such groups, and indeed has done in the Leicester context.
  • The police raided a house last week at 4 am. Are BNP houses raided at that time in the morning? The Algerian individuals were released again by lunchtime- but this kind of action just produces a ripple effect of suspicion of authorities in the community.
  • Proposed legislation will not stop extremism, they will find a way round it. The best way to fight it is through the community, Muslim but also others.
  • The government seems to think a mosque is a law enforcement agency; you cannot expect this from them, any more than you could from a church.
  • Why were Draconian laws not introduced after the Brighton bombs which nearly killed Margaret Thatcher and her government?
  • Of course foreign policy in Iraq and Palestine is a factor, though never an excuse. The government should accept this.
  • Two comments of Muslim women: The problem now is that ‘being more religious’ is seen as being ‘a potential terrorist’ by some. Being religious should mean being more peaceable: Do not forget that ‘the state’ is all of us, and we should all be involved in bringing solutions. Islam cannot and should not be depoliticised.
  • Christian comments: We need to consolidate Christian-Muslim solidarity, and the new joint working agreement between the new St Philip’s Centre for Study and Engagement in a Multi faith Society, and the Islamic Foundation was an important signal of this: Driving extremism underground by internship had been shown to be a failure in N.Ireland, and we need to learn from this: We need to engage governors and teachers in the many church schools in largely white Leicestershire in the debate, since education of the majority community is vital, it is the concern of all of us, wherever we live.
  • The government has been challenged to learn how to handle faith; they are used to race and culture.
  • From an Imam: I am an extremist- in my love of my family and my religion! We need to be very careful about using words like ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘extremist.’
  • A final Christian voice: We have heard the hurt, now what we can do?

There was just one action from this first meeting, to write to the educational authority, asking them to warn schools to be vigilant about any bullying aimed at Muslim children, when the new term began. Such fears were fortunately not realised.

A week later, we turned to the doing, and in groups made recommendations about what the civic authorities should do, what our group should do, and where was our personal responsibility in this situation.

In answer to the first question, there was a strong recommendation that future legislation should be brought in by consultation, or it would only make things worse, and above all that Britain should not move in the French direction of control. Young people need not be treated with respect, and more funding put into that age group, including sports ventures and other outdoor activities. Training of Imams should not come under government control, but Muslims themselves should be prepared to open up the syllabus (shortly after this, it was agreed by a local Darul Loom, that there should be a course, taught by Christian clergy, on Christianity, the church, and inter faith relations, and pastoral care, and this is to start in November.) There should also be a review of the direction British foreign policy has taken in the Middle East.

The main recommendation related to our groups is that these are good news. Their membership should be widened, and both a web site and a regular news letter were agreed, with two volunteers being willing to take on the task of the newsletter, one Muslim and one Christian. It was agreed that we should together continue to speak out on immediate challenges, where the two faiths together can provide solidarity to each other, and where Muslims were increasingly anxious about speaking openly about issues since 7/7. It was also agreed to seek more publicity for the fund raising appeals that we make together each year for common causes, because people need to know that Muslims and Christians do things together, as well as talk to each other.

The third challenge brought comments about the need to greet our neighbours in the street, across faiths, by saying ‘good morning’; to take personal responsibility to work within our own communities to break down prejudice about ‘the other’; to make a commitment to educate ourselves about the ‘other’; to rejoice in personal Muslim-Christian friendships and work at them since they are precious; to make clear we object to American foreign policy, not to individual Americans; to mark all disasters equally, whatever faiths are involved, and show this publicly; make clear our opposition to all violence and not to keep silent, particularly at work.

Conclusion

What this case study shows is that it is vital to have structures in place which are not just emergency linked, but founded on trust, partnership and friendship, if we are to respond effectively to events like the London bombings. It is vital that there is no complacency, which can be a danger in a city like Leicester which has become a byword for good community and inter faith relations. It is also important that we learn from one another’s good practice. I have just made a visit to Denmark, with Dr Atalullah Siddiqui from the Islamic Foundation. We spoke to eight different meetings in four days, in different cities and at different levels. The main area of interest from that end was how we had dealt with the period after 7/7; and there was general admiration for what had happened after that in London and elsewhere. I have found the same on the European Churches Committee for Relations with Islam, of which I am a member. In Denmark, though they have a number of good projects, publicly they are still at the level of arguing whether there should be even one purpose built mosque in the second city Aarhus, though the Muslim population is large. In the local elections happening there, there was a ‘No mosque’ campaign. It was the state church that was organising the ‘Yes to a mosque’ campaign. We are far beyond this point. Yet 7/7 happened. If there is any good to come out of such an evil event, it must be that we also as a country cannot be complacent. It is therefore especially to be welcomed that this conference is taking place.


   
   
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