LONDON – The leaders of the far-right English Defence League probably could not believe their luck. For weeks they had been planning to demonstrate in the town of Newcastle against the opening of a new Islamic school, expecting to attract a few hundred people at most. Then, last Wednesday, two Islamic extremists hacked a British soldier to death with a machete outside his barracks in London, asking passers-by to film their Islamist rant as they walked around with bloody hands, still clutching their weapons.
On Saturday, more than 1,500 people marched with the EDL in Newcastle, throwing firecrackers, cans and glass bottles and loudly proclaiming ownership of Britain’s streets. Parts of the town had to be closed while 1,000 policemen separated them from counter-demonstrators calling them “Nazi scum.” Overhead, a flag celebrated the “Taliban Hunting Club” while the world’s media watched.
Is this a scene Britain is going to have to get used to? For eight years since the terror attacks of 7/7 tension between the country’s 2.7 million Muslims and the rest of the population has been bubbling under the surface, expressed occasionally as antagonism towards “immigrants.”
The first murder of a British soldier in the capital has hit the country hard, leading many to wonder if Britain has reached a turning point in its attitude to Islamists – and to regular Muslim citizens — perhaps unleashing a wave of violent attacks.
But while the experts are naturally cautious at drawing long-term conclusions so soon after the event, they also seem to agree that major unrest is unlikely. Equally unlikely is a new political willingness to tackle Islamists.
In typical British fashion, experts predict both the population and the government will keep calm and carry on.
The political and media elites in particular are “in denial about Islamism,” says Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, a right-leaning think tank. “They don’t listen when they are told why people [commit attacks]. They hope that if they continue to keep their fingers in their ears, it’ll go away – and it doesn’t.”
Anti-Muslim incidents have shot up in recent days, with the Tell MAMA (Measuring anti-Muslim Attacks) phone helpline reporting 162 calls in the 48 hours following Woolwich murder, compared to a normal daily average of six. There were attacks on at least nine mosques, and at least four people have been charged after posting “offensive” material on social media.
But, says Sunder Katwala, director of the identity and integration think tank British Future, “the scale is very limited. Each incident is worrying,” but there is no sense of a wider trend.
Demonstrations have come exclusively from the far-right, and Katwala notes that the EDL managed to attract twice as many people to its largest demonstration to date, in Luton in 2011, as it did in Newcastle this week.
Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party, has also been accused of attempting to capitalize on the Woolwich murder, laying flowers at the scene. One of his colleagues, Adam Walker, declared that the killing “signals the beginning of the civil war.”
Polls taken in the immediate aftermath of the attack show that the rest of the country abhors the far-right’s response, with 61% agreeing that their actions make terror attacks more likely.
“There is a rejection of the extremists’ attempts to stir things up,” says Katwala.
When it came to their Muslim neighbors, a YouGov poll showed Britons increasingly sure there would be a “clash of civilizations” in the future, up 9 points since November 2012 to 59%.
However, 63% of Britons still believe that the majority of Muslims are good citizens, up 1%, and a similar percentage said that community relations were, on the whole, good. Thirty-three percent agreed Muslims were compatible with British life – actually a jump of 10%.
“Clearly, the numbers remain low, and point to wider challenges facing government and our local communities,” wrote Dr. Matthew Goodwin, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, who commissioned the poll. “But in the aftermath of events that could well have triggered a more serious backlash, the direction of travel remains positive and suggests that there has not been a sharp increase in prejudice.”
According to Hagai M. Segal, a lecturer at New York University in London and a consultant on terrorism, the situation remains precarious, playing out against a background of financial austerity, ongoing riots by immigrants in Sweden, and the aftermath of the Boston marathon attack, which was covered heavily in the British media.
“It’s a tense time,” he says. “People feel insecure.”
But he says the government is absolutely determined not to let either the Islamists’ or the EDL’s extremist narratives to become mainstream, and believes that the British people are unlikely to fall for their “crude propaganda.”
For historical reasons dating back to World War II, he says, Britons are instinctively put off by nationalist, authoritarian ideologies.
“The British fought fascism,” he says. “While there is concern about immigration, there is no collective appetite for returning to the ideas of the 1930s.”
Indeed, one anti-immigration party, UKIP, has recently made significant gains on the political scene, much to the angst of the ruling Conservative party. It is mostly directed at European immigrants and has carefully tried to brand itself as non-racist, including towards Muslims – although earlier this month, one councilor resigned over Facebook posts about Muslims.
Whether and how UKIP will be affected by an anti-Muslim backlash, following Woolwich, remains to be seen.
Katwala says that the British learned to stay calm in the face of terror following the massive 7/7 attack in 2005, which was marked with a Europe-wide two-minute silence, and an emphasis on forgiveness and cooperation.
The massive 7/7 attack in 2005 ‘was a much bigger incident and set the template for responding to these events’
“It was a much bigger incident and set the template for responding to these events,” he says. “People tried to remember and learn. They show confidence in a calm response being appropriate [immediately], and over time looking at specifics.”
Counter-intuitively, considering the image of the blood-soaked killers, the Woolwich incident may not have been extreme enough to shift attitudes, he adds. Just one person was killed, in a low-tech way that people understand is hard to prevent.
“It’s a highly shocking, visual incident in a debate we’re all familiar with, and maybe hardened to,” says Kutwala. “We’re jaded, but in a helpful way, in the effort not to over-react.”
“My sense is that this has profoundly shocked people,” he says. “At the same time, it was not unexpected.”
Because the attack was specifically targeted at a soldier, it is likely that most people do not feel personally threatened with a repeat – although other soldiers “will be very scared and disproportionately concerned, just as other writers and filmmakers were in Holland in 2004,” when producer Theo Van Gogh was assassinated by an Islamist.
But Murray adds that it would be a mistake to equate the calmness following an attack with indifference to it. Ordinary people, he says, understand full well that Britain has a problem with Islamism and wish to see this tackled. They feel helpless, though, and unable to discuss it, because the establishment is so determined to deny the connection between Islam and violence.
Following the attack, Prime Minister David Cameron’s first instinct was to declare that “there is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.” He urged Britons to stand firm and defeat terror by “go[ing] about our normal lives,” while much of the media commentary focused on the act’s “senselessness.”
Cameron – who left for a holiday in Ibiza Saturday – did promise to crack down on preachers of hate and launch a task-force to tackle radicalization, but Murray calls the promises “a complete fantasy, a complete lie,” saying that Cameron has made similar pledges for years, all of which remain unfulfilled.
The public, he says, know this is a recipe for disaster, and feel increasingly disconnected from the political class – a sentiment that has contributed to the rise of UKIP.
“This will not be the last [attack], there will be bad and worse to come,” predicts Murray. “This will be one appalling thing in a string of events. I very much doubt the government will do anything or that the public will have a massive response. There will simply be a gradual increase in public disgust.”
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