Drummer Lee Rigby’s brutally misguided killers used his death to make a spurious religious and political point. (as related by passerby, Ingrid Loyau-Kenett) Since then, extremist organisations like the EDL have also tried to use his murder to make their own points. They are accused of capitalising on the sense of outrage and fear that the killing generated in British people to promote their cause.
This has triggered anti-fascist organisations and individuals to oppose, ridicule and revile them in social networks and on the streets. This ominous pendulum is now set to swing back and forth, from far right to far left, with no hope of anyone from either side ever finding common ground or agreeing on anything.
But of course, finding common ground is not, in fact, the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is for members of each extreme to reinforce their identity, for each tribe to stake its territory. Sadly, the effect of this will be to drive each extreme further apart, and more sadly, those who were moderate will be driven further towards extremism.
When I was at university I got involved, through a boyfriend, with an animal rights group. Naively, I thought that they were kind animal lovers who just wanted to expose and try to end cruelty to animals. But when we arrived at the secret location of the meeting, I found a group of angry and aggressive young people with a strong sense of persecution. They showed videos of animals being tortured in laboratories, which got us all emotional and hyped up. Then a woman rushed in yelling that one of the group had been arrested for kicking a dustbin. “You’re allowed to kick animals in this country, but not dustbins” she spat in indignant rage – and there were angry murmurings around the room as our hatred was turned up one notch higher. The experience scared me so much I never went back.
But I never once saw that boyfriend stroke a cat or pat a dog. And his demeanour towards human beings was not exactly warm either. What was important, exciting, for him and his group was the feeling of being morally right and using that feeling to justify illegal and aggressive acts. And then feeling further justified in their fight when those acts were opposed or punished. He could just as easily have been an EDL supporter. Or a militant Islamist. Or a violent anti-fascist. These are the natural extremists – which extreme hardly matters. But there are also ordinary people who get drawn towards these extremes through reasonable levels of concern and fear.
A Facebook page called ‘I Love Immigrants’ usually posts gentle, positive profiles of people who have migrated to Britain and contributed to society. But since Woolwich their posts have focused on the EDL, describing them and their actions as “disgusting”, “nonsense”, “bad form”, “feeble” and “moronic”.
Meanwhile, a UKIP official has included Drummer Rigby’s family in a statement calling those who think the EDL is fascist “idiots”. The EDL’s leader, “Tommy Robinson”, Tweeted that he would “stick 2 fingers up at political correctness” when the charity Help for Heroes, whose tshirt Drummer Rigby was wearing when he was killed, refused donations collected by Robinson.
Watching the TV footage of the EDL and anti-fascist marches, it was hard to tell the expressions in the EDL marchers’ faces apart from those of the anti-fascist protestors. “Racist scum! Racist scum!”, they screamed, jabbing raised, accusatory fingers in the air – a gesture chillingly reminiscent of the EDL’s Nazi salutes. I am wholeheartedly anti-fascist, but I wonder what effect the chants and finger-stabbing would have had on, say, a Woolwich housewife who might have joined the EDL march because she was terrified by what had happened to Lee Rigby and believed the EDL’s public rhetoric that they were fighting to protect her and her children?
Lee Rigby’s killers were terrorists in the sense that their actions have created terror among British people. At the same time, a spokesperson for the charity Faith Matters said after the killing; “Muslims at this moment are feeling a real and pervasive sense of fear”. The incidence of attacks on Muslims reported to the charity has increased tenfold since May 22nd, mosques are being firebombed and sprayed with graffiti, Muslim men are being attacked and women having their veils ripped off. And they are also, of course, as vulnerable to terrorist attacks as the rest of us.
Attacking random Muslims is wrong. And killing Lee Rigby was wrong. And killing innocent Afghans and Iraqis is wrong. And torturing animals is wrong. And tear-gassing protestors is wrong…but two (or more) wrongs, don’t make a right.
In a country that prides itself on an adversarial system of justice and an oppositional system of government, perhaps strident opposition seems like an appropriate response to violence and hatred. In a courtroom and in Parliament, there is agreement on either side to accept the judgement or vote that is delivered. But in post-Woolwich Britain there is no judge or jury to decide between the advocates of hatred and fear. Voters who have been made afraid by the actions of the killers are being offered a party to vote for… as Leanne Staven, who joined an EDL march after the killing, puts it “We need a voice… I think white British who have any concerns feel we can’t speak freely”.
However much you disagree with how each side expresses their opinions, there’s nothing you can do about the fact that they have them. Except acknowledge it. Like the carbon that turns into diamonds under intense pressure, the harder you oppose their views, the harder they get. And the more they oppose you, the harder your position will get.
The most courageous and effective response so far to this whole hideous mess has been that of the mosques that have invited their local communities, including EDL supporters, in for tea and biscuits. Quoted in the Huffington Post, mosque elder Professor Mohamed El-Gomati said, “If people sat down and talked, they may come to common, shared ground rather than shouting from a distance and not hearing what the other person is saying… Rather than have a shouting match outside we have invited people in to have a discussion and show solidarity over a cup of tea with us and see exactly what we are doing to dispel any myths. There is nothing better than knowledge.”
There are precedents for diffusing violence in surprising and gentle ways. The one that sticks in my mind is fictional – yet powerful; the scene in Anthony Minghella’s film, Truly, Madly, Deeply when a argument in a café that threatens to turn ugly is suddenly derailed by someone performing an impromptu conjuring trick. He throws a book into the air and it turns into a live pigeon that flies away.
But there was also the real life example of the Belfast policeman who stopped bottle-throwing youth in their tracks by replacing his police car siren with the tune from an ice cream van, turning the angry yells into laughter. And then there was Flower Power when 100,000 protestors against the Vietnam war in 1967 met armed soldiers with flowers, some inserting them into the barrels of their guns. And there was Gandhi’s satyagraha – passive resistance – movement which perplexed the British who were ready to fight fire with fire.
The trouble with that approach is that what you end up with is just more fire. The more we drive each other to extremes, the more likely it is that Woolwich murder suspect Michael Adebowale’s wish will be granted, that there will be a war on the streets of Britain.
Let’s not choose that. Let’s choose to make tea, and conversation, not war.