The Woolwich murder and narratives of hate

Rigby's murder was enacted in front of cell phone cameras, almost psychopathically courting an audience and approval.

Halima Mansoor May 26, 2013
When my phone gently buzzed with a Guardian alert on Wednesday, I was tempted to ignore it but I didn’t. What I read made my heart sink. Someone was talking about a British soldier being hacked to death in Woolwich, South London and Theresa May was summoning Cobra – a crisis response meeting only called for matters of national security. That could only mean one of two things:  a terrorist attack perpetuated by home-grown elements or external forces.

From the Twitter details streaming in, it sounded more like the former. In fact, it sounded less and less like a carefully planned attack and more like the two perpetrators had acted alone.

I know MI6, Scotland Yard and their International counterparts will deconstruct the incident and reconstruct the narrative.

What actually matters to me – dearly – is the public backlash which is now well into day three.  It’s the kind of backlash which rallies for tighter borders, shrinking immigration quotas and diminished diversity.

Groups of Muslims have been loudly tooting the apologist anthem: This is what happens when you occupy Muslim countries, wage war against innocent civilians and target Islam. Others are riding the retaliation wave,
“Yea the UK/US/Nato forces deserve to die painful deaths after what they’ve done in Iraq/Afghanistan.”

The English Defense League and its deplorable likes jumped into the Woolwich dialogue with a hatred only matched by the bile vomited by the Muslim bigots and extremists.

In the words of Ken Livingston (twice Mayor of London), voices “seeking to scapegoat entire communities for this barbaric act” and just a quick peek into their Twitter timeline confirms this:

Neither of these narratives help the people living in that city make sense of what happened – they are aimed to create a climate of fear and rage to turn neighbours against each other.

This sort of hatemongering does not do justice to what I like to call the best of London – what Livingston called “the most successful melting pot…the city of the free”.  Exemplified by the united call by politicians, religious leaders, communities for everyone to remain calm and wait for the facts.

One preliminary fact is, the players in terrorism and war might be disturbed individuals or governments but between those two polarities are the everyday lives of the ‘you and mes’ dotting the globe. If we become passive recipients of divisive opinions, we will lose the opportunity to get to know the lovely bridges of humanity every country offers.

After living in London for a few years, I encountered people intrigued by where I fit into repressive terrorist-run Pakistan. Lovely people – who at first could only make sense of our distant country through confused media representations and the isolated Pakistani community which had recreated Little Pakistan in Aldgate or Southall. I can only hope when I left London, I left them with a more rounded vocabulary with which they can understand Pakistan.

Those (at times) fiery debates with colleagues about war on terrorism or the lack of logic behind Eid-ul-Adha (festival of goat slaughter) or celebrating their monarch’s longevity only made me love London more. The city where I shared my bus to work with African Muslims, South London mums with bundled up children in strollers, the standing book reader who swayed with the bus but never looked up from the page and immaculate City workers. The city which let me practice whatever I wanted as long as I let others do as they please.

It was easier in London to really live any culture or religion than the rest of the places I’ve experienced.

My experience in London might have been marred by a few isolated incidents of racism, but not permanently scarred. If there were a handful of moments where I felt ashamed of my heritage or felt humiliated by an ignorant Brit, there were years of assimilation, love, growth, space and freedom.

The EDL in balaclavas or the racist father and son on my train from Cornwall cannot erase that.

And hopefully for Londoners and for Britons, the two men who murdered soldier Drummer Lee Rigby will not take from them their ability to live and work alongside people from just about any country and every religion.

At least the London I recognise takes great pride in its vibrant scale of people, languages, and philosophies. Something I wish upon every city in every country.

In addition to taking an innocent life, the Woolwich murderers – knowingly or not – could weaken the fabric of a polyglot, multi-ethnic and expressive metropolis. Where else can you have a mayor like Boris with his overgrown Beiber haircut mug for photos, stuck on a zip wire and a bunch of Muslims protest outside Westminster Abbey without any water cannons pointed at them?

So I stitch my own panorama after the heart-breaking murder of Rigby was wilfully enacted in front of cellphone cameras, almost psychopathically courting an audience and approval.

These men do not represent all black men, all Muslims, all South Londoners or all of Nigerian descent. Anti-Islam sentiment is not shared by all Brits or all white people. There is a global need to understand how recessions and austerity breed political extremism and cultural intolerance. There is a need to study “individual jihad”.

The two murderers represent the next generation of disturbed, dangerous individuals who want their acts of horror to trend on Twitter or loop on telly tickers. Social media has created a global stage for narcissists, where they need no auditions to stand in the spotlight. Rigby’s killers made it on the Guardian, Independent and Times front pages and gained immediate global fame. Imagine how hard this would be for an individual to achieve before the advent of Facebook?

The devil lies in the details, and details and facts have receded in importance in the insatiable world of instant constant news bytes. As has the need for context – which we must glean and weave into narratives.

CP Scott said “facts are sacred” but context is the Holy Grail.

Read more by Halima here or follow her on Twitter @Hmansoor
Halima Mansoor
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