News and Comment

Woolwich – Community relations under strain, but some are showing the way forward

Tuesday 16 July 2013

There is a real danger that the terrible crimes committed in Woolwich will contribute to the breakdown of community relations. For extremists of both a far right and intolerant Islamist persuasions, the attacks in Woolwich have been a boon and an opportunity; for the rest of us, they are a tragedy and present a really worrying trigger for the deterioration of community relations.

We have seen a small number of attacks on Islamic community centres and Mosques, and a re-emergence of the English Defence League at a point when some were arguing that it was beginning a slow decline. To counter this group, a new organisation – the Islamic Emergency Defence – or IED – has been established to protect Muslim communities from attack through vigilante action. The fact that Anjem Choudary – a prominent extremist – has hailed this group is cause for concern in itself.  Sections of the media have also been less than helpful by giving these groups prominent platforms from which to broadcast their pernicious and marginal perspectives.

This is all very worrying. However, look beyond the escalation in tensions and there have also been some glimmers of hope. In areas where strong inter-community relations have been nurtured and built over many years, people have come together to confront extremists and portray their shared commitment to keeping their community united.

In the London Borough of Barnet for example, the reaction to an arson attack at a local Islamic centre became the focus of a combined effort between two different faith communities to show that this kind of incident will not be tolerated and that communities can stay together in the face of divisive actions. The attack triggered a wave of support from residents, local businesses and other faith groups, with the council quickly offering the use of a local library so that the activities of the centre could continue. Particularly notable were the immediate messages of support and solidarity coming from local Jewish groups. Instead of dividing this community, the attack served to cement a positive relationship between the many different groups which comprise it.

More recently, a small group of EDL protestors gathered outside a mosque in York. Instead of allowing this protest to sour community relations, members of the mosque were able to diffuse the situation, inviting protestors to share tea and biscuits with them. It is likely that the frank conversations and the game of football that followed this invitation did an incredible amount to promote mutual understanding, as the individuals present were able to air their views and develop a better understanding of one another’s positions and concerns. The conversations also sent out a wider challenge to those seeking to incite tensions between community groups. By highlighting the ease with which good natured dialogue can be achieved, they undermined the case for more divisive ways to express concerns, such as rallies or violent acts. These conversations also present a strong challenge to the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric which often seeks to emphasise the apparent incompatibility of different community groups.

In Tower Hamlets, when the EDL was planning to march two years ago, the community was mobilised on a massive scale to reject the march and show that it stood together. Whilst some of the marchers from the EDL were embroiled in trouble with the police, the counter protests were peaceful.

These types of positive community responses can arise quite by chance, but they can also arise because the foundations of good community relations have been laid over many years, nurtured by the local authority and others and kept alive through a strong commitment by local community leaders and activists. It is important, therefore, even in the context of ever more severe cuts to funding, that these relationships are sustained and enhanced. Not all of this requires money, it mainly requires strong leadership and encouraging local groups to offer their time and efforts for free.

This is a joint piece by Ewan King and Oliver Ritchie.