Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Woolwich, alienation and belonging

After hearing Nick Clegg speak to a multi-religious audience on Friday, I went down to Woolwich.

nick clegg ii

The Deputy Prime Minister addressing religious & interreligious leaders on Friday morning.

I attended Juma prayers at the local mosque, bought a peace lily at Tesco’s and went to the place outside Woolwich Barracks where British soldier Lee Rigby was killed, in a particularly gruesome attack, two days earlier.

Peace lily in memory of Lee Rigy from LBFN

Peace lily in memory of Lee Rigby from LBFN

The peace lily, on behalf of London Boroughs Faiths Network, joined hundreds of other flowers around the railings and in spite of the pouring rain people kept arriving to pay their respects.

I was with two Muslim friends who laid flowers in memory of the young Fusilier – Julie Siddiqi for the Islamic Society of Britain and Dr Shuja Shafi for the Muslim Council of Britain.  Another friend, Siriol Davies, who works closely with several mosques in south London, also laid flowers.

Although the media swirl has revolved around Islam and terrorism, the video footage (previously on the BBC website, now on the Sun’s) of one of the assumed killers speaking to onlookers leads me to further questions.

He is black (of Nigerian origin) and his south London voice sounds familiar and like many other disaffected boys and young men, from different religious backgrounds, that I have met over the years.

What he says suggests a huge gulf between him and mainstream society.  Addressing fellow Britons, he distances himself from us by making a distinction between ‘our’ and ‘your’.

“I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same . .  Remove your government . .”

In the end he gets confused between ‘we’ and ‘you’ . .

“Tell them [the government] to bring our troops back so we can – so you can – all live in peace.”

Does he consider himself part of the “we” of British society?  It doesn’t sound like it.

A caller to Radio 4’s PM programme said of  the suspects, “They just don’t belong here.”  Two callers to yesterday’s Any Answers echoed this, with one saying British Muslims should all “quietly leave the country”.

To wish that any group will disappear is to be on a dangerous track.  Tell Mama, which monitors anti-Muslim attacks, reports a huge surge this week in hate crime against Muslim people, including personal attacks and violence against mosques.

Woolwich Barracks on Friday.

Woolwich Barracks on Friday.

Feeling invisible, redundant, rejected and disposable is not uncommon amongst some of the boys and young men I’ve talked to, particularly from African and Caribbean backgrounds.  Discrimination, disproportionate rates of mental illness and involvement as victims and perpetrators of crime attest to a life of struggle.  Try as they may, their experience of education, policing and job opportunities often thwarts them.

Do they feel they belong?  A sense of belonging is essential.  If acceptance and acknowledgement don’t come to you, it’s likely you’ll seek them out.  Criminal gangs and ideological extremists welcome such young men with open arms.

There can be no special pleading for the perpetrators of Wednesday’s horrific murder.  They must bear the consequences of their actions.  Piecing together the jigsaw of what led to their deep alienation, however, must be a priority.

edl-march-newcastle-4016053

English Defence League in Newcastle yesterday. Photo: The Chronicle.

When I observe English Defence League protests with the police, it strikes me that for many of the protesters (mainly men) the demonstrations are possibly the highlight of their lives: meeting up with friends in common cause, plenty of attention, escorted here and there by police officers, everyone watching and listening, a bit of extra attention (arrests) when the racism turns violent, ending with a few drinks in the pub and an escort home.  Far from being nobodies, they are suddenly, for one day, somebodies – they’re visible and they belong – you can see it on their faces.

How do we close this gap and support belongingness of a positive kind?  How can we involve young people in building society, sharing common cause, in which everyone is valued, in deed as well as in word?  What needs to change so that boys and young men, whether they are white or from African, Asian or Caribbean backgrounds, whether Muslim or not, have the same chances – at school, at work, in civil society – as the rest of us, so that they’re comfortable in their own skin and in their own (my own) country?

Julie Siddiqi after laying flowers in memory of British soldier Lee Rigby.

Julie Siddiqi after laying flowers in memory of British soldier Lee Rigby.

For those of us who already have a sense of entitlement, a sense of purpose within mainstream society – why aren’t we sharing this more widely?  What doors need opening, horizons lifted, blinkers removed?  Any re-jigged Prevent Programme needs a far more holistic approach.

More positively, there has been an overwhelmingly strong response across religious communities condemning the murder.  No longer can people wonder aloud why Muslims don’t distance themselves categorically from such atrocities; there has been a steady stream of imams, scholars and Muslim organisations issuing press releases, video statements and arranging photocalls.  This has been supported by multifaith groups and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In time we will hear more about the two men who carried out this brutal murder and we will continue to hold the friends and family of Lee Rigby in our thoughts and prayers.

At the moment, demonstrating solidarity with Muslim friends, local Islamic centres and offering support is top of the agenda.  Let me know if you’re unsure who to contact.

We could do worse than follow Russell Brand’s advice

“The murderers want angry patriots to desecrate mosques and perpetuate violence.

How futile their actions seem if we instead leave flowers at each other’s places of worship.”

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6 comments on “Woolwich, alienation and belonging

  1. livesandliberties
    28 May 2013

    Reblogged this on Life and Liberty and commented:
    An articulate piece that pinpoints the conflict felt by young, disaffected men. It illustrates cultural discomfort and the wider implications of ignoring warning signs and delves deeper into the causes of cultural conflict in the UK today.

    P.L.M.R

    • Catriona Robertson
      28 May 2013

      Thank you for your comment and for re-blogging.

      I’m adding Life and Liberty to my blogroll.

      ‘Cultural discomfort’ is a good term. I’d like to see more young people ‘comfortable’, even during an economic downturn, contributing to society and being appreciated.

      Catriona

  2. Rashid
    27 May 2013

    There is no doubt whatever happened in the name of Islam was wrong, bad and totally unacceptable. We condemn such acts very strongly.

    But then please think for a minute. One young British guy killed on a London Street has caused so much uproar all over the place.

    WHAT ABOUT THOSE MUSLIMS WHOSE LANDS ARE BEING INVADED, YOUNG, OLD, WOMEN AND CHILDREN WHO ARE BEING KILLED IN THEIR OWN LANDS?

    WHY ISN’T THE PUBLIC QUESTIONING THEIR GOVERNMENTS OF THEIR INJUSTICE AND OPPRESSION AGAINST THOSE INNOCENT DEFENCELESS PEOPLE?

    FOR HOW LONG ARE WE GOING TO REMAIN SILENT IN THE FACE OF ALL THIS AND AT THE SAME TIME PAY PRICE WITH OUR OWN BLOOD?

    For how long do you expect the Muslims (in the West) to put up with these kinds of injustice against their fellow Muslims and remain silent?

    For how long are the Muslims going to be branded terrorists and associated with violence, bloodshed or suicide bombings?

    Who is supplying arms and other kind of support to rebels in places like Syria and for what?

    On the one hand our government claims they have no money for the poor and the needy and on the other hand they have so much that they can easily afford to arm and support the rebels in Muslim countries to butcher those fighting in defence.

    Why is the media always depicting negative image of Islam by interviewing the so called “Muslims” who are simply inciting hatred and portraying bad image of Islam?

    If Islam was that bad then why is it the fastest growing religion in the world today?

    PLEASE STUDY ISLAM BY READING SOME OF THE AUTHENTIC BOOKS ON ISLAM ESPECIALLY ISLAM PREACHED BY THE HOLY HOUSEHOLD OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD (peace and blessings be upon them all).

    • Catriona Robertson
      28 May 2013

      Thanks for your comments, Rashid.
      As you know, there was a huge demonstration against going to war with Iraq in 2003.
      I’ve visited Pakistan and know how people there feel about drone attacks. I have also visited Syria and, as I’ve written on this blog, the situation there is devastating.
      In this post, I was thinking about British young men from a range of backgrounds. In particular, those who experience rejection by society and who don’t feel listened to on any subject, not just foreign policy.
      I wonder if you have any suggestions, particularly for Muslim young men? How do we close the gap? How can they be enabled to have their say effectively, without violence? How do we build a stronger civil society?
      I read the Qur’an sometimes and one of my favourite Suras is 49:13. I have many Muslim friends and I know that the portrayal of Islam in the media doesn’t always reflect the very good relationships there are between people of different religious traditions. I liked the piece in the Observer on Sunday – did you see it? http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/may/26/muslim-community-responds-woolwich-killing?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487
      Salaams – Catriona

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