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Britain - a house divided?

What does the data actually tell us about anti-Islamic violence post-Woolwich, and how do Britons' views of Islam and Muslims compare with the rest of Europe?

Ramanjit Degun Jonathan Birdwell
18 June 2013

According to one of the ‘Woolwich Angels’, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the Woolwich murderers reported their aim was ‘to start a war in London tonight’.

They failed. London remained calm on the eve of Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder, despite the best efforts of balaclava-wearing EDL members swarming on Woolwich town centre. But in the weeks since we have seen a range of suspected ‘revenge’ attacks and a growing concern about rising Islamophobia and a spiral of violence. 

Stoking intercommunity ‘war’ or tension will increasingly become one of the strategic aims of self-starting Islamist extremists.  Incapable of organising attacks that will paralyse Britain’s transport network or economy, lone wolfs and small gangs will now turn to fostering a UK that is divided against itself.

Since the Woolwich murder, 11 mosques have been attacked. These have ranged from bricks thrown through windows and petrol bombs to a man entering a mosque with a knife and verbally abusing and harassing those present. Most recently, a school in southeast London and an Islamic Centre in North London were set on fire, with EDL graffiti found at the scene. While no arrests have been made in connection with the latter, four teenagers have been arrested in Bromley in connection with the school fire. Twitter and social media have been full of vitriolic, racist, ignorant and violent comments directed at Muslims. 

Muslim communities are on edge. Media coverage adds to the fear that they and their children could be targeted next.  The police and the Government fear that a stream of attacks and counterattacks could tip into full-scale riots, reminiscent of the summer disturbances in the northwest in the early 2000s, or even riots on the scale of those across Britain in August 2011. It only takes one spark to light a powder keg. 

Whether that spark catches light depends on the underlying conditions – in this case, community relations. What is the current state of Islamophobia in the UK, and how was it affected by the Woolwich murder? And what is the public attitude towards EDL marches, and media stories like the recent grooming scandals?

Answers to these questions are not clear-cut. Some – including the current Faith Minister Baroness Warsi – argue that prejudice against Muslims is commonplace and widespread in Britain. Others, such as The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan, think that claims of Islamophobia are often exaggerated.  Hard data does not necessarily settle the issue. Police only began collecting religious hate crime data relatively recently, making it difficult to consider long-term trends.

Tell Mama, an organisation that tracks anti-Muslim discrimination, reported 212 incidents in the week following the Woolwich attack. Although it’s important to note that a large number of incidents go unreported, this is still relatively low given the size of the Muslim population in Britain as a whole stands at 2.7 million. Plus it was later reported that 120 of these incidents were online and some had not originated in Britain.

The police data that is available suggests that serious incidents are relatively rare, but there are spikes following high profile attacks like 7/7 and Woolwich. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there were 71 anti-Muslim reported crimes in the week following Lee Rigby’s death. Their online reporting tool, True Vision, tallied 136 incidents compared to 27 in the week previous to the murder, and 37 in the second week after the attack. Compared to 7/7, these numbers are slightly higher – but the rate of the spike is about the same. 

In the three weeks following the 7/7 attacks, the BBC reported that there was a six-fold increase of attacks compared to the previous year, with 269 incidents in London compared to 40 for the comparable period in 2004. However, the increased use of social media websites – Twitter in particular – and the inclusion of online offences by the police and organisations like Tell Mama has inflated the numbers.     

In both instances, the spike of attacks was momentary and not sustained. Indeed, looking at religiously motivated hate crimes (which do not include anti-Semitism) over a three-year period we see substantial declines year on year since 2009, from 2,083 to 2,007 in 2010 and down to 1,773 in 2011. 

Population surveys, on the other hand, suggest a more troubling picture of mutually suspicious communities. A YouGov survey in November 2012 found that 59 per cent of respondents agreed that there would be a clash of civilizations between British Muslims and white Britons. A survey conducted by YouGov and Dr Matthew Goodwin after the Woolwich attack found that a substantial percentage of 41per cent of respondents agreed that British Muslims pose a threat to society. 43 per cent also agreed that differences in culture and values between British Muslims and white Britons make further conflicts inevitable.

The British public still remains concerned about the ability of Muslims to integrate into British society. 71 per cent of respondents to a YouGov poll thought that migrants from Muslim countries were not integrating well, compared to 54 per cent of migrants from Eastern Europe and 46 per cent from African countries. Views were more favourable when considering the children of migrants. But a majority (53 per cent) still felt that children of Muslim migrants were not integrating well.

There is also a general perception among half of Britons that Muslims face discrimination. One YouGov poll found that 50 per cent of British respondents felt that Muslims faced discrimination (ranking only lower than transsexuals, immigrants and traveller communities). 

Other sources, however, tell a more stable and positive story. The European Values Study runs every 8 years and includes a question that assesses attitudes towards minority groups by asking respondents who they would prefer to have as neighbours. Britain was among the top three most tolerant EU countries – and showed remarkable stability between 2000 and 2008, where the percentage that said they did not want Muslims as neighbours actually decreased, despite the 7/7 attacks. 

And yet the attacks and plots of Islamist extremists, combined with Government policy and media coverage over the past decade, have taken their toll.  Across all EU Member States, the average percentage of those who said they did not want Muslims as neighbours increased, from 17.95 per cent saying no to Muslims as neighbours in 2000, to 22.07 per cent in 2008.  While this represented the biggest increase compared to all other minority groups, Europeans were still twice as likely to say they didn’t want to live next to Roma (39 per cent) and more likely to say that they didn’t want to live next to homosexuals (27 per cent).

The next few months are critical. Recent history teaches that the summer months can often be the most volatile: both instances of rioting and social unrest in the past 15 years occurred in the summer. While the statistics suggest that the spike of attacks following Woolwich were just a momentary blip, population survey data shows that communities remain divided and suspicious – particularly in some parts of the country. 

If the aim of Islamist extremists – and far right extremists, is to sow discord and strife between communities, then our response to an attack has to be as much about coordinating community relations as emergency response teams. Communities, government and the police need to work together to defuse community tensions.

There have been some remarkable examples, such as the mosque in York serving tea and biscuits to EDL demonstrators. Those are precisely the kinds of stories that Britain needs to be hear about. Resilience in the face of terrorism may become less about bollards and more about biscuits. 

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