I am working on a large collaborative textile project at the moment – the Brighton Welcome Blanket. The finished blanket will incorporate the words carved on the pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest, we ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
On Saturday I went to a Great Get Together event at my local community centre. There were several such events over the weekend in Brighton & Hove and around the country, remembering the shocking assassination of Jo Cox MP a year ago, and bringing people together to emphasise that whatever our differences, we have more in common than that which divides us.
I do think events and initiatives like this are worth doing, but for these ideas to make a real difference, they need to be built on a stronger and less self-congratulatory foundation.
What is ‘our way of life’?
This morning I was listening to the radio 4 news coverage of a van being deliberately driven into a crowd of people leaving a Muslim community centre in north London last night.
At 7.30am they played a report by Nick Robinson, who had spoken to eye witnesses soon after the event. One witness said that two of the attackers had run away, and one had been caught by the people at the scene.
This was followed immediately by John Humphrys interviewing Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
JH: Do you have any evidence that there is a wider movement out there that supports this sort of horrible thing?
Miqdaad Versi gave evidence – the reported rise in islamophobic attacks, research showing that many people believe islam, or muslims, to be a threat, the normalisation of islamophobia in public discourse.
At 8.00, the news bulletin played a statement from an eye witness, stating that the attacker who was caught shouted “I want to kill all Muslims”.
At 8.15, while interviewing Sadiq Khan, Humphrys said:
“Is there a danger that we might overreact to something like this?
If it turns out… that this was a lone individual acting out of some crazed impulse.
There are and always have been lone individuals doing insane and wicked things. That’s the way life is. There is a danger, isn’t there, that we might turn it into something it isn’t?”
“Should we be careful, should politicians particularly, specifically, be careful about the sort of language they use after events like last night. ‘Getting through it’, ‘We can get through it’.
Who would doubt that we can get through it? There’s absolutely no question that somebody who did something horrible – horrible, wicked though it was – last night, a single individual is actually threatening our way of life in any way at all, is he?”
The narrative being built by John Humphrys, the main presenter on the BBC’s flagship news programme, is that this is an isolated incident, the work of a lone madman, and is therefore no threat to our way of life.
Sadiq Khan responded by drawing parallels between this incident and other, similar attacks recently carried out by individuals or small groups of people, such as the Westminster Bridge attack and the Manchester bombing. He talked about people being ‘inspired’ or brainwashed via the internet, without necessarily coming into personal contact with a wider network.
He stopped short of confronting the less palatable fact that the wider network which inspires islamophobic and racist attackers, such as those who attacked the Finsbury Road social centre, and the man who killed Jo Cox, is not a subterranean, subversive operation, hidden from decent society. It includes the mainstream news media and large parts of the British political establishment.
Why is the attempted murder of worshippers not an attack on our way of life, when the attempted murder of concert-goers is enough to bring armed police onto the streets? Is it because “our way of life” is not considered to include observing Ramadan?
The distressing truth is that our way of life is not based on a set of innocuous “British values” such as tolerance and democracy. Those ideas are present within British culture, of course, but our history is also one of brutal invasion and colonisation.
Britain – perhaps especially London – is a place where people can make connections across their differences and create diverse and supportive communities. But it is also a place where people can be snatched from their homes and detained indefinitely in order to meet a bureaucrat’s target. It’s a place where the lives of dozens (more likely hundreds) of black people count for less than the few thousand pounds needed to ensure their homes would not become an inferno.
No one is illegal
The 2014 Immigration Act has brought the border into daily life. Workers in hospitals and schools, landlords and homelessness charities are being enlisted to ensure a hostile environment for people whose presence here has been decreed illegal.
If we truly have more in common, if we really want to welcome refugees, then we have to challenge the racist foundations of our political, economic and cultural life. For a powerful, clear and erudite example of how to do this, please find 15 minutes to listen to Akala: