Waking up to the news of the Finsbury Park terror attack (and it was a terror attack) yesterday morning my first thoughts were of horror and a fear of what we might be witnessing as a nation. This year we have now seen 4 acts of terror in the UK, three in London and one in Manchester. This one was different, only in that the targets were Muslim and the perpetrator was not. Other than that, the similarities were obvious. In all 3 London attacks, vehicles were used as weapons. In all four attacks, the targets were everyday folk going about their business, seemingly targeted at random – tourists on Westminster Bridge, concert goers at the Manchester Arena, revellers socialising in London Bridge or Muslims breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
This latest attack, in which it appears a middle aged Welshman hired a van, drove to London and targeted Muslims in the Finsbury Park area, has been reported in some media as a “revenge attack”. This troubles me, as it feels almost like some folk believe “Islam had it coming”. Now, I have no desire to dismantle this posturing with a series of philosophical or theological counter-arguments to the oft employed position in the right wing media and Alt-Right movement that Islam is a religion of hate. Instead, I thought I’d tell you about my weekend.
As I wrote about last Friday, this last weekend saw plans for a series of events across the country known as The Great Get Together, designed to bring communities together and to mark a year since the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP. I am a volunteer and sit on the committee for More in Common Batley and Spen, set up after Jo’s death and chaired by her sister. As a group, we were heavily involved in coordinating and supporting many events, and as a group of volunteers we committed to getting to as many events as we could across the weekend.
So here’s my weekend, edited down to highlight what I think are the most relevant moments.
On Friday night I attended the Great Gig Together at The Old Turk in Dewsbury. Among the four acts were Jasmine Kennedy, a young lass from the Wilton Estate in Batley – one of those estates with an unsavoury reputation for its residents falling though society’s cracks – reports of drug use and anti-social behaviour. Jasmine is softly spoken, with a very dry wit, and speaking to her she seems quite shy, yet when she sings she comes alive and engaging – it’s easy to see why she has been billed as the next Tracy Chapman. The gig also saw the, frankly, mental spectacle that is “Eric The Viaduct”, a group whose frontman is happy to look like a Viking wearing a sombrero, while their drummer is a Brazilian known locally as a Samba teacher and Capoeira guru, a ridiculously handsome and happy guy called Claudio. As I made a brief, inebriated speech about the importance of the weekend and in particular on bringing together the diverse parts of our community, the passion and love in the room was tangible.
On Saturday there were various events around the community, but for me far and away the most significant was “The Big Iftar”. In Batley’s memorial gardens, the plan was that members of the local Muslim communities would come together to explain more to our non-Muslim folk about Ramadan and ultimately for all those in attendance to break the days fast together.
I saw my friend Mohamed Saloo, one of the Batley Poet’s group, just before we started setting up and asked him how well attended he thought this would be, since we’d never had anything like this in Batley before. He joked (at least I think there was a joke) “There will be at least 5 of us!”
Later I was helping to set up the lighting, and was asked by another friend Iqbal to help him test the petrol-powered generators were working. As I prepared to yank on the pull cord, Iqbal turned to the other folk gathered around and said “you might want to stand back”. Now, bear in mind we were 50 feet or so from Batley’s Police Station, and the gathered folk I mentioned included at least half a dozen obviously Muslim men. A thought popped into my head, and as is my wont, I thought “just say it and see what happens”. I turned to them and said “Now I hope this doesn’t go wrong, and please don’t take this the wrong way…but think of the headlines!”. We all laughed together and then gave a little cheer as the generator kicked into life.
The memorial gardens soon filled and by the time the programme of events started at 8.30 a crowd of hundreds (estimates on the night ranged from 700 – 1000 people) had gathered. One family, Beverley and her kids, had even travelled from Harrogate for the event. We were treated to recitations from the Qur’an by two young lads and poetry from both the Batley Poets team and a group of women from the local community that had worked with Jo Cox to combat loneliness. A highlight was Bilal Saloo’s untitled poem, apparently because “titles are hard”.
We also saw the young children from Purlwell Primary School, as they treated us to “Ramadan TV”, a play explaining Ramadan and fasting to us all, with the fantastically confident and cheeky Adam dreaming of Chapattis. Faith and community leaders spoke to us, talked about Jo Cox’s legacy and Jo’s sister Kim spoke passionately about the More in Common message.
As the Iftar time drew close, we paused to reflect in a few moments silence, after which we were each given a date and some water. We were encouraged to mingle with people we didn’t know, perhaps people obviously different from us. I had spotted a glamorous looking Asian lady, with a 50’s Hollywood-style headscarf and sunglasses combo and a lively smile. I pointed and indicated I was heading her way. She and her lovely family beckoned me over. I asked them when it was ok to eat my date and my new friend Raboon (“you can remember it like Baboon”, her daughter said) told me we were about two minutes away. At this point the chap to my left looked sheepish and tried to get away with spitting out his now half-eaten date without being spotted. His wife and her sisters immediately pointed in mock horror – “ooooohhhh! You’ve got to do another 60!” they said…
“What’s happened?” I asked, worried and intrigued. I was informed that he’d broken the fast early, and this was explained by the fact that this family had travelled from Huddersfield and their sunset time is slightly early. The humour and joy with which they mocked him for this error was, frankly, hilarious. they suggested he’d have to fast for another 60 days to atone for this genuine error… His sheepish expression was equally fun to mock, but this was short-lived as it was time for prayers.
Batley Memorial gardens was suddenly filled with the call to prayer and the sight of hundreds of Muslim men and women praying together (with the men in front and women behind), and yet more hundreds of other Batley folk watching with respect and curiosity. I’ve seen prayers in a local Mosque before, but something about the setting made it more magical to witness. It was a real privilege. Afterwards I spoke with a chap whom I often see on the train but have not spoken to before. He asked me what I had thought, and I thanked him for letting us all witness this. I commented that it was important, I thought, for non-Muslims to see men and women praying in the open air in such close proximity, as many mistakenly think that Islam dictates they are entirely separate. He explained that they can pray together but always with the men at the front. I asked why this was and he explained that if hundreds of women were bending down in front of the men, this might prove a distraction. “Especially if you like bums” he said. I howled with laughter.
The evening finished with people sharing food together, hugging, laughing – it was fantastic. I met one guy, Ismail, who I thought looked very much like one of the Gibb brothers, complete with beard, 70’s hair, vintage suit. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a Bee Gee?” I ask. In a thick accent he responds “What is…. Bee Gee?” Incredulous that anyone may not have heard of the 70s Disco gods, I brought up YouTube and start screeching “Aaah aahh Stalying Alive” whilst mimicking the Travolta dance from the same film. Ismael’s wife appeared, and said “not again he gets this all the time!” He was winding me up….cheeky sod. I later discovered that Ismail is actually a doctor of philosophy and the Director of the Centre for Hizmet Studies.
I compared beards and shared grooming tips with some of the Muslim men, got compared to Brother Barry from 4 lions and Rag and bone Man by others. the event was so uplifting.
Sunday saw an open air church service at which people of various faiths and none gathered, sang songs then shared a picnic together. Before the service, we were presented with a chocolate cake by Islamic Relief UK. They couldn’t stay for the service – dozens more deliveries to make.
Those fasting were given Iftar packs to take away, and later everyone went to the Batley Bulldogs to watch the Rugby League. The sight of a group of visibly Muslim folk on their feet cheering as Batley scored yet another try will live long in the memory as a reminder of how wrong those folk that argue Muslims don’t want to integrate can be. As the afternoon drew to a close I popped into my local mosque to give them any surplus Iftrar packs. I was unchallenged, not viewed as anything other than a friendly visitor.
So my weekend was a fantastic one. I have shared laughs, love, hugs, food, stories and thoughts with folk from all across our community. then I saw the news from Finsbury Park. And I was worried. Events like ours in Batley had happened all over the country this weekend – could this undo all the goodwill, erase the memories?
Thankfully, I was quickly put at ease. The Imam of the mosque attacked, Mohammed Mahmoud, explained to the media how he had intervened to protect the man suspected of the attack until police came, and then finished by explaining that this type of hatred will not prevail. “We have to continue to keep the fabric of society intact and come together” He then explained how he had spent the weekend at Great Get Together events himself, and would do again…. This morning I woke to stories of flowers being delivered to various mosques around the country by non-Muslim folk expressing sympathy.
I am certain we will be ok. There will be those in the extremes of society – whether they are Muslim, far right, far left – who will try to force change through terror. But the rest of us, that overwhelming majority of us that don’t feel extreme about very much at all, we won’t be cowed by them. We’ll keep on keeping on. We’ll continue to laugh together, make and share memories, celebrate our differences and our commonalities.
I for one will remember the advice I was given to not get distracted by a nice bum in church, and will be wary of Bee Gee lookalikes in future…
Peace be with you all.