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Time to tackle anti-Muslim attacks seriously

London woke to yet another terrorist attack on Monday: A man driving a van targeting innocent people, trying to kill and maim for political purposes.

Unfortunately, one person was killed but it could have been far worse. The key difference of course was that this attack was targeted at Muslims coming out of the Finsbury Park Mosque. Yet as with attacks on London Bridge or in Manchester, there can be no excuses, least of all “revenge.”

For years, Muslim communities living in the West have been scolded for not doing enough to combat extremism within their own communities. Politicians lined up, sometimes with reason, to slam their lack of action and tolerance of those who would seek to carry out terrorist attacks.

But the flip side of that coin is that for far too long these same communities have also called on the government, politicians and the media to do more to stamp out anti-Muslim hate speech, incitement and indeed violence against their communities. In the aftermath of the London Bridge attack on June 3, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan released figures showing a fivefold rise in Islamophobic attacks. Many of these were violent and were frequently directed at Muslim women wearing veils. Hate crimes against Jewish communities and sites have also been on the increase.

Much of the British population might see the attack in Finsbury Park as the first against a mosque, given the scant coverage such anti-Muslim violence attracts. Sadly it is not a rarity, with figures showing that between May 2013 and September 2016, over 100 mosques were attacked in the UK. Take the arson attack on the Oldham mosque in the wake of the Manchester bombing. I may be wrong but I can find no trace of any ministerial condemnation of the attack.

British Muslims are buffeted from a number of directions. Aggressive extremists prey on their communities to recruit kids into their ranks and sow division. Many Muslims are fearful of such people. Anti-Muslim coverage in the media also contributes to this climate.

Just as questions must be asked as to why Islamist extremists like Anjem Choudary and Trevor Brooks were regularly given platforms by the likes of the BBC, questions must also be raised about merchants of hate like Katie Hopkins having a regular column in the Daily Mail. In the aftermath of the Manchester attack, she called for a “final solution” to Muslims. One writer in The Sun, Douglas Murray, wrote a column under the headline, “If we want peace then we need one thing — less Islam.” The Sun and The Mail have the two largest circulations of any paper in Britain. A 2015 column in the Daily Star claimed erroneously that cash collected in mosques was funding terrorism.

Much of the British population might see the attack in Finsbury Park as the first against a mosque, given the scant coverage such anti-Muslim violence attracts. But sadly, it is not a rarity.

Chris Doyle

All this is not simple commentary. It ranks, by any reasonable understanding of the terms, as hate speech and incitement. It is every bit as dangerous as some of the hate speeches spewed out by extremist preachers like Abu Hamza. Questions might also be asked as to why only 0.4 percent of British journalists are Muslim? Greater diversity in the media must be encouraged.

But the challenge lies not just with the media. Politicians have also failed the challenge as well. Only last year, Zac Goldsmith stood for Mayor of London for the Conservatives against Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate. While it is not clear as to who within the Conservative ranks authorized and devised this, a crude dog-whistle campaign was mounted abusing anti-Muslim prejudice. It failed but still Goldsmith has never apologized, and was re-elected in the polls on June 8 as a member of Parliament.

The suspicion remains that the government has not done enough to crack down on far-right extremists. Reports show that one in four of those reported to the government’s anti-extremism program, Prevent, are far-right activists, up 10 percent over the figures from last summer. Notably just before the attack at the mosque, people were commemorating the life of Jo Cox, the British MP murdered by a far-right terrorist on June 16, 2016. Yet are ministers encouraging a debate as to where and how these extremists got radicalized? Will they pursue social media websites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter in the same way as they have done over Daesh-related postings?

Yet despite all the horror of this attack, the other terrorist attacks preceding it and the fire at Grenfell Tower last week, one thing stands out. Whatever the failings of certain politicians and the media, the British Muslim communities do look stronger, ever more capable of getting their message across or reaching out to other communities. New generations of British-born Muslims are more attuned to their communities’ needs and how to work with other groups and vitally, to isolate the extremists.

What they need now is a government and a system to work them to ostracize the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. British Muslims can be part of the solution. It just needs the government to wake up to that.

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.