LONDON (RNS) As distressed and outraged members of the Islamic community gathered around the van driver who had just plowed into worshippers and was heard to shout, “I want to kill all Muslims,” Imam Mohammed Mahmoud stepped forward to prevent a lynching.
Mahmoud warned the angry crowd around the Finsbury Park Mosque to restrain the driver and wait until the police arrived.
“By God’s grace we manage to surround him and to protect him from any harm,” he said.
The man, later identified as Darren Osborne, was arrested by police and has been charged with murder, attempted murder and various terrorism charges. One person died and 11 were injured.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan praised Mahmoud and told Sky News the imam had made sure “that justice can be done as it should be done via due process, rather than anyone taking the law into their own hands.”
For those dealing with recent atrocities in Britain, from the Westminster Bridge attack to the Manchester Arena suicide bombing and the stabbings at London Bridge, there appear to be two Britains: one tolerant of diversity, and one that finds it threatening and takes it upon itself to launch revenge attacks.
The monitoring organization Tell Mama has recorded a 500 percent increase in Islamophobic attacks on Muslims in Britain since the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. The figures indicate that community relations in Britain are under strain after weeks of deaths and injured victims.
But there are also signs of people coming together and faith leaders uniting in solidarity.
On Monday (June 19), Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders attended a vigil at the Finsbury Park Mosque, just around the corner from the Muslim Welfare Centre where the attack early that morning took place. The chairman of the mosque, Mohammed Kozbar, told the crowd the attack was “on our families, on our freedom, on our dignity,” while the bishop of Stepney, the Rt. Rev. Adrian Newman, said, “An attack on one faith is an attack on us all.”
In Britain, some people cynically describe friendly relations between members of different faiths as “tea and samosas” and say the gathering of leaders at vigils like this is becoming a cliché. But the connections go deeper than these criticisms suggest.
Christian leaders, including the bishop of Bradford, had already met leaders of the Muslim Welfare Centre in Finsbury Park after this weekend’s one-year commemoration of the death of Jo Cox. Cox, a Labour MP, was killed by a far-right assailant for advocating acceptance of diversity, including diverse religious beliefs.
Another incident that highlighted strong community relations in Britain was the fire at the Grenfell Tower block in west London, in which at least 79 people died.
Survivors were first alerted to the fire by Muslims who were breaking their Ramadan fast with a late-night meal, and many faith groups have since worked around the clock to provide those left destitute with clothing, food and other supplies.
The memorial wall beside the Grenfell Tower, set up so people can leave messages about the dead and missing, shows a blending of faiths, with “May Allah bless you. RIP” scrawled on the wall.
On July 2, Khan is exhorting Londoners of all faiths and none to join in a celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim feast at the end of Ramadan. The event at the capital’s major meeting point, Trafalgar Square, is intended to mark what he calls “the diversity and tolerance that is at the heart of our great city.”
Other politicians, including Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have regularly spoken out against Islamist terror, quickly condemning the mosque attack and visiting the area.
Leading Muslim commentator Nesrine Malik has warned that the point of Islamist terrorism is to foment division and that therefore “to condemn extremism without aggressively clamping down on the prejudice it generates traps us in a vicious circle.”
The government has banned for the first time an extreme right-wing group as a terrorist organization and has also set up a $3 million fund to provide extra security for places of worship at risk of hate crimes.
Already mosques have applied for funds. But in the wake of this week’s attack, many more, despite the hands of friendship extended by diverse local people, are thinking even harder about fortifying their buildings.
(Catherine Pepinster is a correspondent based in London)