Update: this piece was featured on the Huffington Post UK, here.
The police were on alert. Above hearts-and-minds grins, vigilant eyes followed a disparate procession as it streamed into the community hall on a still, pale evening in May.
A week before, almost to the hour, a young soldier’s death had sickened a nation. But he had not bitten the dust of the Helmand desert. Lee Rigby fell on a far more ominous corner of the world, a hard grey London street, mowed down and hacked to death in broad daylight by two men wielding carving knives.
Almost as soon as the news had hit, the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamist’ were darting around computer screens and rolling newscasts, and an ugly reality dawned. And there was an even more shuddering detail to emerge, with the grainy footage of a bloodied murderer, strangely composed, summoning the rhetoric of the jihadist to explain the still warm corpse lying face down in the street behind him.
It felt like the end of a very long fuse had been reached. By nightfall men in EDL balaclavas filled the streets around the murder scene, vengefully hurling hostilities at an unseen enemy. A fragile truce looked like it could be shattered at any point.
With such a tense background behind it, I doubt I was alone in feeling a mixture of intrigue and apprehension as I walked to a public meeting aimed at opening the channels of communication between people on the front line of the tensions, especially as it had made the front page of the Nottingham Post that morning. The word was out.
The agenda was a little unclear – to bring all sides of the community together to sit face to face and talk about, well, whatever they wanted to – but it had been organised, chiefly by Citizens UK’s George Gabriel, with remarkable conviction and speed.
The crowd that turned up was a snapshot of British diversity: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and those of no faith other than in another intangible concept, some abstraction known as unity.
They filled the hall with an energy and a will to engage. Sitting next to me was a young Muslim man, Mohammed. As soon as I outed myself as a journalist, the conversation turned to the role of the media: clearly a burning issue for him.
He explained how he and many others bitterly feel that media has let them down time after time, and that the last week had been no exception. He spoke about the need to “question the questioner”, as he put it, and turn the media’s questions back on them.
“I’d say, ‘why are you asking me?’”, was his immediate response. “I’d ask them why they had singled me out. Of course I don’t agree with violence and murder. I’m a Muslim”.
He described a “new heresy” that has emerged: to even dare an opinion other than the same tired old line, condemnation, let alone suggest that such appalling acts of violence might be remotely linked to UK and US foreign policy, has become unthinkable.
“Muslims are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “We want to make it clear that those guys don’t represent us, but we’re afraid of telling the truth which is that we resent having to say that. It starts to feel like we’re apologising for them.
“It’s frustrating, because they are nothing to do with me, just as much as the EDL is nothing to do with you. But nobody asks you to condemn the EDL and you’d be offended if anybody did”. It’s not a view you read in The Sun often, or hear on Newsnight for that matter.
We were interrupted with the words of the Dr Musharraf Hussain addressing the crowd from his position on the stage. Dr Musharraff is one of Nottingham’s most respected Muslim figures and the man who tried to secure the release of doomed hostage Ken Bigley. I first interviewed him in 2006, for an article I wrote on the effects of the London bombings on British Muslims one year on from the attack.
He was joined by the Reverend Ann Rooms from St Anns, among a host of Nottingham’s political big guns. Together they congratulated and thanked the gathered crowd for their efforts, condemning and lamenting the terrible attack.
As they spoke I felt a strange mixture of relief and discomfort. With Mohammed’s words still echoing in my mind – even in this scene very much a view for the floor – all of a sudden the speeches took on a new, uncomfortable significance. Dr Musharraff’s pleas for unity and peace, with the usual condemnatory lines against extremism, were as heartfelt as they were inevitable.
But I couldn’t help feeling slightly uneasy that I might be witnessing another Muslim leader deferring to the mainstream, stuck between the rock and the hard place, choosing to remain in the precariously thin gap in the middle.
The whole meeting passed without even the slightest raised voice. And perhaps that was its only downfall. Orthodoxy prevailed over dissent, and the simmering tension on the floor was suspended.
Talking to Mohammed over a coffee a few days after the meeting, he praised Dr Musharraff for a lifetime serving Muslims in Nottingham. But I sensed, though he is far too gracious to spell it out, Mohammed believes that the next generation needs to be more direct and actually start dictating the discussion – a luxury never really available to Dr Musharraff.
“We need to be brave,” he said. “We will have to take our knocks, but have the guts to start affecting the debate and challenging perceptions. We’re locked in a cycle of hysteria and pandemonium whenever there is an incident, then the Muslim community resorts to the same old lines or just retreats into its shell.
“If we don’t do this now, then it will be another generation before we break that cycle”.
He told me about another event, a small but powerful example of exactly the type of direct action he wants to see. A group of young Muslims, mainly women, had organised a powerful display of faith in action, and to my delight it was taking place the next day, in the centre of Nottingham.
Hundreds cards bearing a message of love and peace from the Quran, the kind that rarely get quoted, were going to be tied to fresh red roses and handed out to passers-by in the centre of the city. I arrived at lunchtime just as the group had gathered. I was greeted with a warm hug from my new friend who seemed delighted, and perhaps a bit surprised, that I’d showed up.
Excitedly the group, made up mainly of young Muslim women dressed in brilliant blue robes, began offering the flowers to people bustling past in the sun with shopping bags and ice creams in their hands.
With my camera in hand I watched from the sidelines, intrigued – and a little nervously – as they hopped up to passers-by with infectious smiles and twinkling eyes, calling out “Free rose for love, peace and unity!” to a mixture of bemused, confused, even some indignant faces.
But thankfully, aside from a few hostile glares, they were met with a very English breed of reserved gratitude. Some people stopped to chat with the girls, to find out what it was all about, and even to pose for my camera.
Mohammed was buzzing with excitement as he skipped around the square, grinning as he handed out the delicate flowers. He is obviously a big thinker, and a great talker, but this, I sensed was a rare thrill, to actually engage with non-Muslims, to literally reach out and hand over something meaningful and positive about his faith.
He turned to me with a cheeky grin: “You hand some out man!”, and thrust a bunch of roses into my hand. So there we stood, me and my new friend side by side in the sun, in front of the lions of Nottingham’s Council House, giving out flowers together.
I thought back to the Unite Against Extremism meeting the week before, where I had met Mohammed, and to a moving point of that very special evening, when the meeting had been urged to bow its heads in prayer for Lee Rigby.
As the melodic voice of Dr Musharraff carried powerful words through the hall, I watched, gripped, as this transient, incongruous congregation bowed and prayed together. The Muslims among the crowd gently rocked back and forth, lost, meditating on the words for the fallen soldier’s grief-stricken family and for love and peace to prevail in these dark times.
Times made even darker, it seems, not just by the extremes on both sides whose only weapon is sheer, dumb anger. The incumbent mainstream of British society needs to step up and take some blame as well.
Why do so many myths about Muslims linger in the national consciousness? Why do bright, highly articulate, intelligent people like Mohammed feel so marginalised by the media? To talk to him, and other people who desperately want to be part of the debate, you feel like a fog has been lifted.
A fog that covers a whole sector of British life, a community which fought in both World Wars, helped rebuild the country afterwards, and has been quietly living here ever since.
Richard Littlejohn, the angry spokesman for a wilfully ill-informed majority of opinion, takes delight in seeing Muslim leaders acquiesce to his will, to be coerced into condemning the actions of others they have no association with morally, ideologically or politically.
It’s a self-serving, arrogant view dressed up as a solution, which only serves to appease the white majority who insist that that one of ‘them’ must apologise to all of ‘us’.
And it becomes painfully clear that as long as people like that are only granted a platform if they agree to tow the line, we will all be in danger.
There is a new generation of educated, articulate Muslims, young people who want to challenge the establishment that has failed to listen, and help us all in the process. But they want to do it their way.
They want to express themselves in ways they choose, and feel comfortable with – the same as every person is entitled to in a democracy. If they are censored and dictated to, we will have only ourselves to blame.
The rose I kept as a personal memory from that strange day in Nottingham is still sitting there on my bedside table, a delicate symbol of what could be. A tiny, innocent gesture in a cruel and inauspicious world. It has already begun to darken and wilt, and as I watch it die I hope the optimism and courage that put it in my hand will last longer.