Speaking in the House of Commons, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May solemnly listed the diverse nationalities of those injured in Wednesday’s lone wolf attack in London, underlining the global nature of the British capital and its diversity. She emphasized the attacker was British-born.
But some British nationalists and nativists have been quick to blame whole communities for the attack, accusing migrants and liberals for having created the conditions for Islamist terrorism.
Two narratives are being fought over in newspapers and social media following the attack that left four dead and 40 injured. One emphasizing the importance of unity and embracing plurality, the other tarring foreigners as the threat and blaming migrants and freedom of movement in the European Union for terrorism.
“In addition to 12 Britons admitted to hospital, we know the victims include three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans, one German, one Pole, one Irish, one Chinese, one Italian, one American and two Greeks,” May told a subdued House of Commons.
“A terrorist came to the place where people of all nationalities and cultures gather to celebrate what it means to be free. And he took out his rage indiscriminately against innocent men, women and children,” said May.
WATCH: May addresses House of Commons
“We are united by our humanity,” responded Britain’s main opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
But shortly after the exchanges between lawmakers emphasizing the importance of diversity, Nigel Farage, one of Britain’s leading Brexiters, struck a different tone.
Despite May confirming police believe the assailant was British born, Farage used the London attack to blame politicians who embrace multiculturalism and lambasted immigration mainly from the Middle East for “inviting in terrorism.”
“We’ve made some terrible mistakes in this country, and it really started with the election of Tony Blair back in 1997, who said he wanted to build a multicultural Britain,” said Farage, the former leader of Britain’s UK Independence Party.
“The problem with multiculturalism is that it leads to divided communities … We have now a fifth column living inside these European countries. I do actually think that the moment has come for us to actually point the blame. What these politicians have done in the space of just 15 years may well affect the way we live in this country over the next 100 years,” he added.
Defend ‘our culture’
Katie Hopkins, a TV personality and newspaper columnist, was more scathing, arguing the English must defend “our culture.” “London is a city so desperate to be seen as tolerant … Liberals convince themselves multiculturalism works because we all die together, too,” she wrote in a column for the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail just hours after the attack.
She added, “This place is just like Sweden. Terrified of admitting the truth about the threat we face, about the horrors committed by the migrants we failed to deter, because to admit that we are sinking, and fast, would be to admit that everything the liberals believe is wrong. That multiculturalism has not worked.”
In Birmingham, the Midlands city that saw law-enforcement raids late Wednesday on the homes of people suspected of being connected in some way to the London attacker, locals fear they will be tarred as terrorists and there will be a backlash.
Britain’s top counterterror officer, Mark Rowley, has acknowledged that Muslim communities “will feel anxious at this time”, but has said police will work with community leaders to ensure protection. Birmingham is home to large South Asian and Muslim communities, and last year hosted Europe’s largest celebrations for the Eid festival, a major Muslim holiday.
Thursday, local police assisted Birmingham’s Central Mosque in distributing more than 50,000 copies of a booklet explaining the Muslim faith, entitled “Terrorism Is Not Islam,” to schools and shops.
Mosque chairman, Mohammed Afzal, said the attacker’s motives had nothing to do with true Islam. “Whoever the attacker is and whatever the cause may be, nothing justifies taking lives of innocent people, which is completely against the good of humanity,” he said. “We call upon those that may have even a shred of sympathy for the like-minded terrorists to shake their conscience and realize that such acts are the work of evil and not the work of God-fearing people.”
David Aaronovitch, an author and broadcaster, believes the attack should not be allowed to “trigger a wholesale tarring of Muslim communities in Britain with the terrorist brush.”
In his column in The Times he argued it is important “not to cede political space to the fanatics, the extreme nationalists, the fundamentalists. To always think, despite the temptations just to react.”
Others, though, are keen to react, determined that a nativist, anti-Islam narrative becomes dominant. Tommy Robinson, a far-right activist, rushed Wednesday to the Houses of Parliament as emergency crews were assisting the wounded and claimed Britain is at “war” with Muslims and labeled the attack the work of a foreigner. “This is the reality. The reality is these people are waging war on us,” he said.
Bystanders, and even some reporters, denounced him for what they saw as an opportunistic intervention at the site of an atrocity, one designed to inflame.