In the early hours of Saturday morning in late September 2017, in Small Heath, Birmingham, a young boy was brutally attacked, leaving him in a critical condition in hospital, fighting for his life. As news of the attack broke on Saturday afternon, rumours quickly circulated that this was an act of sectarian violence, with hot-headed young Sunnis behaving aggressively towards members of the congregation of an established Shia mosque and that this attempt on this boy reflects an ongoing set of problematic relations. This particular Shia mosque, Idaara Maarif-e-Islam, is a popular site for the Shia community of Birmingham, but it has also faced various direct and indirect forms of attack from some of the young men associated with Salafised groups that surround it on all sides. At a significant time of the Shia calendar, muharram, sensitivities remained high as young radical Salafis were trying to gain access to the mosque to film the proceedings that night. These interactions were not borne out of curiosity, but rather the need to demonstrate Shia Islamic practices as absurd; to be presented as outside the norms of acceptability for most Sunnis taught that the Shia cannot be trusted.
A 29-year-old local man, of mixed-race origin, currently unemployed, has been charged with the attempted murder of the young boy. At this stage, it is not clear whether the alleged assailant was radicalised, as either a far right or a Salafist extremist. Thus, it is not possible to determine precise motivations or exactly what happened that night until the court case is heard next month, which leaves the situation hanging on tenterhooks. The genie has been let out of the lamp, however; and the idea of sectarian conflict has been raised as a genuine concern with regards to a British Muslim community of communities wrestling with a whole host of issues regarding integration, participation and acceptance in wider social and political life. But there is also something very strange happening with regards to knife attacks against Muslims outside of religious institutions. An incident in Altrincham a few weeks ago was carried out by a man in his late 20s. Dr Kurdy, the imam of the mosque, was knifed in the neck by a 27-year-old white English man with no apparent motivation, which, in many ways, makes it even more frightening as it would appear to some that people need little or no reason to attack Muslims in Britain today. Indeed, Islamophobia is rife to the extent that it has reached a state of hyper-normalisation. The attack in Small Heath Birmingham is another incident where knives have been involved in attacking an individual’s neck or face. Is there a link between these types of incidences? Are these issues related to some kind of growing far-right threat? The second incident is complicated because it was an attack on a Shia boy outside a Shia mosque surrounded in a hostile environment. While wider British Muslim relations are as strong as they could be, there are always a few at the periphery who are fuelled less by understanding and more by identity claims. Was it a Salafi attack on the Shia is still a question on everyone’s lips? The police, however, are keeping a very tight lid on matters – for now.
Members of the Shia community are naturally perturbed because they have been unfairly targeted across the Sunni Muslim world. If some or more of this is creeping into radicalised behaviour in the UK context, it portents even more worrying times. Members of the Sunni community do not want to raise any kind of sense of conflict, as it rightly does not reflect British Sunni Islam in any way whatsoever. But what was particularly interesting about the responses to the responses was the idea that to raise such claims is adding to the fuel. It suggests that by evoking the very possibility that this was a sectarian issue is in itself creating a problem where there is no problem. This is blind ignorance before and after the fact.
We will know more when these two assailants are heard in court over the next two months, and when their motivations will be fully established. What we have at present is not the absolute sense of conflict between two groups who are pitched against each other in some perennial eschatological conflict. Rather, it is the perception of conflict and the fear of the other that feeds into misunderstanding and ultimately misdeeds. The perception of fear is often greater than the reality of conflict, and this is what we must be careful with most as we go forward.
Tahir Abbas is currently Remarque Visiting Fellow at New York University, and a Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul. A Fellow of the Muslim Institute, he is author of numerous books and articles on the subject of Muslim minorities in the West, and questions of ethnicity, Islam and politics. His website, for further details, can be found at: tahirabbas.co.uk