By David Shariatmadari
2 Feb 2018
“He should answer for his crime in a court, and not in a court in the street.”
Those were the words of Mohammed Mahmoud, the imam of Finsbury Park mosque, who shielded Darren Osborne from the crowd of worshippers he had just rammed with his van. I don’t suppose Mahmoud was being compassionate. But he recognised that the situation called for calm. “We are handing him in unscathed to the police,” he said. In other words, we need justice to be done – and justice works slowly, deliberately and in full view of the public.
Sure enough, seven months after that night, Osborne has been convicted of murder and attempted murder. The jury concluded he had sought to kill as many Muslims as possible.
It is relatively rare that we get to see a terrorist in the dock. As we know only too well, they often prefer to kill themselves in the act of murdering others, or at least before they get caught. (Osborne told one onlooker: “I’ve done my job, you can kill me now.”) In Iraq and Syria, followers of Islamic State die in battle. Some would say that a long trial in a wood-panelled courtroom is too good for them.
With Osborne's trial, we have an opportunity to think hard about what can be done to prevent Islamophobic radicalisation
But this misses a crucial point. Justice requires that the evidence of the crimes, and the thoughts and beliefs that led to them, be set out. That pays due respect to the victims, as well as helping all of us understand what leads to violence. This is even more important in the case of terrorism, the causes of which go beyond the individual and give society something to reckon with too.
So what did we learn about Darren Osborne? We learned that he had not worked for 10 years, had poor mental health and problems with alcohol and drugs. We also learned that he was radicalised very rapidly. He watched Three Girls, a drama about victims of sexual abuse mostly committed by Muslim men in Rochdale. After that, according to his estranged partner, he became “obsessed with Muslims, accusing them all of being rapists and being part of paedophile gangs”.
He did “research” on the internet, finding plenty of encouragement for his new ideas. One email circular he read from a far-right group said: “There is a nation within a nation forming just beneath the surface of the UK. It is a nation built on hatred, on violence and on Islam.” The court was told that he received messages from far-right leaders and accessed an article on the InfoWars website entitled “Proof: Muslims celebrated terror attack in London.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, Osborne was clearly vulnerable. It’s a trait he shares with some, but not all terrorists, and certainly isn’t the end of the story. It may have made his exaggerated response to a TV programme more likely. Three Girls was noted for its sensitive handling of race and religion and the care taken by its writer to avoid giving credence to far-right narratives. Most viewers would not have concluded from it that all Muslim men were predators. The point is that when Osborne did, there was a wealth of material out there to back up his interpretation.
That material is the product of a particular historical moment, and the unthinking, prejudiced reaction to it. Anti-Muslim sentiment is mostly driven by a perception that Muslims cause problems: wars and violence in the Middle East and acts of terrorism there and in the west. An easy, but false, explanation for this troubling pattern is that Islam is a uniquely violent religion (the arguments are as complicated as the facts, but people who disagree with me need to start by showing why Muslim cultures produced less violence at other moments in history). The general suspicion of Muslims extends to other areas, so that when they are convicted of horrible crimes, it’s the religion that obsesses people beyond all the other factors that might be at play.
An environment in which this kind of anti-Muslim sentiment is rife is one in which people such as Darren Osborne can, in the space of a few weeks, become virulent Muslim-haters.
We all want do as much as possible to prevent Islamist radicalisation. As a nation we have funnelled millions into community initiatives, law enforcement and intelligence. There are things we should be doing outside those areas, too: peace building, aid and development help to shrink reservoirs of Jihadism abroad.
With the Osborne trial, we have an opportunity to think hard about what can be done to prevent Islamophobic radicalisation. Already, almost a third of referrals to the government’s counter-extremism programme are for those with far-right views. And as a result of Osborne’s conviction, a review into the extreme right has been launched by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.
But there is another piece of the jigsaw: the mood music, the background hum, public opinion. Does this newspaper piece, this click bait article, this tweet or bit of TV punditry promote anti-Muslim sentiment? Because another Darren Osborne could be out there, soaking it all up.
David Shariatmadari is an editor and writer for the Guardian