May 23, 2013 8:49 pm

Woolwich attack: lessons learnt help calm community tensions

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Her hands shaking as she gave a witness account of a savage murder on the streets of Woolwich, Tina Nimmo denounced the perpetrators as “animals”.

The 52-year-old resident, who saw the gruesome scene unfold at first hand, added an ominous coda to her story. “It’s going to kick off round here,” she said. “This sort of thing is like lighting a touchpaper.”

The horrific death of soldier Lee Rigby has prompted suggestions that the temperature in London’s multicultural melting pot could rise to boiling point.

Farooq Murad, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said on Thursday the murder “insulted Allah and dishonoured our faith”, adding: “This action will no doubt heighten tensions in mosques.”

The far right has made its presence felt. Trouble broke out briefly in Woolwich on Tuesday night after members of the English Defence League, some with faces masked by balaclavas, threw bottles at police. In Braintree, Essex, a man was arrested after a mosque was attacked.

But few believe the incident will trigger widespread violence. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, who was heavily involved in the post-riots recovery effort, said: “There is a vociferous pulling together of mainstream opinion that condemns this crime and wants to be on the side of the 3m Muslims we have in this country.”

New relationships had been forged between London’s community leaders in the past decade, he said. In his constituency, Mr Lammy was due to meet the council’s chief executive, police and Muslim leaders on Thursday afternoon.

“If you go back to post-September 11 [2001], that would not have happened. Just as acts of extremist Islamic terrorists are not new, so the reaction to them is maturing,” Mr Lammy said.

Greenwich is one of a number of London boroughs that experienced “white flight” over the past two decades as older residents moved to suburbs further outside the city.

While acknowledging that opposition to immigration remained high, Ben Rogers, director of the Centre for London think-tank, said the city authorities had become better at addressing this group’s grievances. “There’s been an active policy push. Schools now teach the history of white working class cultures and St George’s day is recognised.”

On the street outside Woolwich Arsenal station, Khuram Shahzad, a phonecard vendor, said he was “worried personally” about community tensions. A Muslim who came to the UK three years ago from Pakistan, Mr Shahzad said: “Islam is a peaceful religion. It doesn’t teach people to go out and kill others.”

He was in the town centre on Wednesday night to offer his support to local residents and the forces, leaving quickly after the trouble broke out. “If you’re living in a country I think you should support the soldiers of that country.”

The Metropolitan Police deployed an extra 1,200 officers around London on Thursday, with the majority of these “reassurance patrols” targeted around mosques and religious sites, transport hubs and busy areas. Officers are meeting local community leaders to discuss their concerns and police are also monitoring social media.

Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner at the Met, condemned groups seeking to capitalise on the attack for political reasons. “Anybody seeing this as an opportunity to protest, cause mischief or create tension is unhelpful and unwelcome,” he said.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said it was inevitable that groups would want to use the event to drive their own agendas. But he said Londoners felt “a much greater sense of solidarity” since the bombings of 2005. “Terrorists sought to terrify them. Londoners have not been terrified.”

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