It has taken me a while to be able to write about the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and just as I was about to do so another one happened in London. I want to just concentrate on the Manchester one in this piece.
I heard it first on the morning news as I had gone to bed early. It seemed the most despicable thing you could think of: going to a concert full of little girls and teens to blow them up in the name of Islamic Jihad. It takes some getting your head around. Indeed you can’t get your head around it, not ever.
I know Manchester well. I lived there for years right in the heart of the inner city and I taught in schools. As the police raided areas where the terrorists had lived it was like a roll call of my old stamping grounds. Inner city Manchester is very mixed. There are traditional white working class among third generation Asians, Carribeans, Africans, Chinese and newer waves of immigrants who are often refugees from war zones. The schools have ever changing populations. I thought of the terrorist who turned out to be the British born son of Libyan immigrants living in Fallowfield. This was a typical Manchester boy, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary. There are so many like him.
I taught a lot of Muslim boys in my time in Manchester. Some from Pakistan, some from Somali, and no doubt lots of other places. Usually, they were quite easy to teach. They could be cheeky and mildly mischievous but usually buckled down quickly enough. They didn’t mind my discipline. Maybe they were used to it from the mosque or from home. They were certainly usually more amenable than the Carribean boys who I always struggled with. It is hard to think that one of these harmless boys might grow up to be a suicide bomber.
Inner city Manchester is multi-cultural. At school they all rubbed along together but the communities really kept themselves separate from each other. There wasn’t much mixing of friendships. I was aware of some racial slurring between the groups. It was a harsh place with lots of poverty and little green space. It seemed to kind of work. I met some good people and though I have mixed memories I did have some very good times in the clubs, bars and restaurants of such a varied city. A Rusholme curry was my favourite go to comfort food. It is a long way from the coddled Home Counties upbringing of much of the London chattering classes who decide things about our country.
How could it happen? A boy who has grown up in the city, gone to school, attended the mosque in the evening, watched TV, played football in the street…then decides to go and kill some of the people of this very same city.
I have no answers. Nobody seems to have any answers. Those of us on the Left can point to British foreign policy, bombings and invasions which have stirred up resentment and anger. This isn’t enough though to explain such brutal act freely chosen. We could point to the fractured nature of our society where so many feel alienated. Still not enough.
We have no answers.
As a spiritual person I always struggle with the problem of evil in the world. It seems to be there in the warp and weft of nature and in people. How can God let this be? I don’t know.
As we learn more it seems that the signs were all there. Trips back and forth to Libya, reports from the mosque goers of support for Jihad from the perpetrator, a possible ISIS flag draped from the bedroom window, reciting verses from the Koran in the street. We imagine he was on some kind of watch list.
I always come back to the possibility of mental illness. It seems the only way to explain such actions yet the media virtually dismiss this and concentrate on ISIS as the explanation.
It does not seem within the spirit of any religion to commit senseless acts of violence like this. I have read the Koran and nowhere does Mohammed condone such actions but it is full of violent actions but usually in the context of war. The Old Testament also has such stories. There are no Christian suicide bombers I know of.
ISIS seemed to have perverted Islam into some kind of death cult whose brutality reminds one of the Nazis. It is impossible to understand in any rational way. But then people are not rational.
I wonder what was going through his mind as he walked to the Manchester Arena with the intention to kill and be killed. Did he really believe he would be welcomed into Heaven as an Islamic martyr? Maybe he does.
Old as I am I can remember the IRA bombings. I did think there would never be an end to them but then somehow through dialogue and compromise there was a ceasing.
How do we deal with ISIS? Is it possible to negotiate with an organisation like this who want an Islamic caliphate across the world? Or is the answer to destroy them, wipe them from the face of the earth?
I have no answers but we pay our taxes to those who tell us that they know better than us, that they will protect us and our way of life. They have failed to do this. They seem to have no answers either. Their platitudes do not help. The well meaning vigils and candles are lovely expressions of humanity but they are not an answer. We are told to keep calm and carry on. We are British after all. The Blitz is referenced often. Yes we will do that but while the bombs were raining down on London in the War there were men doing the same to the enemy, doing the unpleasant things we don’t want to think about but which need to be done to keep us safe.
We need to listen, we need to learn, we need to understand but we must also act.
We need an answer.