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Manchester’s Muslims unite to defy terror

Ben Stansall / AFP | A woman lights candles set up in front of floral tributes in Albert Square in Manchester, northwest England on May 23, 2017.

Monday’s deadly attack in Manchester by a resident of Libyan origin has put the city’s Muslim community on edge. But they are determined the city they love will say no to hate and divisions.


in Manchester

Standing before the magnificent neo-Gothic Manchester Town Hall, Fahad Khawaja, scrambled for words to describe his anguish over Monday night’s deadly attack at a concert hall in his native city.

“I’m still in shock. It’s so bloody upsetting,” sputtered the 17-year-old student in the distinctive Mancunian accent. “It’s a mixture of fear and grieving. But I’m more upset than afraid, because I don’t want to be afraid.”

The muddle of emotions epitomised the mood of many Muslims in this diverse, northern city of more than 500,000 inhabitants which has attracted immigrants from across the world through the centuries.

Manchester went through some hard times in the 1990s, but over the past few decades, the city has been rejuvenated, turning into a vibrant hub – the UK’s second city, as Mancunians liked to boast. With its lively music scene attracting fans from across the country and Europe, its thriving downtown area, its happening gay bars around Canal Street, its many mosques and temples, this city has built its reputation for peaceful coexistence and tolerance.

But barely 24 hours after a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent conducted a gruesome attack up at the Manchester Arena venue, killing 22 people, Khawaja and his friends weren’t so confident anymore. They desperately wanted to be assured that the city they called home would not grow suspicious of them, or intolerant.

Dressed in green hoodies emblazoned with the name of a local NGO, Muslim Aid, the boys answered Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s call for a vigil outside Town Hall on Tuesday evening, making their way toward the front of a crowd of over a thousand people at Albert Square.

There, the British-born boys of Pakistani descent rubbed shoulders with members of the local Sikh community chanting, “Sat Shri Akal,” their traditional benediction. A few steps away, members of the Ahmadiyya community -- a minority Muslim group persecuted in Pakistan – shouted, “Manchester zindabad!” – or "Long live Manchester".

It seemed like every immigrant group from the subcontinent and beyond was present, to denounce Monday night’s grotesque killing of innocent civilians, many of them young teenagers.

Suspected revenge attack on a mosque

Beneath the displays of solidarity however lay an undercurrent of anxiety.

Khawaja and his friends were pouring over their mobile phones, watching a video clip of a mosque in Oldham, a town in the Greater Manchester area, that had its door burned by arsonist hours after the Manchester Arena attack in a suspected revenge attack.

No one was injured in the Oldham incident and the police are currently investigating the incident, but the city’s Muslim community was on edge.

“I am afraid about community relations,” admitted Basat Sheikh, a Manchester City Council member, as he made his way to the Town Hall for the vigil. “The Muslim community is feeling very marginalised. As a result of Brexit, so many far-right supporters were causing trouble for the community. Now we feel like people are watching us in a suspicious way.”

A Labour Party member, Sheikh, however was not giving in to despair. “There’s always work to do to try to build cohesion. But we will do it, it must be done. This attack is truly painful. I can’t understand the mindset of people who carry out such attacks, targeting kids at a concert. We have to stay united,” he added, making his way past TV crews on Albert Square before disappearing inside the Town Hall building.

Attacker’s profile puts spotlight on Muslim community

Hours later, British police confirmed US reports identifying the attacker as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent.

Initial reports indicated a few disturbing similarities between the November 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris and Monday night’s Manchester Arena slaying. Like the Paris attackers, Abedi was known to security officials although he was not part of any active investigation or regarded as a high risk. Both attacks targeted youths at concerts. A claim put out by the Islamic State group on Tuesday said the attack on the “shameless” concert arena was “in revenge for Allah’s religion”.

In the days to come, investigators will be trying to map out Abedi’s links, whether he had the support of a terror cell or received help in building the explosive device.

The eyes of the world and the city are likely to focus on the mosques or prayer groups Abedi likely frequented, as well as his peer groups. For Manchester’s Muslim community, it could be a trying time.

‘And we make you feel welcome’

But on this sunny Spring evening outside Town Hall, the city’s many immigrants were determined to rally together in a vocal rejection of terror and hatred.

“It’s barbaric, it’s disgusting, it has nothing to do with my religion,” said Sidrah, a British woman of Malaysian descent dressed in a burqa. “It’s got nothing to do with Islam. I’m holding this sign that says, ‘Whoever kills one man kills humanity’. It’s from the Koran. I don’t understand what they [the terrorists] think even if they say they do it for religion. It’s not.”

As an organ played a solemn tune marking the start of the vigil, Khawaja and his friends stood in hushed silence. Local politicians as well as religious and community elders took their place on a dais facing Albert Square.

Then poet Tony Walsh read out a rousing, defiant ode to the city that had the boys hanging on to every word.

“This is the place/In the northwest of England. It’s ace, it’s the best,” intoned Walsh, building up to a crescendo. “And we make people laugh/And we make you at home/And we make you feel welcome and we make that happen.”

The words worked their magic on the boys; they roared their approval, along with the rest of the crowd. Manchester may be enduring a difficult time, as it has in the past. But the promises made at the vigil and the spirit of solidarity had reassured the boys – for now.

“It was so moving,” murmured Khawaga while the crowd began to disperse. Manchester may be going through a dark patch. But for now, the city’s Muslims felt reassured that the city that has welcomed people through the decades would continue to do so.


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