A bevy of students, a Protestant priest, and the leader of the Labour Party were just some of the hundreds who turned out for a vigil outside a north London mosque that was the target of an attempted firebombing attempt last weekend. The event was held on the same day that the Metropolitan Police announced the number of hate crimes against Muslims has tripled in the United Kingdom since the Paris attacks.
The attempted firebombing at Finsbury Park Mosque happened at 8:25pm local time last Friday night, November 27. The attacker was described as "a white male, last seen wearing a white hooded top," who was believed to have "fled the scene on a moped." A CCTV recording showed the man jumping up while throwing something.
Mohammed Kozbar, the general secretary of the Finsbury Park Mosque, called the attack "part of a growing trend of anti-Muslim hatred in London following the Paris attacks earlier this month."
"Our community members, women and men who attend the mosque, have been physically attacked," he told VICE News. "I have female members of the congregation here who say they are afraid to walk alone or to go shopping or take public transport in recent weeks. It is serious: these incidents are increasing, not declining."
On Friday, the Metropolitan Police announced that the number of reported Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK surged from 24 in the week of November 13 to 76 two weeks later. This climb came on top of figures that were already on the rise: In September, the police said there had been a 70.7 percent increase in Islamophobic incidents in the 12 months before July 2015 compared to last year.
"What's happened after the Paris attacks is not acceptable — attacking and blaming the Muslim community for it," Kozbar said. "We always say we are not responsible for that attack, neither is our religion. ISIS claimed responsibility and they should be held responsible for that… We are victims like anybody else. We all have a responsibility to condemn the attack, not just the Muslim communities. Such an attack, whoever is behind it are terrorists and this is horrible."
CCTV footage of the attacker. (Screenshot via Metropolitan Police)
Labour Party leader and MP for the area Jeremy Corbyn received a huge applause when he took to the makeshift stage. "We're very proud of our multicultural community here in Finsbury Park," he said.
"There can be no space anywhere, any time for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, for racism of any sort," Corbyn said. "We want to live in a world where there is diversity of culture, where there is diversity of faith, where every young person has the same opportunities to go forward and won't suffer the scourge of racism and the scourge of Islamophobia.
"Our community, not just here in Finsbury Park but all over Britain needs to understand that we are a multicultural society, we are a multi-faith society, we are going to stand up one for all, and one for each other," he continued. "But if we allow ourselves to be divided into a blame culture, allow ourselves to be divided into groups of people who blame each other for whatever's going on we are all weakened."
Referring to Wednesday's vote to begin bombing the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Corbyn said, "I want to live in a world that's not a world of war, that doesn't resolve all the world's problems by sending the RAF and the bombers… Here tonight in Finsbury Park we set an example."
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the vigil. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)
Finsbury Park Mosque is a building with a checkered past. Convicted hate preacher Abu Hamza was imam from 1997 until 2003, during which time it was attended by Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the organizers of the 9/11 terror attacks, and Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the four suicide bombers who carried out the July 7, 2005 attacks in London. The mosque was raided in 2003. One year later, Hamza was arrested.
However, attendees and other community members said that things are much different now, due in no small part to Kozbar's influence.
Julie Hunt, 49, living in Angel, told VICE News the mosque is now "very inclusive," but "it's inevitable that — when there's an attack like Paris — this mosque would be singled out for treatment. I think this was just a random guy but I'm sure you'll find out he's got links to right-wing groups."
Hunt said she thought demonstrations like Friday's were "crucial," because "that's what [the terrorists] are attempting to do, drive a wedge between us all."
"We as a community want to be against racism [and] hate crimes," Mansuur Osman, a 17-year-old student, told VICE News. "I truly believe that this community should not be divided by what's going on around the world. I do believe that this mosque is a vital part of our community. It brings diversity, and we are a peaceful community here — the Muslims within Finsbury Park. We don't cause much trouble and we don't feel that we should be punished for the actions of those who are thousands of miles away."
'It's not just about Muslims, it's about racism.'
Osman said he had never experienced racist or Islamophobic bullying. "I suppose I'm in quite a diverse community in my school, there are a lot of Muslims," he said.
"I don't believe that people should be judged as individuals for other peoples' sins,"Osman added, noting that he believes demonstrations like the vigil are "absolutely vital for spreading the word, for showing solidarity and support within the community… I'm really impressed that a lot of non-Muslims are here. It's not just about Muslims, it's about racism. Anybody can be racist toward anybody."
His friend Omar Jamal, 17, chimed in. "That's the thing about London, that it's predominantly very multicultural, it's an acceptive community. I have white friends, black friends, I haven't experienced any racism personally, but there's odd incidents," he said.
"There's bad people in every bunch," he added. "You can't penalize a religion for [the actions] of less than 1 percent." He said that would be "like judging white people for the KKK."
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Salaado, a 36-year-old Muslim woman originally from Somalia who has lived in Finsbury Park for more than 20 years, told VICE News, "I don't know what is going on these days, what is happening… It looks like people are [blaming] things on Islam. We are for peace, but people are thinking we are so bad."
Salaado said she had never experienced physical or verbal attacks or racism, and has only heard it can be a problem from the news. "It's very important to have this kind of meeting," she said. "It's affecting everybody, not just Islam. When something happens between Muslims and Christians people point at Islam. Sometimes you do nothing but people think we are bad because we are covering so much of our body and following our religion but I don't understand why people would think we are bad."
Lindsay German, a convener of the Stop the War Coalition, told the crowd from the stage that the event was about solidarity.
'I have female members of the congregation here who say they are afraid to walk alone or to go shopping or take public transport.'
"We are here to bring solidarity and say we will stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers," German said. "We are in a very serious position here today. Our government has just taken us into another war, a disastrous war which will mean more civilians killed, will mean more attacks on civil liberties, and will mean a greater level of racism against Muslims, and we are here to say we're not going to have that either… Since the Paris attacks there have been many, many more attacks on Muslims in this country, in France, and around the world."
Musav, 16, said that if the mosque had caught fire the media would have called the attacker a "vigilante" rather than a "terrorist" because he was white.
Another teen from the mosque named Usama agreed. "Everyone knows when they say terrorists they mean Muslims," he said.
David Rosenberg, another neighbor to the mosque and a member of the Jewish Socialist Group, also came out for the vigil. "As far as we're concerned an attack on one ethnic minority community is an attack on all ethnic minority communities, and also an attack on multicultural London — which is the thing that the racists really fear and really hate," he said.
"In the world today unfortunately there are people who would like Muslims and Jews to be enemies and we are demonstrating here that Muslims and Jews are friends and can support each other and we do have common enemies and our common enemies are racism and fascism.
"Certainly in the current atmosphere it's not surprising there's an upsurge in attacks against Muslim communities," Rosenberg added.
"It's a very big problem and it's a growing phenomenon but I'd also say that racism is a very flexible phenomenon and it's able to move its hate between communities."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd