We woke to headlines of people dead in a terrorist attack. The sort of headline we read all the time. Where was it this time? Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? We have become accustomed to such news, coming from parts of the world where such bloodshed has become so common we hardly notice any more.
But this was Manchester, with 22 dead and scores injured from a suicide bomb. This was London, seven dead and dozens injured by van and knife attacks. Terror has come close to home, and it comes as a shock.
Just a couple hours before the Manchester attack I attended an exhibition called ‘Jesus Doors Easter Stations’, artwork depicting—on doors—the last days of Jesus’ life. One picture stood out to me from the others—a depiction of the women who stood by the cross. Their grief reminded me of the faces of mothers of bombing victims shown on the news night after night. Their grief came immediately to mind learning the news in Manchester. Once again, mothers grieve.
The response to the attack in Manchester has been noted by quiet defiance, and marches for unity. The very next evening tens of thousands of people gathered in Albert Square in front of the Town Hall, for a vigil. We stood with about 100 leaders of all religions before the immense crowd; there was cheering for the first-responders; there was absolute silence in honour of the dead and injured, and great ripples of applause spread across the square in agreement with words of determination and hope; and at the end, there was chanting of ‘Manchester’. Over the next week vigils were held around the city; St Ann’s Square has become the repository of floral tributes and private pilgrimages. This proudly diverse city exhibits a quiet determination to deny terrorism its goal of creating division.
The Manchester response continued over the following week, as public events went ahead—40,000 running in the Manchester Run; 50,000 attending the tribute concert ‘One Love Manchester’. Yes, there was increased police presence; no, there were no troops on the streets.
One common feature of world media reporting has long been the absence of coverage of the reactions of the Muslim communities to such outrages. The question is often asked by commentators with an agenda, ‘Where is the Muslim response?’ The response is usually there, but unreported. In this case, mosques held vigils, inviting non-Muslims to attend; a peace-march of hundreds of Muslims from dozens of mosques walked down the main streets of the city.
Of course, it is also true that the bomber was born in Manchester. The arrests across the city are evidence that there are many who do not share the sense of unity and good will that has been on display these past weeks, are disaffected from British society, and nurture a simmering hatred. And there are many who are ready to blame every Muslim for the actions of the few, and nurture their own hatred.
In the midst of this, the unanswered question is, why are young people from our own communities willing and ready to kill young people—teenaged girls, and their brothers and parents—and themselves? And, what can be done to prevent this happening?
The second London terrorist incident in three months has made this question, and the security of the nation, come to the fore in the election campaign. Politicians and political commentators respond with the same sorts of answers we hear each time. We seem no nearer a solution to the problem of terror on our streets.
In my blog written last August I suggested that the answers will have to come from the communities. And that the faith communities will need to take the lead. The community in which I live has a nearly equal Christian and Muslim population. We live on the same streets, and get along with each other; but church communities tend to keep to themselves, and mosque communities tend to keep to themselves. However, over the past couple of years they have been reaching out to each other, finding ways of meeting each other to get to know each other. In this current crisis moment, the relationships of these years has meant we are able to work together to stand against the forces of division.
Even so, we have hard questions to work through together. This is a crisis of Islam, in its struggle to come to terms with pluralism and tolerance in a world that cannot be returned to the 7th Century. This is a challenge to Christianity, to face the racism, prejudice, and privilege with which we have kept Muslims at arms’ length in our society; and to grasp the extent to which so much of the conflict in the Middle East is the fruit of colonialism.
The challenge for our communities is to nurture our young people to meet people of other faiths and races, to see the best in each other, and to find common ground in building a caring and secure society.
It is a sad commentary on human nature that we seem only to take notice of dangers when they become local. The grief we share over the innocent loss of young lives in Manchester and London should make us more compassionate for those in war zones for whom this is almost a daily occurrence. From this moment on, when we waken to news from Kabul, or Baghdad, Mosul or Peshawar, let us also weep; and let us also stand determined to work against hatred and division.