The Woolwich murder: time for solidarity not demonisation

A week ago a British soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered in Woolwich, in southeast London. His murderers (subject to due process of law…) were two British black Muslim converts, who had taken up Jihadist views. Their methods were as low tech as possible, and they were happy to be caught, though they may have wanted to be killed by police snipers. For them the point was publicity. In this they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The story was promoted massively by all media outlets, and it is still getting a lot of coverage – quite out of proportion to other deaths, of civilians in London, or of soldiers on active service. The whole episode has stirred passions, and the results are disturbing.

At first I tried to retain a sense of proportion on the affair. It was pretty horrid, but more a random act of violence than a systemic threat to our way of life. But I seem to have missed something; the episode has hit Britain’s pressured working classes in a sore spot. For reasons that future historians will debate, soldiers have become a working class icon here in Britain (and perhaps the US as well). Their travails in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to symbolise the general pressures that working class people face: sent to fight wars nobody understands, and generally let down by the elites that sent them there. They are referred to as heroes.

This seems very different to the ways soldiers used to be regarded. The heroism is based on the dangers that the soldiers face and the endurance they show, not on the number of enemy that they kill. There was a bit of embarrassment when Prince Harry, after serving in Afghanistan, confessed that his actions would have killed people. Soldiering is about meting out violence; but we don’t really talk about that aspect of their work. There are occasional efforts to demonise the enemy, but it all turns out to be a bit complicated when many of your local allies appear little better. It is perhaps interesting that I don’t remember anything like this public regard for British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland, though I do remember having those feelings myself. The violence they inflicted on people that looked very like us, with some inevitable innocents, was altogether more visible, and made people feel uncomfortable.

Be that as it may, the target of last week’s attack could not have symbolised the working class icon better. And the reaction has been anger. The nasty islamophobic English defence League (EDL) has seen its popularity rocket. Attacks and threats on Muslims have soared. This seems to be a mainly working class phenomenon, though middle class prejudices are perfectly visible too, judging by the odd Facebook comment.

This is very depressing. The demonisation of Muslims and the Islamic religion is grossly unjust. All it can do is push more young British Muslims, suffering similar working class pressures, into extreme views. But demonising the EDL’s supporter doesn’t help either, and quickly takes on an air of class prejudice.

The fact is that most of British working classes, of all colours and races, are under pressure. Technology is killing traditional working class jobs and pressuring wages; housing costs, at least in places where there are jobs, are steadily rising. Benefit and public service cuts add to the pressure: though their effect on the working classes as a whole is complex – resentment at people living on benefit runs high amongst working class people. The education system often lets them down.

There are no easy answers. Stoking up a sense of victimhood, and throwing in the odd benefit or tax credit entitlement, is a road to nowhere, though advocated by many Labour politicians. By and large we need people to take more control of their lives and education, not blame everybody else when things go sour. The education system is slowly being fixed, though not all the government’s ideas are helpful. We need more social housing in the southeast, building on greenbelts if necessary. That’s hard and the government is doing much too little, though I don’t hear much convincing or constructive coming out of the Labour side either.

But it helps to understand and to listen. About the only shaft of light to emerge over the last week was an act of reconciliation made by a mosque in York to EDL protestors. Tea and biscuits made the headlines, but the real progress was made when the two sides got into dialogue and discovered their shared interests. Too many people advocate intolerance and confrontation (“standing up for what you believe in”), which only promotes misunderstanding and division. What is needed is true working class solidarity across race and religion to press for changes that will improve life in all our pressured communities.