Killing of British soldier stirs tension in poor corner of London
The gory killing of a British soldier at the hands of two suspected Islamist militants has shone a spotlight on Woolwich, the London district where it happened, stirring racial tensions in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of Britain.
Tucked away inside a bend of the River Thames to the southeast of central London, Woolwich has changed as quickly as the British capital itself in the last 20 years as successive waves of immigrants attracted by the area’s cheaper housing have made it their home.
“We have worshippers from Africa and Asia, Somalia and Nigeria, you name it,” Saeed Omer, a Somali-born trustee at the local mosque, said as a woman wearing a full-length black Islamic chador entered the building behind him.
Woolwich’s local mosque, a red-brick structure crowned by a golden dome on a busy road near the river, has found itself under uncomfortable scrutiny since the murder after one of the two assailants was filmed professing Islamist ideology.
“How could this happen here?” a white woman in her 30s with a tattoo on her neck wearing a tracksuit shouted as she walked past the mosque. “How could Muslims cut the head off a British soldier in broad daylight?”
Jabbing her finger at the mosque and at Omer, she added: “This place is part of it.”
The woman then used an expletive to denounce Muslims and shouted a slogan in support of the far-right nationalist English Defence League (EDL).
More than 100 EDL activists converged on Woolwich on Wednesday night after the murder to protest against what they said was growing Islamisation, stoking government fears the killing could trigger revenge attacks against the local Muslim community.
Omer said he was “100 per cent” sure that the two suspects, whose faces have been widely shown on TV, had not worshipped at his mosque and that they were not from the neighbourhood.
“This is what we’re up against,” he said of the woman’s outburst. “Islam teaches peace ... but all this is creating tension between communities. We saw the same after 7/7 and 9/11,” he added, referring to Islamist attacks on London and New York in July 2005 and September 2001.
Omer said there had been problems with extremists at the mosque though. In 2006, he said he and others had launched a court case against followers of radical cleric Omar Bakri, who is banned from Britain and has praised the 9/11 attack.
“They were coming here showing our children pictures of beheadings,” he said. “We took out an injunction and banned them. Radicalisation is one of our most serious problems.”
Bakri’s banned group al-Muhajiroun was later led by Anjem Choudary, who told reporters one of the attackers attended his meetings although he had not seen him for about two years.
During its heyday, Woolwich was a flourishing military industrial complex. Sprawling factories produced bullets and shells for the army of the British Empire, while its docks were home to a thriving ship-building industry.
But the area and its industry declined precipitously in the second half of the twentieth century with the last arms-making plant shutting its doors in 1994.
Pockets of the area are so bleak that Stanley Kubrick used them to film his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, a movie about violent delinquents in a dystopian future Britain.
Ranked among the most deprived in England, according to the local authorities, the district is home to people speaking nearly 200 different languages. A quarter of residents were born overseas.
Scarred by high levels of unemployment and social deprivation, locals say the area’s character has undergone a transformation in recent years.
“I’ve got an eight-year old. At six years old, I was out playing on the street myself. He doesn’t go out on the street,” said Gary Craig, an unemployed 44-year-old who lives close to the scene of the murder.
Like many local whites, he blames the arrival of outsiders: “The influx of foreigners into this area in the last five years is totally ridiculous.”
Woolwich, home to a military barracks for units which have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been targeted before by Irish Republican militants.
In 1974, the IRA planted a bomb in a local pub near the barracks, killing two people, including one soldier. And in 1983, it blew up a guards room in the barracks, injuring five.
In 2011, Woolwich was hit hard by city-wide riots when shops, a pub, and a police car were set on fire as an estimated 300 rioters looted the town centre.
Today, Woolwich town centre is dominated by pawnbrokers, betting shops, small kiosks to send money abroad, and specialised African and Asian food suppliers, including several Halal butchers.
Change of another kind is coming. On the other side of the road from the mosque, cranes are working on a new rail link that will radically improve access to central London.
A giant Tesco supermarket, one of the biggest in Britain, opened last year, and parts of the Royal Arsenal - the disused riverside arms-making complex - are being turned into upscale flats.
Opposite Tesco’s gleaming facade, Qudeer Ahmed, a 32-year-old Halal fishmonger, said he hoped people wouldn’t think all Muslims were like the two murder suspects.
“Not everybody is like them,” he said. “I don’t know why they do things like this. Muslims are a peaceful people.”