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United in Grief

A week after the deadly terrorist attack that killed four people in London on 22 March 2017, there will be a memorial service on Westminster Bridge. That’s where Khalid Masood, born Adrian Elms in 1964, mowed down innocent people in a car before going on to stab an unarmed policeman to death as he tried to invade Parliament.

In a very real sense, Masood betrayed two hugely important things on the day of the attack: the noble religion of Islam and the vibrant multicultural nation of Britain. As many politicians and pundits have emphasized down the years, Islam is a religion of peace. Murder, violence and terrorism are just as much out of place there as they are in any other great religion, be it  Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism. Masood wilfully and wickedly misinterpreted and misapplied the teachings of his faith, playing into the hands of extremists and haters of all kinds.

Murder, violence and terrorism are also completely out of place in vibrant multicultural Britain, a nation of immigrants that has been immeasurably enriched by the contributions of folk from around the world, whether it was the Romans who began immigrating two thousand years ago or the Somali family who landed at Heathrow last week in the search of a better life. Diversity is our strength: it exposes us to new people, new ideas, new cultures and new cuisines, making life richer and more exciting for everyone on a daily basis.

Masood betrayed that vibrant tapestry of cultures and ethnicities in his murderous rampage, but he also raised a serious question for everyone in this nation of immigrants. How did the popular and talented schoolboy Adrian Elms, born half-a-century ago in Kent, turn into the hate-filled extremist who used a car as a murder-weapon on Westminster Bridge before rushing at Parliament with a knife in both hands? Some of his former friends and acquaintances have said that he faced racism and even police harassment in his youth. As result, he felt alienated and uncertain in his identity. This explains why the promise of his schooldays didn’t transform into success in his adult life: he went to prison, not to university, and he had a police record for violence, not an entry in Who’s Who.

Something went very badly wrong. As Hillary Clinton once said: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The village – Britain as a society – somehow failed to raise Masood right, just as it fails to raise many other children right, particularly when, like Masood, they are in the Black-and-Minority-Ethnic (BME) communities. Black and Brown folk in Britain are on the receiving end in terms of many troubling statistical disparities, from rates of child poverty and household overcrowding to likelihood of being imprisoned and subject to street harassment by the police. Too much talent is being wasted and too many BME folk are failing to realize their potential.

The commemoration on Westminster Bridge a week after the attack will be attended by community representatives and faith leaders of all kinds, from Muslim and Jewish to Hindu and Christian. It will prove once again that London’s diversity is its strength, as a kaleidoscope of religions, ethnicities and nationalities unite in mourning and in shared determination not to be cowed or intimidated by terror. But that shouldn’t stop us asking some tough questions about Britain as a society. Why did Khalid Masood not turn his schoolboy promise into adult success? Why are a tiny minority of British Muslims failing to understand that Islam is a religion of peace? Yes, Britain’s problems aren’t as big as France’s, in terms of the terrorist threat, but that will be no comfort to the victims of Masood’s attack or to possible victims in future.