LONDON – The attack on Muslim worshippers outside a London mosque on Monday follows a rising wave of violence and harassment directed against Muslims across Britain and around the world.
This month alone, a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf told police in Lancashire her car was struck by a bag of vomit. Worshippers at the Omar Faruque mosque in Cambridge found strips of ham attached to their vehicles. Several Muslim families have reported receiving letters warning, "You are no longer welcome in this country." Scores say they have been spat on.
Across Britain, Muslims say they are being targeted by a wave of animosity and violence simply because of the way they dress and worship, and because they share a religion hijacked by bloodthirsty extremists like the Islamic State group, which was quick to claim responsibility for recent attacks in Britain and elsewhere. In Monday's attack, a man plowed a van into a crowd of worshippers, injuring at least nine people — a tactic used in the recent attacks on Westminster and London bridges.
London's Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, said Monday's assault outside two mosques during the holy month of Ramadan was clearly "an attack on Muslims."
"We are easy targets because of the way we dress and when we pray," said Hassan Ali, a 34-year-old resident of Finsbury Park, a north London neighborhood that is home to a large Muslim population and where the attack occurred. "But every time there is an attack here or elsewhere, we are blamed. When we are attacked, people look away."
Since the wave of IS-inspired terror attacks in Britain, there has been a five-fold increase of hate crimes against Muslims. Tensions have also been running high since Britain's decision to leave the European Union, a vote that was largely driven by anti-immigrant rhetoric — a message that was further reinforced by some of Britain's right-leaning tabloids and spread by populist European politicians promising to stem immigration and tackle terrorism associated with IS.
"I feel unsafe," said Emma Salem, a 15-year-old Muslim who lives in the neighborhood targeted on Monday.
Such attacks against Muslims have been on a worldwide increase. In January, a white nationalist opened fire on an Islamic cultural center in Quebec City, Canada, killing six people and wounding nearly 20. In the same month, the Islamic Center of Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, was destroyed by a fire in what authorities called a hate crime and another mosque was burned to the ground. Last year, nearly 100 mosques were attacked in Germany and dozens across Europe have been targeted by arsonists this year.
Stirring tension plays an important part in Islamic State and al-Qaida propaganda, as well as propaganda by right-leaning political groups.
Brendan Cox, the widower of the slain British parliamentarian Jo Cox, said both the far-right and Islamic extremists are propelled by polarization.
"Far-right fascists and Islamic terrorists are driven by the same hatred of difference, same ideology of supremacy & use of same tactics," he wrote on Twitter.
The Islamic State group and al-Qaida have targeted Muslims living in the West, repeatedly saying they will never be fully accepted members in a society of "unbelievers."
The idea has been to sow mistrust and drive both sides to the extremes. In the case of IS, the propaganda has gone even further, warning Muslims that if they failed to either join the fight in defense of the extremists' self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria or carry out attacks in their home countries, they themselves were complicit in a system of oppression against Muslims.
Islamic State supporters used Monday's attack to fuel more tensions by noting that the attacker, identified as 47-year-old Darren Osborne, was not shot to death, unlike the London Bridge attackers. "Muslims. you need to wake up, the war is starting now in your own streets," the message went on, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
"Muslims are repeatedly being used as a political football and pieces in a propaganda campaign," said Mohammed Shafiq, head of the Ramadhan Foundation. "The rampant rise in Islamophobia has been perpetuated by right-wing newspapers and outlets. This has led to an atmosphere where it is acceptable to harass and ostracize Muslims. The Muslim community is constantly demonized."
Residents of Finsbury Park said they were angry that the police seemed slow to call Monday's incident a "terror attack." They also expressed frustration that attacks on the Muslim community have received little coverage or sympathy.
"There has been an outpouring of sympathy for all the recent terror attacks but hardly a whisper on this attack," said 23-year-old Ali Habib, who described how the white van swerve into a crowd of worshippers gathered outside a mosque following evening prayers. "People are both scared and angry. Parents are scared to send their children to evening prayers."
The Muslim Council of Britain has called for extra security around mosques, describing the Finsbury Park van attack as "the most violent manifestation" of Islamophobia.
Mosques across Britain and elsewhere are expecting large crowds this week as Ramadan draws to a close.
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Cressida Dick is the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, not commander.