Bridges are symbolic places. In our day, they are very much taken for granted yet in antiquity they were great marvels which symbolised the connection of one place to another – they brought people together.
The northern town of Tadcaster has been without its bridge since December 2015 when it was washed away by floods. When the bridge was recently reopened, the general view was that the town had now come back together. It is particularly poignant then that the terrible atrocity committed by Khalid Masood in Westminster last week was done, or at least began, on a bridge.
It is always problematic to try and work out cause in these matters. Terrorists aim to leave us wondering, perplexed and puzzled; they deliberately promote insecurity and fear. If we cannot understand why, we are left with the tacit impression these are purely arbitrary acts that can hit us anywhere at any time. This increases their impact. It’s important therefore that we at least try to understand what is happening.
The events in Westminster were truly shocking: Khalid Masood killed three people on Westminster Bridge, injured fifty, fatally stabbed a police officer at the Houses of Parliament, and was himself shot and killed, all in the space of 82 seconds. It is difficult to see how this sort of atrocity could be prevented except by the most draconian levels of security.
Whilst bridges are important symbols of unity and connection, it is likely that a different symbol will at present be looming large in the minds and of those engaged in and under the influence of ISIL’s campaign. That symbol is the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri with its leaning minaret in Mosul. This is where in June 2014 the apparent leader of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, declared a caliphate asserting the leadership of Muslims everywhere. This Mosque was built in the 12th Century to celebrate Al Nuri who mobilised and brought Muslims together during the second crusade. It is a place soaked in symbolism.
At great cost in human life the next few weeks or months will likely see this so-called caliphate come to an end, at least in its present shape. The forces arrayed against ISIL number more than ten to one and include members of almost every Muslim community including Sunnis and Shias, as well as different ethnic groups, Arabs, Turks and Kurds. The Great Mosque will fall to Iraqi Government forces which will be a real threat to the symbolism of this so-called caliphate.
Even in the midst of fake news and conspiracy theories, there can be few people outside its own number who believe that ISIL has been on balance a good thing. Well evidenced reports by respected independent bodies tell of the cold-blooded murder of children, widespread rape, and genocide. Sunnis whom ISIL was set up to defend have borne the brunt of its violence and dislocation, though Shias and ethnic Kurds as well as Christians and Yazidis have suffered too.
There is, though, more at work here than this one symbol, rich as it is. It is too simple to jump immediately to Islamic radicalisation and leave it there. Masood’s actions may well be as much a result of western selfie society as they are of Islamic extremism. A society built on intense competition, vanity and desire is bound to have its casualties. Maybe we should be looking for causes in the extreme individualism that has come to characterise our lives in the west, where increasing competition on uneven playing fields has, through a powerful cocktail of envy, powerlessness and humiliation, created a colossal sense of resentment.
I’m struck by the similarities between Masood and Thomas Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox. Both were loners, unable to keep down a relationship, unstable early years, a sense of persecution and an anger that for Mair turned inward and became depression, and for Masood turned outward and was demonstrated in an aggressive personality. For Mair, the outlet for this resentment was the racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment of the right; for Masood, it was the distorted Islam of the extremists.
The role of faith in this is symbolic. It looks like, whilst in prison, Masood came across a group of extremists whose interpretation of Islam, fed by their own sense of victimhood and resentment, allowed him to give vent to his rage. The constant feed of imagery and propaganda readily available through social media drip-fed his sense of rage. It is a simple displacement to shift the missed opportunities, disappointments and regrets of one’s own life onto a situation you have been persuaded is your own.
I am coming to recognise that this resentment is much more about wanting to be included, to be taken seriously, and to be valued than it is about theological or cultural differences.
As I walked over Westminster Bridge a week after the attack the symbolism was clear. We can live together and we will not let this sort of violence drive us apart. Met Police Officers (one of them carrying his toddler daughter), Rabbis, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, women, men, children, black people, white people, Asian people along with Lord Bourne who, though a Minister of State with the Faith and Integration portfolio, had clearly come as himself and was walking along with everyone else. It was very powerful.
The rich symbolism of faith means that those who seek to justify their actions no matter how nefarious and destructive will be able to quarry it for meaning. But faith’s real power is in building a positive view of human society. It provides the resources to enable us to develop a new understanding of responsible human freedom and of inclusive equality. Where for all of us our hopes and aspirations are at least possible, where we get to develop strong and resilient identities able to overcome life’s challenges, where all of us prosper and have a proper place in our economic life, and where we learn to live together with mutual respect.
The Archbishop of Canterbury in his speech in the House of Lords on UK values puts it well:
“Our response to those who seek to threaten and undermine our values cannot simply be grounded in a defensive or preventative mind-set. To draw back into ourselves. To look after our own…we need a more beautiful and better common narrative that shapes and inspires us with common purpose; a vaulting national ambition, not a sense of division and antagonism both domestically and internationally.
"We need a narrative that speaks to the world of bright hope and not mere optimism – let alone simple self-interest. That will enable us to play a powerful, hopeful and confident role in the world, resisting the turn inward that will leave us alone in the darkness, despairing and vulnerable”.
If we are looking for answers and solutions, this is not a bad place to start.