Cornwall embraces Muslim community in wake of New Zealand attacks

Written by Elly Henkes |

The solidarity event welcomed people of all faiths to come together in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks, proving Cornwall is here to protect its Muslim community.

Event organiser, Dr Sidi Henanouche, outside the Cornwall Islamic Community Centre

The Islamic community has been shown love and support by the people of Cornwall, as a meeting of solidarity brought people of all faiths and backgrounds together. Cornwall Islamic Community Centre (CICC) and mosque in Carnon Downs, near Truro, held the event to pay tribute to those who were killed in New Zealand just over a week ago.

A two minute silence was held to honour the victims of the Christchurch attacks, and some gave short speeches to the crowd with messages of support and fortitude. The extremist attacks killed 50 and many more were injured in shootings at two mosques in the city on the 15th of March.

Dr Sidi Henanouche, an organiser of the solidarity meeting, explained how important it is to receive support from people of all faiths: “Today we opened the doors in a solidarity event, and today we saw the best of Cornwall. We saw people who didn’t judge us, they supported us and stood with us shoulder to shoulder.” He added that the Islamic community would always stand by their friends of other faiths, and that you don’t have to be Muslim to know that what happened in Christchurch was wrong.

Support from the police has been requested by the Muslim community, with police officers stepping up patrols around UK mosques following the attacks. The CICC maintains a good relationships with the police, who made contact on the day of the attack and asked if the centre wanted security or had any concerns.

“I feel very safe. I think that Cornish people are a special people”

Dr Henanouche, who works at Treliske Royal Cornwall Hospital, was happy to talk about his faith and the general issues that British Muslims face, but also noted how welcoming and kind-hearted people can be: “I feel very safe. I think that Cornish people are a special people.” Talking of one experience in Truro where an individual said racially aggravated things to him, he says that other people that were around immediately didn’t tolerate it, and stood up for him. Cornwall is doing it’s best to protect our Muslim friends, but what of the wider picture in the UK?

“For me to be Muslim is an identity, more than just culture. Islam defines to me how I should live my life. And it also puts an emphasis on how I should be dealing with other people in the community. And that’s one of mercy, tolerance, peace and love.” Henanouche’s words on what it means to be Muslim are extremely pertinent. Islam is misunderstood by many people, and the media is often blamed for this.

According to Henanouche, media bias is an issue that affects Muslims greatly. He compares coverage of the Christchurch attacks to those carried out by Muslims, emphasising the pressure that had to be put on the media before the man responsible was referred to as a terrorist. “Before this, the word ‘terrorist’ was synonymous with the word ‘Muslim’.” Calling out the hypocrisy of the media, he mentions how there were references to the terrorist’s childhood – “they said, ‘what happened to this angelic child?’ These are not discussions that we entertain when a Muslim terrorist does these acts.”

UK and Australian tabloids came under fire for their choice of headline following the attack

I ask him what can be done to shift the representation and perceptions of Muslims in the UK media, and it’s clear that whilst journalists have to begin accurately reporting stories, Henanouche feels that there’s more the CICC could be doing. The centre’s approach, in trying to change the media narrative, involves both sides making an effort. “More dialogue needs to happen. Mosques need to be accessible. Our doors are always open, but I think we need to open our arms and just try to connect with people from the media to come and attend.” The centre had invited both ITV and the BBC to the event but neither attended.

As Henanouche notes, a lot of racism comes from a place of ignorance, not a place of malice. “Ignorance does exist, but I think that with discussion and dialogue, those barriers break down,” he says, “Once they talk to us they realise it’s no different to talking to anybody else.” He has hope in the future: “I’m a great believer in humanity, and that people are genuinely and innately kind and good.”

“It’s incumbent on all of us, especially politicians, to stand up and say we want to end the distrust and negativity.”

In attendance was Jennifer Forbes, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Truro and Falmouth, who said she was there to show solidarity and support. She referred to the New Zealand attacks as an “awful atrocity” and made it clear how important it is for politicians to show they care about Muslims and stand with them. “It’s incumbent on all of us, especially politicians, to stand up and say we want to end the distrust and negativity. Especially as some politicians have used the tactics of fear and division, and it has consequences.”

I also spoke to Fatuma Mohamud, a politics student at Exeter University, originally from Bristol, who said it was her first time at the CICC. During her time at university in Cornwall, she says that despite it being very different for her – having coming from such a diverse city – people down here have been inclusive and understanding.

Discussing with Mohamud whether gender is a factor in who is affected by Islamophobia, she believes that women are more vulnerable to attacks. “Absolutely. I think Muslim women are more visible, in the sense that they choose to cover their heads and their faith is on display.”

Many of those with a negative view of Islam have never spoken to a Muslim before.

Mohamud feels that media representation of Muslims had led to a spike in hate crimes. She said that, “there is a certain hatred that people harbour,” which often rears its head in the form of divisive comments. She described once being called a terrorist, explained how, even in diverse cities, Muslims experience hate crimes: “They didn’t know me, my family, my background,” she tells me. It shows how important education and empathy is, and that a lack of knowledge or understanding is the main contribution towards Islamophobic beliefs. Many of those with a negative view of Islam have never spoken to a Muslim before.

After welcoming the whole community with open arms, Cornwall’s Muslims deserve all the support and love they can get. It’s vital that we don’t forget Islamophobia exists in our society. There are many issues British Muslims face and much that can be done, but the solidarity meeting at Cornwall Islamic Centre was a brilliant example of the how Cornish people stand together and make each other feel safe.