While many words and countless hours have been spent debating the economic and political fallout of Brexit, one of the most immediate effects in the aftermath of the referendum vote nearly two years ago has been the rise in race attacks in the United Kingdom.
In the first month alone after the ballot that saw a narrow majority vote to leave the European Union, British police said there had been almost 6,200 hate crimes reported. During the campaign, immigration, and the uncontrolled arrival of mainly east European economic migrants, was a major issue. But the campaign also coincided with the refugee crisis in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of desperate and desolate families fled violence in Iraq, Syria and across the Sahel. It was the largest refugee crisis Europe had witnessed since the end of the Second World War, and second only to the forced mass migrations when India and Pakistan were carved out of the remnants of the British Empire then too.
Certainly, the images of many thousands of Muslim refugees walking across Europe, not sure of where they might eventually settle or be welcomed, influenced some Britons to vote for Brexit. After all, it would allow Britons a chance to take back control of their borders. I cannot find statistical evidence to support this but I do remember anecdotal evidence. While on the Greek island of Kos watching hundreds of Syrians scramble onto EU soil for the first time three years ago, one holidaying British couple told me they would vote to keep “these people” out of England. That same day too, I met a German couple who were also holidaying, but left their resort each morning and spent their funds on helping the refugees in any way they could.
The reactions of the couples were in stark contrast that it remains indelible in my memories.
There is another event too that remains indelible, and it was the petrol-bombing attack on a red-bricked terraced home in Wood Hill, Leicester in September 2013.
Shehnila Taufiq was 47; her daughter Zainab was 19, her son Bilal 17, and Jamal was just 15 — and they all perished in that attack.
The family were originally from Karachi, Pakistan and police suspected initially that they were the subject of a racist attack.
The father of the family, Dr Mohammad Taufiq Al Sattar wasn’t at home — he is a gifted neurosurgeon who practices in two leading Dublin hospitals, and travelled regularly between Ireland and Leicester, making sure his family were well-settled, safe and his children established in local schools.
But eight men involved in the arson attack had other ideas, evil in their minds and revenge in their hearts. These believed another man lived in that red-bricked house, re-located there away from London by police in a witness protection scheme. The four family members died in a case of mistaken identity.
Police later caught up the eight men and the justice system went to work. Two of the gang were convicted or murder, six others of manslaughter, and all combined are serving jail terms amounting to more than 130 years behind bars.
I cannot fathom for one minute what it must be like to lose a child. I cannot contemplate what it must be like to lose your entire family. And I have no idea how anyone could cope with losing all in such a cruel fate and horrible murderous deed.
But Dr Al Sattar is a remarkable man, one of far more courage and forgiveness than I might ever be or could ever muster. After the eight were sentenced for their heinous crime, he gave a hugely impressive lesson in what it means to be a Muslim, a man of faith, resolve and strength.
Speaking on RTE radio, he said: “We don’t hate the individual people. We hate the crime that happened. The individual who committed the crime needs to be punished.”
Speaking about the aftermath of incident Dr Al Sattar said: “It was a very difficult time in the first part, last year, but I am settled now. It all comes to the religion. When you do the good work in this life you are going to be rewarded in the life there after. I see my family around me all the time, when we pray”.
According to trends established and confirmed by the three most recent census of population, Islam will become Ireland’s second-largest religion by 2030 — and incidents of Islamophobia are rare.
Earlier this week, in a decision handed down by An Bord Pleanala, Ireland’s planning authority, Dr Al Sattar will have reason to at least smile once more after the loss of his family. It has given the go ahead for one of Ireland’s largest mosques. It says the Shuhada Foundation of Ireland can build a four-storey mosque, community centre and primary school on a site in Blanchardstown in West Dublin. Its steel minaret will tower some 30 metres over the site and will call the faithful to prayed across the city suburb.
Yes, there was opposition to the plan and the “noise pollution” it might bring, but these concerns were dismissed — the Shuhada Foundation has pledged the community centre will be open to everyone.
Dr Al Sattar had pledged to build the site to honour his family murdered in Britain, and he is using his personal finances and donations from the Muslim medical community in Ireland, from the Muslim community in Leicester, and from the medical community and colleagues in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to finance it.
Maybe there is justice after all. Ramadan Kareem.