Keith Burnett: Fear terrorism, but not your neighbours

British imams and other religious leaders hold a vigil near to the scene of this month's terrorist attack at London Bridge.
British imams and other religious leaders hold a vigil near to the scene of this month's terrorist attack at London Bridge.
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WILL I fear my Muslim neighbour? Well of course not, I know he is a good guy and I’ve heard him speak in the mosque of mutual understanding between communities and faiths.

What about the Muslim who is a stranger? Or anyone who looks like they could be a threat?

Well it is still okay if they are a middle aged man or any, almost any, woman. But what about the stranger with a backpack who looks like me? He might have been radicalised, and be planning some evil act. How can I know? What should I think or do?

All the images of carnage have an effect, and we are kidding ourselves if we think we aren’t changed by them. I cannot put aside my feelings of fear. I know that the likelihood that I will meet someone who wishes to endanger life is extraordinarily small. But I need to be on alert now, isn’t it my duty to look and sniff out a person who would hurt others? As a loyal Brit, I know it truly is.

I do remember Jesse Jackson saying that he was so bathed in pictures of young black men being violent, that even he, as an African American, sometimes felt in danger when he saw a group of black youths approaching. How did he think about it? Did he feel responsible for their violence?

And we have now seen so many images of young Muslim men engaged in awful acts of brutality, how could we possibly remain calm? How can you possibly do that when someone might, just might, be going to blow me up.

And that is what my Muslim brothers and sisters are feeling. They feel the fear themselves, along with being desperate not to be separated from their brothers and sisters who are not Muslims.

Yes indeed, virtually all of them are just like me, appalled by what has happened but also loaded down by other troubling thoughts.

They share my fear of someone who looks just like them, but who is not them. Someone who risks their safety directly and through the trust they destroy in every act of terror.

Some worry their communities may have not done enough to stop radicalisation by speaking out against those they believe do not speak for the true Islamic faith, to show they are not ones to fear.

Others are just hoping this will pass and that they, like we, can get on with their ordinary lives. Many despair at the horror being committed even as they fast.

So what can we do?

We should try to express our own disgust and fear of those in our midst who do us all harm. All of us. Together.

We must try to amplify what the good people are saying from inside the Muslim community. For those voices are there and they are often equally if not more fervent than our own, those for whom freedom from suspicion and antagonism is also under threat.

We do know that some think we should be fighting against Islam as a whole, that we should see mass internments and the removal of simple acts of acceptance and accommodation. That is hard to take.

But let’s get to the problem we face right here and now.

We need to act as one community, one family in ‘hearts and minds’ if we are to preserve our safety and freedom.

We need to join hands with our Muslim fellow citizens – the nurse, police officer, shopkeeper, surgeon or tram driver.

All those who tell us, as my dear Muslim friend told me, that when he hears the question ‘what are British Muslims doing about terrorism?’ the answer is, like our own, praying not to be victims.

We must ensure that our children understand the strength that comes from united resolve. While we can have no truck with terrorism, we must not lose our values of tolerance for what is simply diverse.

We must see one another as human beings and neighbours if we are not to destroy the very values the extremists abhor.

Far from hiding behind closed doors, we need to get closer to all our neighbours, share their hopes and fears. And with them and for us all, we must expel those who mean us all harm.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield.