Leeds community leaders call for calm in wake of terror attacks

The Paris terror attacks sent shockwaves across the world’s Jewish and Muslim communities. Sarah Freeman and Chris Bond report.

Thousands of people gather at Republique square in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015.  Thousands of people began filling Frances iconic Republique plaza, and world leaders converged on Paris in a rally of defiance and sorrow on Sunday to honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Thousands of people gather at Republique square in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. Thousands of people began filling Frances iconic Republique plaza, and world leaders converged on Paris in a rally of defiance and sorrow on Sunday to honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Aurelie doesn’t talk about her religion any more.

The Jewish mother of three left her native France for Britain a few years ago and with anti-Semitic feelings on the rise in her homeland, she says there’s little chance of them ever returning.

“You’ve seen the news last week,” says the 37 year old, referring to the three days of terror attacks, which brought bloodshed to Paris and saw a gunman storm a kosher supermarket in the east of the city. “That’s how my country is getting worse and worse.”

For now she feels more secure living across The Channel and happy to call herself British, but for how long? Concerns about the safety of Jewish communities have been further fuelled in this country with the publication of two surveys by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA).

As 1,500 Jews were reported to be leaving France for Israel, the first said more than half of Britain’s Jews had considered leaving the country in the last two years. The second poll made even grimmer reading, highlighting the fact that anti-Semitism is not just a problem of the past. Questioning more than 3,400 adults, 45 per cent of adults believed at least one anti-Semitic view presented to them was definitely or probably true. Confirming lazy stereotype after lazy stereotype, depressingly, one in eight thought Jews talked about the Holocaust to get sympathy.

“It saddens me and greatly concerns me,” says Simon Jackson, president of the Leeds Jewish Representative Council and partner with the city’s law firm Shulmans. “It devalues the absolute horror of the Holocaust. I believe most of this stems from lack of education and those who express that view I suspect have no real understanding of the causes and effects. The Jewish community does not seek sympathy. It simply points out the horrendous facts to prevent any possible genocide reoccurring anywhere in the world.”

While the scale and apparently random nature of the attacks has sent shockwaves throughout the world, for many within the Jewish community it has been a tragedy waiting to happen.

“The Anglo- Jewish community has for many years been concerned about their security,” says Simon. “There have been an increasing number of anti- Semitic incidents and the attacks in France have not come as a surprise. There is a general view and there has been for some time, that Europe is harking back towards the dark days of the last century with governments having turned a blind eye to the rise of anti-Semitism.

“Unfortunately the root of the problem is ignorance of the Jewish communities around the world and a lack of appreciation by the masses of what those Communities give to their countries of birth, coupled with the continual and completely erroneous demonisation of Israel from the UN, the EU and others that gives rise to anti-Semitism. If only all appreciated that Israel is a fully democratic state which provides equal rights to all, including the one million Arabs living, there would be less anti-Semitism. The recent actions by the EU concerning Hamas by taking them off the terrorist list, and who have no different ideology than ISIS only adds fuel to the fire.”

In the wake of the terror attacks, which began when two Islamist gunmen forced their way into and opened fire in the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo killing 12 of its staff, saw immediate calls for calm. However, while the decision by its publishers to print three million copies of its current edition, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad weeping while holding a sign saying “I am Charlie”, is seen in some quarters as an act of defiance, the “survivors’ issue” of Charlie Hebdo has angered some Muslims.

Mohammed Rafiq Sehgal, president of the Council for Mosques, in Bradford, understands why the decision was made, but questions whether it was right. “Obviously, the magazine sees it as important not to be giving in to the forces of terror and oppression. For the magazine this is an important principle to demonstrate and uphold.

“However, in doing this it could be seen to be showing no regard to the feelings of millions of Muslims throughout the world who have stood in solidarity with the victims, their families and world leaders in condemnation of the atrocity.”

Mr Sehgal says the eyes of the world are now focused on Muslim communities. “We therefore need to be resolute in our role against the forces of terror and oppression. This may require us to lead from the front. We must not flinch from our role and responsibility in ensuring that our societies will not be held to ransom by the terrorists’ elements whatever their visible motives.”

At the same time, though, there is a feeling among many Muslims that they again find themselves having to justify their place in Western society, with UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage yesterday claiming that the country must deal with the “terrible mistakes” of multiculturalism.

The response of Muslim leaders to the publication of Charlie Hebdo’s latest front cover was a measured one, but it highlights the glaring differences of opinion between large parts of secular society and that of many Muslims.

“The motives of those publishing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, especially at a time when Muslims and non-Muslims have already died defending their right to do so, must be questioned,” said Imam Qari Asim from the Makkah Mosque in Leeds. “Muslims do believe in freedom of speech and do respect the right for people to exercise their freedom.”

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Mr Asim, who added that freedom of speech has its moral and legal limitations, said the reason the imams had spoken out was to try and limit the fallout from the cartoons and also to try and start a “frank and open dialogue” about how to safeguard our freedoms.

However, there remain serious concerns about Islamophobia and the radicalisation of young, alienated Muslims, and Mr Asim said that both need to be tackled. “There is no one single issue, but we have got to work together because nobody wants to live in a world with fanatics.”

In wake of the CAA survey, its chairman Gideon Falter described the results as a “shocking wake-up call”. Britain, he said, was at a tipping point and a refusal to tackle the very real tensions between different ethnic groups will inevitably lead to more victims like those being mourned right now in Paris.

“Yes there is a tipping point and how close we are to that I don’t know,” says Mrs Jackson. “Look at the German Jews pre 1933. They didn’t worry and look what happened there.”