If the terrible fire at a tower block in London has a positive side, it is that it has brought to wider public understanding the important role many Muslims in the area played in the life of the community, writes Jonathan Gornall
The Grenfell disaster has highlighted Muslim contributions to community
Many of the streets of London, and those of countless other towns and cities throughout the UK, were named a century or more ago in honour of some of the now largely forgotten warriors who, through the ruthless application of shot and steel, played their part in forging the greatest empire the world has ever seen.
For example, Outram Road, a street in the south London suburb of Croydon near the 19th-century site of the East India Company’s private military college, was named after Sir James Outram, a British soldier celebrated during his lifetime for his part in the enthusiastically bloody putting-down of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8.
Nearby Elgin Road, meanwhile, commemorates James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, whose tenure as Viceroy of India was terminated abruptly when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1863, just 18 months into the job.
And then there is Grenfell Road, a narrow, insignificant byway on the wrong side of the tracks in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, named in honour of Field Marshal Francis Grenfell, whose 49-year military career was devoted to the bloody work of empire in South Africa, Egypt and Sudan.
Grenfell’s place in posterity, and on a street nameplate in W11, was cemented during the so-called Mahdist War, an 18-year revolt in Sudan, first against Egyptian and then British rule by the followers of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, or spiritual redeemer, of Islam. Grenfell’s victory at the Battle of Toski in 1889 was celebrated in a breathless eyewitness report published in the British press at the time.
The battle had resulted in “the complete overthrow of the fanatics”, leaving “fifteen hundred dervishes killed”, for the price of one British Hussar and 16 Egyptian soldiers. The courage of the enemy, conceded the reporter, was “reckless to a point of madness” and “frequently the gallant Arabs turned at bay, and hacked the horses’ legs and rider’s body, regardless of sabre cuts and bayonet thrusts”.
Ultimately, however, they were no match for “our men, black and white alike, [who] remained as steady as rocks, maintaining a ruthless and well-directed fire”. The report added approvingly that “all the principal Emirs died at their posts like men”.
Were Grenfell in some way able to be conscious of events since his death in 1925, at the very least he surely would have been surprised to see his surname co-opted once again in 1974 for the naming of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block of flats at the north end of the road that already bore his name.
But exactly how Grenfell, born in 1841, just four years after the coronation of Queen Victoria, might have reacted to the association of his name in 2017 with one of the worst disasters in London since the Second World War, and one that has claimed the lives of so many Muslims, cannot possibly be imagined.
Ibrahim, Alsanousi, Khalloufi, Hamdan, Belkadi, El-Wahabi, Aziz, Neda, Begum, Jafari … as the family names of the victims of the Grenfell tragedy emerged over the days following the disaster, it quickly became apparent that, through a cruel twist of historical fate, many whose origins lay in Islamic countries once created, purloined or otherwise interfered with by Grenfell’s British empire – victims hailed from nations including Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq – were among the dead.
The death toll has been put officially at 79 but is expected to rise as police and fire teams continue to comb through the devastation. One of the first to be identified was Mohammed Alhajali, a 23-year-old refugee who had fled Syria with his brother Omar in 2014 and, studying civil engineering, was trying to build a new life for himself and his family. The brothers, who lived on the 14th floor of the tower, became separated in the confusion and only Omar survived.
Six members and three generations of the Lebanese Choucair family, who lived on the 20th floor, are also feared to be among those who perished. Heartbreaking photographs have emerged of Nadia Choucair, her husband Bassem and their three smiling children, Fatima, 3, Zainab, 10, and Mierna, 13. Nadia’s elderly mother, Sirra, is also feared dead.
So soon after the tragedy – indeed, while some families are still awaiting dreadful news of their loved ones – it seems heartless to talk of silver linings, of lives lost not entirely in vain, but there is something more than mere historical irony in the fate of the victims of Grenfell Tower.
Something both remarkable and moving has grown out of the tragedy. Even the most pro-Brexit, right-wing newspapers, more readily associated with the hounding of immigrants, have been touched by the sheer humanity of this dreadful situation. Never before have so many photographs of Muslims appeared under sympathetic headlines in the Daily Mail.
The right-wing cheerleader has been ferocious in condemning politicians who failed to act after being warned of residents’ safety fears over a decade ago and has castigated the “chaotic response” of the government and local council alike, that has left victims of the fire struggling to find promised alternative accommodation.
Alongside pitiful photographs of children and parents lost in the blaze, it furiously condemned Kensington and Chelsea council – “Britain’s richest borough” – for scrimping on social housing costs while lavishing £5 million on an opera project for wealthy residents elsewhere in the district.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, right-wing columnist Simon Heffer expressed the widely felt disgust at the failure of prime minister Theresa May to react to the plight of the victims of the fire with anything approaching human empathy. Her “robotic and sequestered performance” when visiting the disaster scene and in subsequent interviews showed, he thundered, that she was not fit to lead the country. This newfound empathy with the Muslim community has only been reinforced by the subsequent attack this week on worshippers outside the Finsbury Park Mosque, which politicians and media of all shades scrambled to condemn as terrorism on a par with the recent attacks by Islamic extremists in Manchester and London.
It is an altogether remarkable situation. A Conservative British prime minister, until so very recently the darling of the right-wing media for pledging to cap immigration as she prepared to do Brexit battle with Europe, seems almost certain to be hounded from office by her own party, appalled at her failure to reach out to immigrant victims of society’s callous disregard for the weak, the poor and the powerless.
The blackened remains of Grenfell Tower stand like a gigantic, ghastly memorial, casting a heavy shadow over the bureaucrats who failed its occupants. But, in time, the devastated edifice named for a forgotten enforcer of the greatest empire the world has ever known might also come to be seen as something else – the marker of a moment when attitudes towards immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, began to change.
For once, even in the most right-wing media, British Muslims are not on the back foot, forced into extravagant displays of empathy with the wider community in the wake of the latest terror outrage and desperate to remind one and all that they are “us” and not part of the alien “them” whose perverse misrepresentation of Islam is as far from the true faith as black magic is from Christianity.
In death, their sisters and brothers have opened the eyes of the wider community into a stark realisation that Muslims are not “others”, but are exactly like “us” – ordinary people with ordinary, everyday problems, hopes and dreams, trying only to do their best for their children. As such, let no-one say they died in vain.
Jonathan Gornall is a frequent contributor to The National