Wednesday’s murder of a British off-duty soldier on a south London street is of course shocking. I have nothing to say about it that has not already been said in relation to this savage act as contrary to the ethics of contemporary Islam.
But what captured my attention – and what I want to reflect on here – is what I saw on film, taken by the mobile phone of someone in the street who was there when the murder took place. First, this was a murderer who waited for someone to arrive who would record for the world his bloody hands, his bloody knife, the murder weapon, and his blood-soaked words of hatred for a country’s actions (his country) against his co-religionists. This was the theatre of the macabre that needed spectators – the killers waited, did not run away – and someone passing by obliged, recording his words to broadcast to the country, to the world.
Murder as spectacle, murder as political message, murder as sermon:“As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." (Metaphysical poet John Donne, from his meditation ‘Devotions upon emergent occasions’ - 1624).
So firstly, the transformation of religiously-motivated murder into an act to be broadcast. The mobile phone as minaret, calling to the nations: Allah hu akbar. If there had been mobile phone cameras in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein went into the mosque in Hebron and murdered 29 Muslims at prayer he would have held his gun in one hand and his mobile in the other. It is not sufficient now to desecrate God’sname through murder, it needs to be witnessed – and by as many as possible. And the technology is at hand. It is, literally, in our hands.
And the second thing I saw – and I watched it a few times to make sure I’d seen it properly – was that at one point when the murderer is shouting his message into the camera with blood-drenched hands and waving his knife in the air, a woman pushing a shopping trolley comes along the pavement from behind him and, without missing a step, walks past him.
Maybe she is used to seeing street incidents like this in her neighbourhood in south London. People enraged, people shouting abuse, people at the end of their tether – and beyond. She isn’t going to let her day be disrupted. So she walks past, ignoring him, almost brushing against him as she goes. Or maybe she is just lost in her own world – we might all have had the experience of walking down a street and realising when are near our destination that we were inwardly preoccupied and can’t remember how we got from A to B.
But however we are to think of what was going on for that woman at that time, the juxtaposition of these two people, each in their own world, yet side by side, within inches of each other but each one oblivious of the other – what are we to make of it? In one way, John Donne is wrong – each person is an island, entire of itself. No contact, just the sheer individuality of each person in their own world. No death diminishes me because I will carry on regardless. That’s what I saw in those filmed moments: in her and in him.
But as that woman walks by, within touching distance but resolutely undeflected in her own journey, I also saw a rather large metaphor being enacted in those moments. How much do we wilfully ignore what takes place around us? How much of the time do I live with my eyes wide shut? What response do I make, how deflected from my course do I go to turn aside and look, and respond? There are – we know, we can see - the daily horrors: of neighbourhood, of country, of living in an interconnected world, yet watching that woman walk by - though an extraordinary thing to see – led me to wonder about my own ‘not-wanting-to-know’ behaviour, when I turn the page of my newspaper from 120 dead in car bombs in Iraq, to the next page and 1.5 million refugees now displaced from Syria, to the next page and drug-related torture and murder in Mexico, to the next page and rapes in India, to the next page and – oh, blessed relief, a character in Downton Abbey is having a baby; and then – all bloodshed and horror brushed past - the sports pages, I can settle down with those, I can look away, I can pretend to be on my island.
Murder in the name of Allah. Nothing new there. But whether it is pogroms or Crusades, Hindu massacres of Muslims, Buddhist massacres of Hindus (yes), or Jews on the West Bank shooting Palestinians, religion can act as a powerful excuse - i.e. rationalisation - for the murderousness of the human heart to express itself in every age and every land.
Religion- so many blessings can come from it - and how dangerous it is! To know what God wants - this is a terrible and terrifying thing to know.