In this world of blaring noise, where social media constantly shouts facts and statistics at us; where news has to be ‘breaking’ in order to be meaningful; where violent and sexual images have become so ubiquitous that people refuse to be shocked by deaths in far-off countries – in this world, it takes something very particular to silence a community. Accounts of the vigil held on 28 March in Shawlands for Asad Shah, the Glasgow shopkeeper murdered in what Police Scotland are calling a ‘religiously prejudiced’ attack, show that this was one of those rare occasions. Encouraged to bring a single daffodil, people lit candles, cried and shared memories of the longstanding member of the community before sharing in a ‘silent vigil.’ People were shocked. People were upset. People could not make sense of what had happened.
No attempt will be made to understand the mind of Tanveer Ahmed, the man who travelled from Bradford to Glasgow with the express intention of killing Shah. Perhaps really and truly understanding his mind is impossible. However, attempting to understand the actions of those that make up our society is the only way to gain an improbable glimmer of comprehension how we can ensure that these actions are not repeated.
Initially, therefore, it is necessary to look at the reasons that this happened. On Good Friday, Asad Shah posted a Facebook status saying ‘Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.’ Shah and his family had left Pakistan in the 1990s and were Ahmadiyyah Muslims. It is worth taking a moment to closely examine what this means. Ahmadiyyah Muslims believe in nonviolence and interfaith communication. Any sceptics who believe that religion can never be a force for good could do worse than to spend ten minutes on their UK website. ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’ they proclaim and raise money for all sorts of charities and campaign against extremism. In Pakistan, their religion is banned from the constitution because they call themselves Muslim. Despite following the teachings of the Qu’ran and believing most Islamic doctrine, their liberal agenda means they cannot describe themselves as Muslim in that country. The fact that Asad Shah, this peace-loving member of a local community who had left his country partly to escape this religious persecution, still had the wherewithal to publicly express his love for another religion perhaps says more about the belief system of Ahmadiyyah Muslims than any number of propaganda videos can.
Ahmed claimed that by being a part of this group and by posting the message he did, Shah was claiming to be a new prophet. His full statement is actually considerably longer than this and bears reading, but that is the gist of it. Ahmed claims that he was doing the work of Allah and that if he had not killed Shah then someone else would have done. Ahmed was a young man, aged 32, and we have no reason to believe that he did not passionately believe what he said: after all, what else could have motivated him to travel across the country to commit a crime that will probably see him spending most of the rest of his life in prison?
As mentioned, speculating on the specific case of Ahmed would be fruitless, but if we take him as an example it is clear that common factors come out in similar religiously-motivated hate crimes in this country and in other parts of the world. Young people, disillusioned, seeking religion absolutism as a way to understand a senseless world of war and violence. Ahmed really did believe that he was doing the work of Allah; he really did believe that someone else would do it if he didn’t. Possibly he will believe it for the rest of his life, and locking him up or turning him into a monster in the media will only make him a hero for other people looking to find hate in the world. A Facebook page supporting Ahmed has already been set up. People respect someone who goes against a system that seems increasingly hypocritical: a system that preaches equality and yet condones invading other countries for selfish means. The government and the media cannot simply sweep Ahmed under the carpet: they need to look at what he has done and understand his actions in order to try to prevent his actions being repeated.
However, our main aim should be ensuring that Ahmed is not the priority in the aftermath of this murder. Our focus should be on Shah. Both these men – victim and perpetrator – identified as Muslims, and yet it is all too easy for the media to concentrate on the killer. The media has a tendency to cause us to think of Muslims only as ‘angry jihadists’, so it is easier for us to think of them in these terms. The mild-mannered peace-loving shopkeeper does not fit into this. And this is why we should spend some time remembering Shah, a beloved member of the community who was well-respected and kind.
It is difficult to take a positive message from this story. The image of that vigil is, in its silent horror, particularly jarring. Nevertheless, people coming together in this day and age from all sorts of faiths and social backgrounds not to discuss hatred or to protest something but simply to stand in silent memory of a man who they loved is a fine and rare thing. Their existence is enough for us to remain hopeful about the future of public opinion of Islam and the perpetration of hate crime in this country. This is why we cannot and should not forget Asad Shah.