The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower has left the capital reeling in shock at how a block of flats in London’s most affluent borough, Kensington and Chelsea, could have lit up almost as quickly as a match. There are a lot of suppositions abound at this moment in time, and there are many to be held culpable all the way to the top, including the establishment. But all in due course. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice at the diversity of Grenfell’s inhabitants, many of whom were ethnic minorities and of Muslim backgrounds. The mainstream media has reported that the death toll, which is currently at 30, would have been much higher had the tower block’s Muslim residents not been awake for suhoor in Ramadan or returning from prayers at the mosque. Call it a coincidence or a blessing, but the fact is that had these Muslims’ adherence to Ramadan not been strong enough, many lives would have perished.
Very often, our focus on Muslim lives tends to extend thousands of miles East towards the conflict in Syria, Palestine or Iraq and that focus is so intense that we forget that our brothers and sisters who have travelled here from those very countries are struggling, too. We believe that the impoverished, war-stricken Muslims have a right over us and we send charity in monetary form, yet we forget that the best of our kinship is that which is physical and can have a much greater impact. This has been exemplified by the numerous charities and community centres, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that have immediately sprung into action by providing donations, accommodation and emergency relief. The continued efforts from volunteers and the general public just goes to show the beauty of London’s community. It has been heartening to see Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other faiths (or even the faithless) work together to ease the suffering of their people.
Perhaps this is where I feel we as a community fail – while these immediate efforts from Muslims have been fantastic and incredibly well organised in the absence of organisation from the local council and certainly will not be undermined, our collective endeavours over the years to help fellow British Muslims have been skewed in completely the wrong direction. There are a few organisations out there that may have the best intentions, but their continuous focus on Islamophobia, foreign policy and securitisation has left us so far removed from the serious grassroots issues impacting British Muslims that it’s something of a shock to see so many of them living in social housing. Moreover, it raises questions as to how many more are living in social deprivation and why we have never addressed this to be a problem. My own supposition is that we as a community have become so accustomed to mediocrity that it seems perfectly acceptable that our brothers and sisters live in dire situations over here, particularly when we compare the living situations of those residing in countries of our heritage. The situation is then given moral justification when scholars claim we shouldn’t be reaching beyond our means by citing asceticism or zuhd as a reason not to improve our circumstances. But we need to remove this comparison of apples to oranges – while there is very little we can do for our community abroad beyond charitable donations, our efforts at improving the living situation of our community here has greater chances of success, and if there are any who are still unconvinced as to why we should even consider improving the social situation of British Muslims, then the tragedy of Grenfell is a solid example of how Muslims are disproportionately impacted by the inequalities of wealth.
By no means should we believe that only Muslims have perished in this fire – there are a variety of backgrounds and faiths that have been hugely traumatised by it. But the number of Muslim names in the list of residents is an indicator of how many of us are reliant on public services. Unlike those running the aforementioned organisations, we are not all middle-class, homeowners who have the safety of our houses under control, nor can we afford to live in luxury apartments where fire safety is a given. The fact that Grenfell had no fire alarms, no sprinklers and went up in flames so quickly is telling – it is a result of mismanagement from the top down; the cuts to fire services and hospitals is indicative of seven years of austerity measures by the Tory government. The bottom line is that our political apathy to home affairs is beyond scandalous; we are swayed so greatly by foreign policy and Islamophobia that we make it our only form of politics and willingly ignore the fact that our brothers and sisters here are losing their lives by our deliberate inability to challenge the government on public services. As Muslims, we will be held accountable for this and it is not enough to hang our heads in shame. We need to shift our political focus beyond foreign affairs and look to those organisations that are making grassroots efforts and lend them our recognition and support.
Let Grenfell serve to be a reminder of what happens when we accept mediocrity as an acceptable living standard.