The atmosphere on the streets in south London was described as "tense" as local residents struggled to come to terms with the brutal murder of a serving British soldier outside his army barracks.
The murder of a soldier in broad daylight in Woolwich, south London, on Wednesday has divided the multicultural local community and prompted fears of a backlash against British Muslims.
Community leaders from this deprived neighborhood near where the attack took place were quick to appeal for calm.
The Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Farooq Murad, said he wanted to express his "outrage and horror" at what happened. He said the culprits had "insulted Allah and dishonored our faith." He condemned the attack unreservedly and added that he had been "heartened" by messages of understanding by other faith leaders and the prime minister.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson held talks at Woolwich Town Hall with police and local community representatives. Johnson stressed the murder should not be viewed as a religiously motivated crime, saying: "This is not a question now of blaming Islam or blaming any aspect of British foreign policy [...] everybody can see that the fault for this [attack] lies exclusively, utterly and entirely in the minds of those who were responsible for this crime."
A representative of the Sikh community, emerging from talks at Woolwich Town Hall, told DW: "We are all determined to preserve the harmony and maintain the peace."
Mixed reactions from locals
Local residents were keen to stress that this was usually a quiet area. One man, who said he's been living here for five years, told DW: "It’s multicultural. Everybody lives as one big happy family, so I don’t think there was any reason for that to happen in this area specifically. It’s not really a violent area by nature."
"I go to a church just round the corner," he added. "And for that to happen, a terrorist attack, and them being Muslims apparently, it's not a good for Christians as well, because it’s like saying every Muslim attacks people, but it's not true. And I think the papers are saying it's a religion thing, but I don’t always think it's a religion thing.”" He added he respected those of other faiths.
However, there was also anger on the streets of Woolwich, particularly among the white, working-class population. One woman, whose daughter attends the nearby primary school, said she was sickened by what had happened.
"The mayor on the news this morning, he's saying you can't blame Islam. But all we're seeing is examples of Muslims terrorizing people, so that's got to play a part in it," she told DW. "You can't keep saying you can't blame Islam because they’re doing it, they’re the ones that are doing it." She went on to complain about the number of immigrants in the area.
Giving Muslims 'a bad name'
There is a sense of nervousness among the non-white population. One man, who's originally from Namibia and who came to London five years ago, described the atmosphere as the attack as "tense."
"I think it’s terrible you know, because extremists should not be accepted," he told DW.
The area around the entrance to the Royal Artillery Barracks itself was quiet on Thursday. A few members of the public had left flowers outside the gates. One card read "RIP - to the fallen soldier."
A woman working in a betting shop across the road said she was left "speechless" by the way the attackers behaved after apparently butchering the soldier with cleavers. One of the men was filmed apologizing to members of the public who witnessed the horrific scenes, before making a number of political statements. "I apologize that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe," the man told the camera. He was later detained by police.
"The fact that he thought he could justify what he did, using religion, it's just... I thought that what he did has given Muslims a bad name," the woman who works in the betting shop said.
"This place is so quiet, and for it to happen randomly. As you can see, there are not a lot of people here, it's just, it was shocking."