RELIGIOUS leaders appealed for calm last night after an Islamic centre in north London was destroyed in an apparent hate- crime attack.
Anti-terrorism police are investigating whether the attack was revenge for the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby, after graffiti reading EDL – English Defence League – was found on the building.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said the fire, which started just after 3am, was being treated as suspicious.
He refused to comment on reports from locals that fire bombs had been thrown at the Muswell Hill building, which housed the al-Rahma Islamic Centre and the Somali Bravanese Centre. Authorities said it was “too soon” to confirm who was behind the fire and whether it marked the start of a wave of anti-Islamic hate crimes.
However, last night, an Islamic group said Muslims were living in fear after a spate of incidents following Drummer Rigby’s death.
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: “Muslims feel scared right now and it is completely understandable. Muslims have been physically attacked, mosques burnt down, cemeteries vandalised and social media is full of anti-Muslim hatred and violent threats towards Muslims.”
Mohamed Elmi, chairman of Somali Diaspora UK, said: “People are really shaken up, but we have to be calm and strong and not let these people win.”
He said if the aim of the those responsible for the blaze was to “to divide people, they will fail”.
Teacher Hamza Habib, 21, from Finchley, who teaches Arabic to children at the centre, also urged people “to wait and stay calm”. He added: “Let the police do their job first. It does no good to get angry.”
He said the centre was mainly used for teaching Arabic, but often opened its doors to the community for various events.
“Other faiths and groups use it as well. Recently we had a celebration with Jewish and Christian people. It is a very peaceful place,” he said.
Two properties near the centre were evacuated, as six fire crews battled for more than two hours to extinguish the blaze. A woman from a nearby house was treated for shock.
Scotland Yard said specialist teams would conduct a “vigorous and thorough” investigation of the blaze, which caused much of the two-storey building, used by the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association, to collapse.
The Met’s Counter-Terrorism Command was brought in to investigate after initial investigations revealed the graffiti had gone up on an outside wall of the building. It is understood that “EDL” had only very recently been sprayed on to a wall.
Chief Supt Adrian Usher, of Barnet Police, said: “We are working hard to determine if that’s linked to this fire.
“As you can imagine, exactly when and where that graffiti was placed is a focal point of the inquiry. It’s too early to say whether these letters were done at the same time as the attack.
“We will pursue all possible lines of inquiry until we know where it came from and if it is connected to the fire.”
Chief Supt Usher added: “We don’t know at this stage who is responsible or what their motivation is, but the community has responded brilliantly. Community leaders have been calm and have shown amazing resolution.
“They have told me they have existed in this community peacefully for 20 years.”
The EDL, and in Scotland the Scottish Defence League (SDL), have held marches across the UK since Lee Rigby’s murder.
SDL members gathered at Holyrood on Saturday, many waving banners bearing anti-immigration slogans.
Since Drummer Rigby’s death, other suspected hate crimes include two men being arrested after a petrol-bomb attack on a mosque in Grimsby and police charging two Wolverhampton men with racially aggravated public order offences after a far-right march in Walsall.
Three men and a teenage boy were also arrested when a protest outside an Islamic centre in Portsmouth sparked violence and a man appeared in court accused of posting a “grossly offensive” anti-Muslim Facebook message.
Last week, it emerged someone had sprayed “Islam” across two war memorials in London. The same memorials were vandalised again this week.
The Islamist centre is to remain cordoned off today as specialist police examine the site.
Campaigners and local people spoke of their devastation and called the fire an “attack against a peaceful community”.
Ali Abu, 30, of the Somali charity BritSom, said: “The situation is very serious at the moment. We are appalled and deeply saddened.”
Local resident Hamed Kunga, 23, said: “It don’t [sic] take a brain surgeon, they wrote it on there. People will be angry around here, very angry.
“They didn’t have the guts to come and do it in the day. These people are trying to start a war – and you know what, this is the way to go.”
Last night, EDL leader Tommy Robinson said he doubted any members of his group were behind the graffiti, but admitted he “may be proved wrong”.
Theresa Villiers, Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, said: “This kind of crime would be in its own right very serious, but the apparent link with extremism and hatred makes this a truly disgusting act.”
London mayor Boris Johnson said: “There is no place in an open, tolerant and diverse city like London for hate, for prejudice, for violence.”