The British, according to a familiar stereotype, are slow to react. Their immediate steadfastness in response to the terrorist attacks in London last week has certainly been remarkable, not to say magnificent. At present count, at least 52 people were killed and many were injured, more than 100 of them seriously, even critically. Yet, by nightfall on Thursday, the city was going about its business more or less normally.
But there is reason to fear that Great Britain may not really be returned to normal life—that its social fabric may not be as intact as it appears, at least in one crucial regard. The attacks of July 7 threaten to push beyond the breaking point already strained relations between Britain’s large Muslim population and the working-class whites with whom it shares many of the nation’s impoverished industrial centers. These Muslims are struggling with how to assimilate while retaining essential elements of their cultural and religious heritage. Many of them are easily convinced by the arguments of radical Islamist preachers. (In fact, the police now suspect that four Muslim men, all born in Britain and inspired by, if not directly linked to, Al Qaeda, carried out the bombings.) Meanwhile, the Muslim community’s white, working- class neighbors are suspicious and resentful of the newer arrivals living among them. This juxtaposition creates vast potential for radicalism—and violence— on both sides.
Unfortunately, misguided British government policies that simultaneously make the country a haven for Muslim extremism while stoking white, working- class resentment with their perceived favoring of the larger Muslim community only exacerbate this problem. In the United States, after the September 11 attacks, there were few anti-Muslim incidents. But, on the day after the London carnage, the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash began. Among a number of confused incidents, a mosque in Leeds is believed to have been firebombed. This suits the Islamists perfectly, allowing them to draw more to their ranks as jihad becomes a reality, and it won’t stop until the government reverses course.
The British people know that they are the targets of Islamist hate. They also know that Britain offers refuge for all sorts of Islamist organizations. Hamas, Hezbollah, and Hizb Ut Tahrir are tacitly allowed to spread their pro- terrorism gospel, even though the former two are officially banned. These groups have found a secure base and hinterland in which to implant themselves. In Britain, they see a population of more than one and a half million Muslims, the majority from Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the whole pious people, primarily out to better themselves. The natural instinct of these immigrants, almost certainly, is to assimilate with English society, or, if that seems too demanding, at least to integrate.
The younger generation, born and educated in Britain, proficient in English, would generally subscribe to assimilation, or at least integration. But discomfort remains. In particular, a code of conduct enshrining the inferiority of women is a barrier between Muslims and the British, one likely to remain insuperable for another generation or two. Until this issue is resolved, most young Muslims remain unsure whether their primary allegiance is to Britain and its values or to some country of family origin with quite different values. The Islamists invite the potentially alienated to reject Britain and all its works, and to adopt instead the identity of jihad and the hate that goes with it.
There is something on the order of 1,200 mosques in the country. All serve as community centers, and only a few are in the hands of extremist imams. The most notorious imams—Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada, both charged with crimes in Britain and abroad—have finally been taken into custody. They and their ilk act as recruiting officers for jihad. Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian, part gangster and part buffoon, claims to have disbanded his extremist group, known as Al Muhajiroun. He incites his followers with declarations like, “Al Qaeda and all its branches and organizations of the world, that is the victorious group, and they have the emir [Osama bin Laden], and you are obliged to join.” One follower, a young social worker in Luton by the name of Abdul Haq, recently told the Evening Standard something menacing and prophetic: “As far as I’m concerned, when they bomb London, the bigger the better. I know it’s going to happen because Sheik bin Laden said so. Like Bali, like Turkey, like Madrid—I pray for it, I look forward to the day.” Monitoring such threats, the intelligence services have been issuing regular warnings that a terrorist attack was a certainty, and the only point of doubt was when and how it would happen.
Under Islamist influence, the level of violence has been rising slowly but surely. As of March, 732 people have been arrested under the Terrorism Act, and, of these, 259 were charged with criminal offenses, though only 21 have been convicted. Kamel Bourgass was one of the latter. A 31-year-old Algerian, an illegal immigrant, he was found to have set up a chemical weapons laboratory in an apartment in North London, and, at the moment of his arrest, he stabbed a policeman to death and wounded four others. Seven British Muslims have been captured in Afghanistan and detained in Guantnamo. Several British Muslims have attempted suicide-bombing missions in Israel, at least one successfully, and others have been reportedly killed fighting with Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq. Omar Sheik, responsible for beheading Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, was born and educated in Britain, a student of the London School of Economics, no less. Those recruited to Islamism are not the poor and disinherited, but, on the contrary, those whose intelligence and social advancement allow them to submit to the luxury of an identity crisis.
The response of those in public positions has been mostly feeble or inappropriate. The Muslims and the locals in the half-ruined industrial towns of the Midlands are on a level footing when it comes to unemployment, welfare, and education, but government policy is perceived in some quarters as favoring Muslims in measures like building community centers and sports facilities, and forcing books on Islam (but not on any other religion) into schools. In fact, there are now seven state-run schools exclusively for Muslims. These schools are attended by fewer than 2,000 students (and some Protestant and Catholic schools have long received state funding), but their creation has aroused resentment and concern. David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, recently worried that “young people are being educated in faith-based schools, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society.”
Inexorably, those who privilege Muslims on the one hand, and Islamists on the other hand, are combining to shift public opinion toward the counterresponse of violence, which is to say fascism. Wedded to their parliamentary democracy, the British have always rejected foreign political imports like communism and fascism. No fascist party member has ever won a seat at Westminster, and today’s fascists, the British National Party (BNP), fare no better. Under the impact of rising Islamism, however, and invigorated by the well-meant but foolish patronizing of Muslims by the authorities, the BNP has now acquired a few seats on local municipalities. In the last European elections, the BNP received over 808,200 votes, an astonishing protest vote, as well as a portent. Some of these new fascists are capable of argument, but most of them resort to the fist, the boot, and the petrol bomb. Nobody has been killed so far in the BNP-inspired race riots in cities with substantial Muslim populations, such as Burnley, Oldham, Derby, Tipton, and Bradford, but mosques and shops and Muslim properties have been vandalized. They are creating a sense (one that played a role in the recent general election) that the country has lost control of its borders and that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are becoming “an enemy within.”
British Muslims are caught between a rock and a hard place. The number who throw their lot in with the Islamists might be infinitesimally small, but even that is enough to arouse much fury and contempt for them at the street level. In order to be free and equal citizens, they need better leadership and a more realistic government. In time, this will happen. In another familiar stereotype, the British public will ultimately go in for fair play. But the time before that day arrives has been made longer still by the terrorist outrage in London.
This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.