As soon as it became clear that the chaos on London’s public transport on the morning of July 7 was the result of something rather more than the usual maintenance problems, Muslims inBritain knew that they would come under immense pressure if it was confirmed that Muslims were responsible, as most observers immediately suspected. Probably what few expected was that the bombers would turn out to be British Muslim youths, three of them Pakistanis from the Muslim heartland of west Yorkshire, and the third a West Indian convert, rather than foreign Muslims like those responsible for the bombings in Madrid last year.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), the leading Muslim rights organisation in Britain, immediately anticipated a rise in Islamophobic attacks and discrimination, as was seen in the aftermath of the attacks in the US in September 2001. This proved true in the next few weeks, with a middle-aged Pakistani man being beaten to death by English youths in theMidlands town of Nottingham three days after the bombing, numerous arson and other attacks on mosques, Islamic centres, bookshops and businesses, and a massive rise in harassment and attacks of Muslim individuals.
In the two weeks after the bombings, the IHRC received more than 200 reports of Islamophobic incidents, which is nearly twice as many as in the whole month after September 11, 2001, and compares to a normal report rate of 4 or 5 a week. These included 65 incidents of physical violence and several targeting Muslim women in hijab in particular. In some cases, Muslims have been turned away from public transport and abused by train staff or bus drivers.
The situation has been made considerably worse by mixed messages from government and police officials. While making the usual statements that Muslims as a community are not responsible for the bombings, politicians have also blamed the Muslim community for failing to prevent them from happening, by permitting “extremism” in the community, and demanded that Muslims play a leading role in fighting the “evil ideology” that motivated the bombers.
The effect of these calls was to create the impression that Muslims collectively were responsible for the bombings, thus increasing pressure on the community. Many commentators, looking for evidence that the families and friends of the bombers must have known of their plans, pointed out that it was impossible that they could have been religious Muslims without their families knowing. An academic expert on terrorism, speaking on BBC Radio on July 14, said that Muslim community leaders should watch out for suspicious behaviour, such as previously normal young men beginning to attend mosques regularly.
The calls on Muslims to fight what British prime minister Tony Blair called “the evil of extremism in their midst” were particularly heightened because of his determination to blame the bombings on an “evil ideology” rather than admit any link with British foreign policy, and his own support and participation in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in particular. Although many British commentators pointed out that British intelligence chiefs had predicted before the decision to go to war in Iraq that such an act would increase the risk of Britain becoming a target of terrorism, Muslims who suggested that the Iraq policy may have played some role in motivating the bombers were accused of justifying or making excuses for the terrorists. George Galloway, the leader of the Respect Party, and Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, were attacked in the press as “apologists” for saying the same thing, and the country’s right wing press ran campaigns against Yusuf al-Qardawi and Tariq Ramadan for supposedly being extremists.
Unlike former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, who was voted out of office after the Madrid bombings in March 2004, Tony Blair did not try to blame the attacks on domestic terrorists to avoid criticism of his Iraq policy. Instead his approach, laid out in a series of statements and speeches since July 7, has simply been, like Bush’s in 2001, to accuse the bombers of having a pathological desire to kill Westerners because they hate the West, rather than having any political motivation. All Muslim criticisms of Western society in general, and foreign policy and imperialism in particular, have been categorised as part of a “radical” and “extremist” ideology which is not acceptable on any terms. Any attempt to disagree with this approach is also dismissed as justifying the bombings.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, Muslims community leaders were quick to condemn them and to reiterate the Muslim community’s commitment to preventing any such bombings from taking place again. At the same time, they warned of the community fear of a racist and Islamophobic backlash, fuelled by the impression that the bombings were linked to Islam itself and all Muslims, rather than being the work of isolated individuals.
The government’s response, instead of publicly accepting these assurances and helping to calm the situation, was to call for Muslims to lead the fight against terrorism. Community leaders were called to Downing Street and pressured to establish a joint task force with police and intelligence services, giving a clear impression that they had previously been failing to cooperate with the police. Those who attended the meeting said that Blair had simply refused to consider any suggestion that Muslims generally were not responsible for the bombings.
The police have also increased the pressure on Muslims with a series of high-profile operations against “extremists”, under the pretext of trying to prevent further attacks. As in the past, such as when they arrested and charged four Algerians for what was described as a “plot to use ricin poison against Londoners” (see Crescent International, June 2005), the police operations have been dominated by spin and misinformation. This was exposed in the tragic case of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian shot dead as a suspected suicide bomber who later turned out to be totally innocent. The impression has deliberately been created that there are possibly dozens or hundreds of British Muslims prepared to bomb London, rather than the bombings of July 7 and the failed attempts of July 21 being isolated incidents by a small number of misguided youth, in order to justify longstanding police demands for greater budgets and powers.
As Crescent goes to press, the British government is planning new security legislation which is likely to make life very difficult indeed not only for any genuine terrorists in the country, but also for many ordinary Muslims. These include planned restrictions on “indirect incitement to terrorism”, which is widely interpreted as any Muslim criticism of government policy, western imperialism or Muslim governments allied to the West, as well as describing those whom the West regards as terrorists as martyrs, supporting militant movements in countries like Iraq and Palestine, and selling books or pamphlets promoting “radical” ideas. Particular attention is being paid to “extremist” groups, speakers, publications and bookshops, with the Hizb al-Tahrir group being particularly targeted by the media.
Matthew Parris, a political columnist in the Times newspaper, wrote on July 13 that there are three parties involved in this relationship: the terrorists, the police and the government; and all three have an interest in exaggerating the threat of terrorism and increasing the sense of fear in the country. More Muslims are likely to become the victims of this poisonous atmosphere.