The London bombings shocked and horrified us all, but in the decade since, the Muslims communities have been unfairly demonised writes Mehdi Hasan.
It could have been me. King’s Cross was my station. But 10 years ago, on the morning of 7 July, 2005, I happened to be on a day off, sitting at home in front of the television, glued to the news channels. Fifty-two of my fellow Londoners lay dead.
Within days, the four young men behind the worst terror attack in British history had been identified, and a knot tightened at the pit of my stomach. The London bombings had already been dubbed “7/7”, a deliberate attempt to depict the attacks as our “9/11”. Yet this was a more disturbing crime, with far greater domestic consequences, than 9/11. None of the 19 suicide-hijackers on those four planes had been US citizens. In contrast, all four of the suicide bombers on the London transport system were UK citizens.
“We’re screwed,” I told a Muslim friend. These terrorists were British like us, looked like us, had names similar to our own and, as the official report into 7/7 would later confirm, were “apparently well integrated into British society” with “largely unexceptional” backgrounds. Over the next decade, British Muslims would be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny; tagged as a suspect community, the enemy within, a “fifth column” (to quote Nigel Farage).
We can’t say we weren’t warned. Less than a month after 7/7, the then prime minister, Tony Blair, himself announced that “the rules of the game are changing”. And, a year later, the country’s most famous living novelist, Martin Amis, blithely referred to “a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’ … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community.”
Well, Martin, we’re hurting. And yes, Tony, the rules have indeed changed. British Muslims have been spied on, stopped and searched, stripped of citizenship, and subjected to control orders and detention without trial. Many were not guilty of any crime. Remember Mohammed Abdul Kahar, shot in the shoulder during a dawn raid on his home in Forest Gate, east London, in 2006, before being released without charge a week later? Or Rizwaan Sabir, the university student held for seven days without charge as a terror suspect in 2008, on the basis of police evidence later described as “made up”?
How about the Muslim residents of the three areas in Birmingham that in 2010 were to be surrounded by a “ring of steel” of 218 “spy cameras” as part of a counter-terrorism operation?
Blair may have changed the rules but he didn’t win the game. A decade ago four British suicide bombers, aligned with al-Qaida, shocked us all. Today, up to 600 Britons are reported to have left the UK to battle and behead on behalf of the al-Qaida offshoot, so-called Islamic State (Isis). These include the youngest ever UK suicide bomber, 17-year-old Talha Asmal, who blew himself up while fighting for Isis in Iraq in June.
So what is David Cameron’s solution to the problem of violent extremism? Why, to change more rules, of course.
Rather than try and win hearts and minds, or address the alienation of a tiny minority of young people (those 600 Brits constitute about 0.02% of UK Muslims), Cameron has unveiled plans to, among other things, monitor Muslim toddlers in nurseries for signs of “extremism”, restrict the free speech of non-violent yet “Islamist” preachers, and close down “radical” (does he mean conservative?) mosques. You have to undermine British values, it seems, in order to save them.
Muslim communities don’t just “quietly condone” the ideology behind Isis, according to Cameron, but threaten our “common culture”. The London bombings, in fact, opened the floodgates to what has become a familiar litany of condemnation and demonisation: honour killings, sharia law, halal slaughter, FGM, gender segregation, the face veil, child sex grooming. Wherever you turn, it seems, those dastardly Muslims pose a threat to you, your families and your way of life.
Meanwhile, Muslim grievances are mocked or ignored. Cameron – who helped turn Libya into a playground for jihadists in 2011 and backed Israel’s bombardment of Gaza last year – used a speech in June to urge British Muslims to eschew “the blame game” and stop “finger pointing”.
Forget racism and Islamophobia. Forget the fact that this month is not only the anniversary of 7/7, but also of the attack carried out by proud Islamophobe and self-styled “Knight Templar” Anders Breivik in Norway, which killed 77; and of the worst mass killing in Europe since the second world war – the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, at the hands of far-right Orthodox Christians.
It’s only British Muslims, though, who have had to spend the past 10 years denouncing, disowning and disavowing. Not in our name. Islam is peace. Union Jack headscarves. Yet our decade-long condemnation has fallen on deaf ears. Depending on which poll you believe, a majority of Brits believe “Muslims create problems in the UK”, link “Islam with extremism” and would be “bothered” by the building of a big mosque in their neighbourhood. Since 7/7, anti-Muslim hate crimes have soared. Mosques have been firebombed while headscarf-clad women have been physically attacked. According to the charity ChildLine, Islamophobic bullying is now rife in our schools. Yet it’s all “quietly condoned” by members of our political and media classes.
Have you ever paused to consider how a young Muslim schoolboy, perhaps second- or third-generation, in Beeston or Bethnal Green, might react to polls suggesting his fellow Brits think he “creates problems” or pundits who suggest he’s a threat? I’ve long discouraged my own eight-year-old daughter from reading or watching the news.
I asked friends and relatives – all of them patriotic, well integrated, middle class – to sum up how they felt about being British and Muslim these days. Their responses? Helpless. Despondent. Tired. Worried. Exasperated. Anxious.
And how did 7/7 change their lives? A hijab-wearing friend remembers being dubbed “Bin Laden’s sister” by a group of teenagers on the London Underground. “The people around me just looked away or sniggered.” Another says she “feels judged” when she is in the street. A cousin in rural Scotland, in a town that has only four Muslim families, reminds me of the struggle of having to constantly act as an “ambassador for Islam” and “counter all the negativity”. A banker friend speaks of his frustration at being “lumped together” with killers and criminals in the media but adds: “As Brits, we Muslims have to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.”
I’m sick and tired of this relentless hostility towards Muslims; the negative headlines; the climate of fear and suspicion; the constant collective blaming. As one of only a handful of commentators who happen to be Muslim, I have spent the past decade appearing on TV and radio panels and phone-ins to try and challenge anti-Muslim bigotry on the one hand, and violent extremism on the other. How emotionally exhausting, how dispiriting and demoralising it is to have to publicly affirm your “Britishness” and your “moderation” again and again.
The self-styled jihadists offer confused and angry young Britons a sense of identity and belonging. How do “we” – Britons, Muslims, officials, members of the public – offer something better? More inclusive? In 2007 a fresh-faced MP spent two days at the home of a Muslim family in Birmingham and then wrote boldly of how it wasn’t possible to “bully people into feeling British: we have to inspire them”; “you can’t even start to talk about a truly integrated society while people are suffering racist … abuse … on a daily basis”.
He continued: “By using the word ‘Islamist’ to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues’ work for them.” If only the David Cameron of 2015 would heed the advice of the David Cameron of 2007.
Mehdi Hasan is the presenter of Al-Jazeera English's Head to Head. He was a senior editor at the New Statesman and a news and current affairs editor at Channel 4. He is co-author of Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader.
This articles was published on the Guardian website