How could four ordinary men born and brought up in Britain turn into such savage killers? That is the question Britain has been asking itself in wake of the London tube bombings that killed 52 people on 7 July. Three of the four men involved, Mohammed Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain came from Yorkshire in the North of England. The fourth, Jamaican-born Germaine Lindsay, lived in Luton about 30 miles north of London. None of them were considered extremists, all of them were seemingly well integrated into their communities.
The popular picture of Islamic terrorists is drawn from the caricatures of mad mullahs, bearded fanatics and foreign zealots that people the press. Yet few recent terrorists have fitted this picture. Many have been Western born, Western educated, and seemingly ordinary. The most detailed study yet on Al-Qaeda supporters, carried out by Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania, shows that the majority are middle class with good jobs. Most are college educated, usually in the West. Fewer than one in 10 have been to religious school.
Shortly after the bombings the government set up an ‘extremism taskforce’, composed mainly of Muslim leaders, to try to answer the question as to how men such as these could get gripped by a fanatic zeal for an irrational, murderous dogma, and be possessed with a hatred for such virtues as democracy and decency. And how could it be prevented from happening again? The taskforce has just published its first conclusions. The London bombings, it reported, were the work of young men alienated by Islamophobia. The best way to combat extremism, the taskforce suggested, is by recognising Muslim grievances and by establishing a more plural society in which moderate Muslim leaders are able to wield greater political power. Its recommendations included a ‘rapid rebuttal unit’ to combat Islamophobia, a better reflection of Islam in the national educational curriculum, a national ‘roadshow’ of Muslim scholars to tour Muslim communities and a training programme for imams.
The taskforce hopes that these proposals will isolate extremists and build a better relationship between Muslims and the government. In fact the proposals will make matters worse. The real problem is not Islamophobia but the culture of grievance created by Britain’s multicultural policies. Certainly Muslims face discrimination and harassment. But the extent of such discrimination has been greatly exaggerated by both government and Muslim leaders. There is, for instance, a widespread perception that Muslims are disproportionately stopped and searched by the police under Britain’s anti-terror laws. Last year I interviewed Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, for a documentary I was making for British TV. He claimed that ‘95 to 98 per cent’ of those stopped under the terror laws were Muslim. In fact the vast majority are white. Just 15 per cent are Asians (Britain collects figures by race rather than by religion).
The more that the threat of Islamophobia is embellished in this fashion, the more that ordinary Muslims come to accept that theirs is a community under constant attack. It helps create a siege mentality, stoking up anger and resentment, and making Muslim community more inward looking and more open to religious extremism. What we need is not for exaggerated grievances to be nurtured but to be challenged.
Muslims have been in Britain large numbers since the 1950s. Only recently has fanaticism taken hold. The first generation of immigrants faced greater hardships and more intense racism than do today’s Muslims. Yet most thought of themselves as British and were proud to be here. While that first generation often put up with racism, the second generation (my generation) challenged it head on, often leading to fierce confrontations with the police and other authorities. But however fierce those confrontations, we recognised that to fight racism we needed to find a common set of values, hopes and aspirations that united whites and non-whites, Muslims and non-Muslims, not separate ourselves from the rest of society.
It has only been over the past decade that radical Islam has found a hearing in Britain. Today ‘radical’ in an Islamic context means someone who espouses a fundamentalist theology. Twenty years ago it meant the opposite: a secularist who challenged the power of the mosques within Muslim communities. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition has played an important part in the rise of Islamic militancy in this country. To understand how this happened we need to look closely at what happened in the 80s and in particular at how the emergence of multicultural policies helped create a more fragmented nation with little sense of a common identity and created the space for the growth of Islamic militancy.
Thirty years ago, Britain was a very different place than it is now. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events. I remember having to organise patrols on East London estates in the 1980s to protect Asian families from racist thugs. Police harassment was common. The so-called ‘sus’ laws, which allowed the police to stop and search people on ‘suspicion’ of committing an offence were used to persecute immigrant communities. Deaths in police custody were not uncommon; between 1969 and 1999 more than 1000 people died while in the hands of the police. Discrimination in housing, employment and the services was the norm. These issues shaped immigrant struggles. In the sixties and seventies four main issues dominated the struggle for racial equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the fight against racist attacks; the struggle for equality in the workplace; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality.
These struggles politicised a new generation of activists and came to an explosive climax in the inner city riots of the late seventies and early eighties. Just as the extremism taskforce argues now, so the authorities argued then that unless black and Asian communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the stability of British cities. It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism emerged. The Greater London Council, led by Ken Livingstone (who today is the mayor of London) pioneered a new strategy of making immigrant communities feel part of British society. It organised consultation with black and Asian communities, drew up equal opportunities policies, established race relations units and dispensed millions of pounds in grants to community organisations.
At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Black and Asian people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everyone else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities. Equality no longer meant treating everybody equally despite their racial, cultural, ethnic or religious differences but treating people differently because of them.
Many local authorities followed London’s lead, including Bradford, the heart of Britain’s Muslim community. By the early 80s Bradford too was facing militancy within Asian communities and unrest on the streets. In 1977 young Asians formed the Asian Youth Movement (AYM) to defend their civil rights. AYM activists did not distinguish themselves as Muslim, Hindu or Sikh; indeed many did not even see themselves as specifically Asian, preferring to call themselves ‘black’ which they viewed as an all-inclusive term for non-white immigrants. They challenged not just racism but also many traditional values too, particularly within the Muslim community, helping establish an alternative leadership that confronted traditionalists on issues such as the role of women and the dominance of the mosque. In response, Bradford council drew up equal opportunity statements, established race relations units and began funding Asian organisations. A 12-point race relations plan declared that every section of the ‘multiracial, multicultural city’ had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs.’
Multiculturalism transformed the character of antiracism. By the mid-eighties the focus of antiracist protest in Bradford had shifted from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
Political struggles unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. As different groups began asserting their particular identities ever more fiercely, so the shift from the political to the cultural arena helped create a more tribal city. At the same time, since every group was now defined by its culture, militancy came to be seen as the demand for greater cultural authenticity. Secular Muslims were regarded as betraying their culture while radical Islam became not just more acceptable but, to many, more authentic.
This process was strengthened by a new relationship between the local council and the local mosques. In 1981, the council helped set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques and looked to it as a voice of the community. This helped marginalise secular radicals - the Asian Youth Movement eventually broke up - and allowed religious leaders to reassert their power. As the secular tradition became squeezed out, so the only place offering shelter for disaffected youth was militant Islam.
In the wake of the London bombings much was said about the strength of Britain as a multicultural nation. What makes London great, mayor Ken Livingstone pointed out, was what the bombers most fear a city full of people from across the globe free to pursue their own lives. I agree, and that’s why I choose to live in this city. Multiculturalism as a lived experience enriches our lives. But multiculturalism as a political ideology has helped create a tribal Britain with no political or moral centre.
For an earlier generation of Muslims their religion was not so strong that it prevented them from identifying with Britain. Today many young British Muslims identify more with Islam than Britain primarily because there no longer seems much that is compelling about being British. Of course, there is little to romanticise in old-style Britishness with its often racist vision of belongingness. Back in the fifties policy makers feared that, in the words of a Colonial Office report, ‘a large coloured community would weaken… the concept of England or Britain.’
That old racist notion of identity has thankfully crumbled. But nothing new has come to replace it. The very notion of creating common values has been abandoned except at a most minimal level. Britishness has come to be defined simply as a toleration of difference. The politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, creating a more fragmented Britain, and one where many groups assert their identity through a sense of victimhood and grievance something that has been particularly true of Muslim communities.
Multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it helped create a space for it within British Muslim communities that had not existed before. It fostered a more tribal nation, created a grievance culture, strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders, undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and created a vacuum into which radical Islam stepped and all in the name of combating racism. The danger with the recommendations of the extremism taskforce is that history might be about to repeat itself.