TCS Daily

Is There a Place Called Londonistan?

By Salil Tripathi - July 22, 2005 12:00 AM

LONDON -- Wary and slightly nervous, and yet stoic and phlegmatic, London continued to operate as though nothing much had happened, as another set of "incidents" paralyzed the city-center's transport network yesterday. Fortunately, there were no deaths this time, to add to the 56 who died in coordinated bomb blasts exactly two weeks ago.

Britain has responded the way it has at least partly because an attack on Britain had been widely expected. What wasn't expected was that it would be from within.

There has already been some backlash against Muslims, particularly after it became known that the four suicide bombers of the July 7 attack were British Muslims. Britain is home to 1.6 million Muslims, most of them being law-abiding and hard-working. Muslim preachers have been saying the right things. The imam at Aldgate (the site of one of the 7/7 blasts) called the people responsible for the attacks "criminals".

But a minority of Muslims thinks differently. To understand why Britain-born Muslims, educated in local schools and bred on cricket and fish and chips, became suicide bombers, think of two reasons. One, Britain's Faustian bargain with extremist groups; two, Britain's flawed multicultural model.

The bargain first. For decades, Britain allowed its territory to be used as a refuge by dissidents (Karl Marx was here) and national liberation movements (like the anti-apartheid movement). Many movements found home here, carrying on campaigns, making sure they didn't break British laws.

It became different with some Muslims. Once radical preachers seized control of certain British mosques, they wanted to interfere in British policies. In 1989, they sought a ban on Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses. In the 1990s, some preachers encouraged British Muslims to go and fight in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. And 12 years later, an organization called Al-Muhajiroun openly celebrated 9/11, calling it a victory for Islam. Its leader Omar Bakri Mohammed told the New Statesman last year: "If an Iraqi Muslim carried out an attack in Britain, it would be justified because Britain has carried out terrorism in Iraq."

Later, it was found that French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker of 9/11 attended London's Finsbury Park Mosque, where the hook-armed cleric, Abu Hamza Al-Masri, called for jihad. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber who tried to blow up a Paris-Miami flight in 2001 was a British Muslim, as was Saajid Badat who pleaded guilty for plotting to use a shoe bomb aboard a trans-Atlantic flight in late 2001. At least 600 British Muslims, mainly of Pakistani origin, joined the Taliban, some fighting British and American forces. British intelligence estimates some one percent of British Muslims may be extremists -- that's 16,000 people. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who arranged the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, was British. In April 2003, two Pakistani-Britons detonated a bomb at a jazz club near the American Embassy in Israel, killing four people. In 2004 British police arrested 12 suspects, many of them British, who were allegedly plotting attacks in Britain and the United States.

Foreign-born preachers and concepts like alienation explain part of the story, as would poor educational performance of Muslims and lack of job opportunities available to them. Unemployment among British Muslims is 10 percentage points above the national average of 5 percent. In the case of 16- to 24-year-old Muslim men, unemployment is 22 percent. But such problems afflict other groups too, and they haven't turned to terror.

Politicians don't miss an opportunity to pander to the radicals. Under the garb of preventing Islamophobia, Britain is enacting legislation to outlaw speech that "incites racial or religious hatred." Can one debate any faith in such circumstances, without the devout crying foul?

Young Muslim girls are under pressure in some parts of Britain to wear the jilbab, an outfit covering the entire body. A British court has permitted such outfits even in publicly-funded schools. (British state schools require uniforms). Such politically-correct moves make it harder for Muslim girls who want to integrate and, yes, wear miniskirts without being insulted or worse by their own.

London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone made a speech worthy of Churchill on July 8. But last year he had invited Egyptian cleric Yousef Al-Qaradawi, who is some sort of an expert about the amount of force to be used to beat up a woman. In his more cheerful moments, he peppers his sermons with dislike for Jews and gays. On Aug 7 he will visit Manchester; and on Aug 14, Swiss author Tariq Ramadan, who the French political scientist Fiammetta Venner calls the Muslim Brotherhood's "charm offensive," and who has been denied entry into the US (like Al-Qaradawi), will be in Nottingham.

This confuses British Muslims. If they want to assimilate with the mainstream, they find that their government is supporting those who want separate uniforms, separate tax codes, separate inheritance laws to permit division of property to more than one wife, and ban on nudity in advertising near mosques.

For decades, Britain performed this delicate dance, allowing extremist Islamic groups to operate, so long as they didn't break British laws. In return it was implicit that Britain would not become a target. European lawmakers called Britain "Londonistan" in quiet exasperation.

7/7 and 7/21 have taught us Britain's bulldog determination; but also the extent to which the two streams -- of extreme preachers from abroad and homegrown Muslims -- have become intermingled.

Separating the two will be a long process.

Mr. Tripathi is a writer based in London, who contributes frequently to the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, and other publications.


TCS Daily Archives