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Atrocity and introspection

The Hindu, 24 July

The mid-afternoon queue in my high street bank is long and sluggish. It’s a hot day, by London standards, and everyone looks a little sleepy. There’s a woman in hijab and full length dark cloak, who seems cooler than most of us, standing in front of a middle aged man in a yarmulke. There’s a young white woman with midriff exposed and tattooed. An African in a track suit. An Asian in an Arsenal shirt. House painters stripped to the waist and office workers in shirtsleeves.

Nearly two weeks after the bombings, London is still London, at least in my neighbourhood, where there’s a large and visible Muslim presence, and in the streets, no sign of recrimination.

Elsewhere, the picture is not so reassuring. Mosques have been defaced and petrol-bombed. Muslims threatened, spat at and assaulted. The incidents number in the hundreds. Deeply disturbing, but not surprising. In June 2004, nearly one fifth of the British vote in the European elections went to parties of the far right, either the openly racist BNP or the xenophobic UK Independence party. In the general election held earlier this year, the Conservatives made the imagined threat from asylum seekers into their central campaign plank, and Labour responded by insisting that it was as tough as anyone on immigration – and would get tougher. In the mainstream media, stereotyping and sensationalist reporting of Muslim communities have been habitual.

Nonetheless, there is staunch public resistance to scapegoating. For the most part, Muslims do walk freely and comfortably through the streets of London. That too is unsurprising. The Muslim population in Britain is proportionately larger and more visible than in the USA. Crucially, after 9/11, British Muslims did not retreat from the public arena. In large numbers they entered the anti-war movement – changing the complexion of the country’s long established but predominantly white and middle class peace lobby. Muslim activists, mainly young people, doggedly challenged myths and stereotypes and insisted on alerting their fellow citizens to the fallacies of “the war on terror”. There is much debate about Muslim identity, with schools of thought ranging across the political spectrum. The revelation that the London bombers were home-grown will intensify that debate. But it is not a debate conducted on the basis of having to make concessions to British foreign policy.

As Londoners, Muslims share the tragedy of 7th July, which, a glance at the victims shows, is a tragedy of modern multi-racial multi-ethnic London. The apparent stoicism of Londoners in the face of trauma arises less from any vestigial stiff upper lip than from a shared awareness of global complexities and realities – born out of the accumulated experience of living in a diverse city with multiple links to a diverse planet.

Londoners’ reactions have also been shaped by the fact that the bombings were widely predicted. Government agencies, the police, the mayor of London, the media had frequently suggested that as a result of British involvement in Iraq, London was likely to be a target.

Civil emergency preparations were made accordingly, and effectively. The 7th of July was a grim day in the city’s history but it was also a triumph for public planning and public services. Hospital workers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, local government officials, police – all paid by the taxpayer, and, incidentally, nearly all trade union members – were able to act rapidly to reduce and alleviate suffering.

But that’s not the lesson Tony Blair wants us to draw from these events. He portrays the bombings as an attack on “our way of life”. Whenever a politician deploys this loaded construct, an alarm should be sounded. The phrase digs a trench between “us” and “them”, and leaves the definition of both terms dangerously flexible. In this case, it’s also an attempt to obstruct analysis of the causes of the bombings.

After 9/11, it was widely argued in the USA that to discuss the political motive and context for the attacks was somehow an affront to common grief. In Britain there is now a similar attempt to make certain statements taboo – especially the statement that Blair’s alliance with the US put London in the firing line. Unfortunately for the government, that taboo is being broken, by academics, journalists and most of all by ordinary Londoners using their common sense.

It is true that groups of radical Islamists nurtured violent grievances against the west long before the invasion of Iraq. But that invasion undoubtedly expanded the pool in which the bombers fish for recruits. It also moved Britain up the target list. For most Americans, 9/11 was shatteringly unexpected. For Londoners, 7th July is different. The attack was accurately predicted because it was political, because officials correctly assumed that fringe groups would respond violently to unfolding political events, pre-eminently the occupation of Iraq.

For me, as a Londoner, the violence of 7th July was inseparable from the violence afflicting Iraqis, Palestinians and others on the receiving end of US-British policies. I suspect many of those who sweated it out with me on the bank queue feel something similar. We don’t accept that in feeling this way we’re disrespecting our own tragedy. On the contrary, it’s precisely when atrocity strikes, when fears are unleashed, that it’s most necessary to engage critical faculties. To look hard at both oneself and the wider world.