Jim McAuley: Five years on, shockwaves still spread from the bombs that changed Britain
I WAS in the USA when the news of the 7/7 suicide bombings broke five years ago today. Amid the horror and concern for the many who had friends and relations back in Britain, one dominant theme emerged – this was the UK's "twin towers" and the links between New York and London were seen as immediate and direct.
Understandably, initial reaction sought to replicate experiences from New York and set what happened in terms of motivation by foreign
fanaticism and the brainwashing of the young by foreign clerics, linking themselves directly to the most weak and marginalised of
sections of the ethnic community in the UK.
But, as it emerged, the background and experiences of the four young men were much more familiar and largely indistinguishable from tens of hundreds of other British Muslims in West Yorkshire.
Indeed, for many, the most disconcerting element of those directly responsible for the bombing was that they were not "strangers" from impoverished nations of the under-developed world. They were not sleepers activated by some shadowy foreign organisation. Rather, they were all four from Yorkshire – three from a British Pakistani
background and one from British Jamaican heritage.
If we are truly to understand the legacy of 7/7 – and equally importantly seek to prevent such events from ever repeating – the gaze must be turned inwards as well as outwards.
In so many ways, this was a very British form of terrorism undertaken by those who were ordinary – seemingly so similar to so many other young British Muslim men. There is little evidence to suggest that the London bombers lived their lives behind the Mosque wall. They played cricket, went paintballing and so on. None of this is to say that we should ignore the radicalisation of sections of the Muslim population, but that it needs to be placed in a broader context surrounding the nature of contemporary British citizenship.
This flags up a central point – these were young men who were born, educated and radicalised in Britain. The path that they took made sense to them – it explained the world in which they lived their lives, and these were people from Beeston, not Ramallah.
So what does this mean for our understanding of the Muslim population in the UK? Among all of the socio-economic indicators used by sociologists, British Muslims remain over-represented at the lower end.
Poll after poll indicates that the vast majority of British Muslims are integrated and loyal to the state, but the perception of Muslims by the wider British population is very different.
Certainly, Islam has a much higher profile in the media than ever before, but since 2000 more than two out of three stories published
about Muslims have identified them either as the source of cultural problems or as a security threat – or both. There is still a dominant tendency to present Muslims as a homogeneous whole. Of even more concern are the polls that suggest that Islam, as a faith, is extremist and directly aligned with terrorism. Indeed, in one recent YouGov survey, every other person interviewed associated Islam with terrorism, while a majority associated it with extremism and think that it
encourages the repression of women. Moreover, more a quarter of all media stories suggest Islam is either "dangerous", "backward" or "irrational" in its nature.
We also need to recognise that it was the very Britishness of the July 7 bombers that meant the whole of the Muslim community in Britain came under suspicion (and for many remain so). Sometimes openly articulated, sometimes not, the view became embedded that somehow the wider Muslim community should have known of those responsible for the violence – thus the responsibility and the guilt lay with the whole community.
And haven't we been here before? There are parallels with this reaction of communal responsibility and what happened with many Irish
communities in Britain throughout the 1970s and 80s.
In the post-Riverdance and U2 era, it is difficult to remember such times, but for many years the Irish in Britain were also seen as a "community apart".
Who can fail to remember the racist stereotyping of the Irish in mainstream comedy shows? Underpinning this was a notion of underlying support for the IRA throughout the Irish in Britain. This changed – eventually evaporating with the peace process, paramilitary ceasefires and the emergence of devolved government, Irishness became cool and its representation core to a multi-cultural Britain.
Now we see similar fears expressed about Asian communities opening a back door through which al-Qaida can enter the UK and the "untrustworthiness" of many Muslims. There are other lessons from Northern Ireland – not least to do with the construction of positive relations between citizens and the state.
The events of Bloody Sunday, so recently reported on by Lord Saville, are now recognised as the greatest recruiting sergeant republican paramilitaries ever had – changing the relationship between Northern Ireland's Catholics and the British state forever.
Of concern, therefore, must be the growing evidence of Muslim men and women being radicalised because of wider negative societal reaction post July 7, 2005.
Open prejudice has contributed to a sense of helplessness for many Muslims. Continuing feelings of injustice, particularly to the Iraq war and Afghanistan continue, and incidents such as George W Bush's
reference to the London bombings to justify "waterboarding" as an interrogation attack, have continued to anger. The re-appearance of neo-fascism on the streets has done little to quell the concerns of minority populations.
Understandably, government policy has been largely focused on countering terrorism through a focus on the radicalisation and extremism found among some UK Muslims. But we should not lose sight of the context in which the events of July 2005 were contemplated and
The real challenge to us all must be to create a fuller understanding of issues of social exclusion, marginalisation and extremism in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities and to use that understanding to help construct an agreed citizenship that represents the strengths found across the diversity present in the UK.
Jim McAuley is an Associated Dean at the University of Huddersfield.
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