7/7 Ten Years On – Aisha Iqbal: Demonisation of Muslims has set us back decades

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THE events of 7/7 wrenched the heart and soul out of our country 10 years ago. However, in our desperate need to find answers and justice, have we condemned an entire generation of our own young people to suffer the consequences of the actions of a twisted few?

Young Muslims growing up in a post 7/7 world have had their private and public identities shaped by the event, and have been cornered by policy-makers and the mass and social media into choosing a “side”.

Could this explain why a minority of children – that is what they are – have become vulnerable to radicalisation, because the deeply twisted reasoning of Isis offers clarity?

In recent days, there has been much discussion about the journey to radicalisation. New laws announced by David Cameron allow, and encourage, teachers to effectively spy on their pupils and identify those “at risk” of being drawn into extremism. This seems another knee-jerk interjection in a stream of divisive law-making.

There is no excuse for violent extremism in any form and the killing of innocents for the sake of any ideology – religious or other – is abhorrent.

But extremists are not born, they are created, and they are not a modern or uniquely “Muslim” phenomenon. A parallel journey to radicalisation could be experienced by a young white man or woman on a council estate in Leeds who is frustrated by a lack of opportunity or a sense of unfairness. The recent rise of right-wing groups like Britain First and the EDL – with their openly anti-Islam agenda – might suggest that is already the case. Will the new classroom snooping laws apply equally to these young people? Of course they will not.

Yet, when it comes to British Muslims, Government strategy and right-wing media machinations have proved to be dangerously counter-productive. From the playground to the Press to the public psyche, the M-word has become the ultimate dirty word.

Anti-extremism policy clearly targeting Muslims continues to be deeply hypocritical. In a world where we champion free speech, choice and equality, it has stigmatised Muslims – even though there is no clear definition of what that means in a global community of 1.6 billion. But for those young Muslims who were just nine or 10 years old when 7/7 happened, the M-word has defined who they are.

They have grown up in a world where their Muslim-ness is always viewed with suspicion, where halal hysteria and sharia scaremongering is rife, where injustice against Muslims globally seems prevalent and where their Britishness and loyalty is always questioned.

Many Muslims in the UK have already felt increasingly demonised in the last 10 years. That is a fact. Even those who are only outwardly or culturally Muslim – I would include myself in that group – are feeling it. And yet debate on the issue of radicalisation continues to be frustratingly and overwhelmingly and one-sided.

The talk of failures of integration is a misnomer – because that organic journey was already well underway, at least it was when I was growing up in a traditional British Muslim Pakistani household in the 1980s and 90s. The tragedy of 7/7 – and more so our collective reaction to it – has set us back maybe 20 years in that journey.

I never really referred to myself as “Muslim” before 9/11 and 7/7, but I found that I increasingly did so after those events. My religious identity was, up until then, just in the home, only making its presence felt when I chose the veggie or fish option at meals (and later had the choice of halal) or at school when I wore leggings in PE rather than shorts. There has been a gradual dismantling, deconstructing and disembowelling of the British Muslim identity in the past decade, and the narrative since 7/7 has pushed dark, sinister undertones of intolerance. The private faith of British Muslims was thrust into the public domain by complex geo-politics beyond their control.

We talk of combating extremism. What we need to do is stop creating it. We must also listen to young people and stop burying our heads in the sand.

One of the most frustrating things I find is that whenever there is any kind of debate about finding answers to the Isis question or the causes of radicalisation, there is very rarely a young Muslim from the most vulnerable age group there. From TV panel shows to select committees, the commentators and decision-makers are overwhelmingly middle-aged white men or Muslim “spokespeople” from often privileged backgrounds.

Societies don’t change overnight. They are organic entities. The M-word narrative and its creeping, insidious “them versus us” message has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let us treat this festering wound now and start to rewrite the narrative – and perhaps we can all, finally, start to heal together.

Aisha Iqbal is a news correspondent on the Yorkshire Evening Post.