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A year on from 7/7

7 July 06 words: Ben Cooper
A year on from the London bombings we look at effects of 7 July 2005 on British and Muslim society

Twelve months ago four young men plunged an entire faith into turmoil. Since the London bombings Islam has been thrust into centre stage to face scrutiny, persecution and rage. Fear, intolerance, extremism, and terrorism are the most lasting images of Islam reflected in the national media, which at times has chosen to ignore the core truths behind a fundamentally peaceful, loving and accepting faith. A year on from LeftLion asks why Britain still suffers from Islamophobia.

From the moment it became clear that London had been attacked on 7 July 2005, fingers began to point at Islam. By the end of the day the wheels had been set in motion for a media campaign of blame and ‘I told you so’ commentary. Headlines such as The Sun’s: “Put your burka on, love, you’re bleedin’ nicked: The last time I looked, Britain wasn't an Islamic state,” did little to stem anti-Islamic hatred and mistrust.

Many of the media rounded on immigration and Islamic extremism as a time-bomb that had finally gone off, labeling Muslims as ‘evil’ and ‘ungrateful’. In the eyes of much of the media and the population as a whole, 7/7 solidified suspicions and mistrust about the ‘enemy within’ that had been living inside but removed from British culture.

Within hours of the attacks the Muslim Council of Britain had received over 1,000 threats and messages of hate by e-mail, many declaring “war on Muslims throughout Britain.” At the Mosque in Finsbury Park, North London, Muslims were subjected to abuse shouted at them during prayers and passers-by rattling the gates menacingly. Muslim women were urged by community leaders not to leave home alone for fear that their Islamic clothing would make them targets of hate and violence.

London’s only Muslim MP, Sadiq Khan said: “The reality is that, when we see the victims, there could be people who are doubly victims, of the atrocity and potentially of a backlash. The kind of people who live in Aldgate East and Kings Cross include many of Muslim faith.”
The great backlash that Mr Khan and many others, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, so feared in those precarious days never really came. But a new era had dawned in Britain, in which Muslims were presented as a threat… a marginal and dangerous faction of British culture.
Wakkas Khan is the president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), which conducted a survey of Muslim students in the direct aftermath of 7/7. The report produced some fascinating results and indicated a high level of mistrust among Muslim youth, particularly of the media.

An overwhelming 93% of the students surveyed felt that the media was very important or critical in shaping public opinion, and 90% said that more needs to be done by the media to improve Islam’s image to the rest of the population. The recommended actions fell into four main categories: a more positive portrayal of Muslims; fair and unbiased reporting; getting more Muslims involved in the media; reducing the use of negative terminology in reference to British Muslims.

Comments made by the students surveyed included: “The media display a negative inclination towards Islam and therefore resist in mediating its positive side: the caring compassionate part of being a Muslim…Then the media ask us why we don't integrate or what we think of being British after having made us feel alienated.”

FOSIS has around 90,000 members across 90 affiliate organisations around Britain. The work of FOSIS falls into two key areas: representation and welfare. Wakkas Khan became the president of FOSIS in 2004 after joining in 2003, and was previously president of the University of Manchester Islamic Society.

He says the London bombings have produced an interesting and surprisingly positive effect on young Muslims. The initial results of the FOSIS survey on Muslim students indicated a worrying level of negative feelings as a result of the bombings.

Prior to the attacks 83% of Muslims students said they felt ‘proud and comfortable’ to be British, a figure which fell to 52% directly afterwards. But as the dust settled it became clear that there was a more positive attitude emerging, one which sought action over introversion.
“Muslim students at that juncture really had one of two options,” he said. “One was to shy away into a corner and try not to deal with the issues, but I think it had the opposite effect which was a very positive one. It meant that Muslim students wanted to reach out much more to the wider community and the wider community wanted to engage more with the Muslim community."

The London bombings thrust Islam into the centre of political debate as never before, and in doing so created a situation in which it became crucial that both non-Muslims and Muslims worked together to improve understanding of Islam. The period after 7/7 became a testing time for British Muslims, but it was a challenge that many rose to and used for hugely positive effects.

“We’ve been forced to engage with the community at large,” said Mr Khan. “They’ve had some very honest and legitimate questions to ask and we’ve been able to as best as possible answer those questions.”

Since the bombings in London the Muslim community has been rocked by a series of events which have had similar effects as 7/7, most importantly the recent cartoon controversy. A Danish magazine published a series of images of the prophet Mohammed, including one depicting the holy figure wearing a bomb instead of a turban.

To key Muslim figures such as Wakkas Khan, the storm of controversy over the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed served more to highlight a lack of understanding among both the Islamic and non-Muslim world. The incident revealed a lack of sensitivity by non-Muslims to the fact that any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed is deeply offensive to Muslims, and the Muslim community’s lack of understanding of the importance of freedom of speech to Western democracy.

“The cartoons left a lot of questions open. For too long now a lot of people have been talking and not enough people have been listening,” said Mr Khan. “The non-Muslim world has not for a long time understood the high regard or reverence with which the Prophet is held, but I don’t think that the Muslim world has ever fully understood the concept of freedom of speech and why that is such a crucial idea and tenet of democracy and to the whole of existence in the West. Because there is not an understanding of each side’s point of view it leads to flash-points like the cartoons.For too long we’ve not tried to understand the middle ground that brings people together.”

In May the BNP brought the right wing’s battle against Islam to the political arena. The local elections held across England were used by the extreme right wing to stage an anti-Islamic campaign, fuelled by the hatred and discontent caused in part by 7/7. The BNP’s campaign was fought most rigorously in Birmingham, with the far right party represented in all forty wards in the city council. This campaign was fought on an overtly ‘anti-Islam’ ticket with BNP deputy leader and West Midlands organiser Simon Darby expressing high hopes that the party would win its first city council seat on the strength of its anti-Muslim stance.

He dubbed the May elections “a referendum on radical Islam” and held his own party up as a bastion of Western values against the ‘Islamic state’ that Birmingham was drifting towards.
“Birmingham faces a big decision. Does it drift into an Islamic republic, or does it remain a broadly Christian society of Western traditions?”

Immediately following the London bombings the BNP sought to capitalise on the widespread fear and anger of the time by publishing a leaflet entitled “Islamic Terror Labour Failure”. On the front of this leaflet a provocative image of the mangled wreck of the destroyed London bus was accompanied by a caption asking “Islam –peaceful religion or wicked and vicious?”

The BNP was a prominent voice in Birmingham’s local elections.But for all the party’s angry rhetoric and despite polling one in every ten votes, they failed to secure a single seat on the council.

Fighting and winning against the BNP in Birmingham was Respect Party candidate Salma Yaqoob. Mrs Yaqoob is the national vice-chairman of the Respect party, and the first female Muslim councillor in Birmingham.

Her transition into politics has hardly been easy. When she decided to stand in Birmingham she came under fire from all sides. She was slammed by many Muslim men who felt that women were better suited to their role behind a kitchen sink than a ballot box. Among non-Muslims too there was great fear and anxiety that Mrs Yaqoob’s campaign was linked with extremist Islam and terrorism, particularly with the memory of 7/7 so fresh in the national consciousness. This fear was used by the BNP to fuel their own campaign against Mrs Yaqoob and the Respect Party, a campaign based upon hatred and ignorance.

In Mrs Yaqoob’s own ward of Sparkbrook the BNP polled very poorly, and it is the successful integration of the many ethnic groups there that she puts this failure down to. She said:
“It is one of the most deprived wards in the city. Ripe for a racist backlash you would think, but the very opposite happened. The greater integration between black and white makes racist demonisation more difficult, and secondly it was the fact that the electorate had a pro-public services and ant-racist radical alternative to the mainstream parties."

In the lead up to the anniversary of 7/7 Tony Blair has slammed some Muslims as having a “completely false sense of grievance with the West” and laid the burden of blame for rooting out such ‘extremists’ with the Muslim community. 

Comments such as these from the Prime Minister are especially dangerous, says Mrs Yaqoob. She said: “It attempts to de-legimatise even any expression of concern over government foreign policy and instead presents such expressions as being motivated by bigoted anti-western prejudice. Blair’s arguments only play into the hands of the extremists who argue that Western democracy is a fraud and provides no avenue for Muslim engagement."

Throughout Britain there are key Muslim figures fighting to dispel the misguided rhetoric, and restore the calm and unified landscape that the last twelve months have disturbed. Dr Musharraf Hussein is a member of the Muslim Council for Britain and was among the party which travelled to Iraq to try to secure the release of doomed hostage Ken Bigley.

He and many of his colleagues have dedicated a huge amount of effort to maintaining calm both inside and outside the Muslim community in the precarious twelve months since 7/7. Dr Hussein believes the divisions between Islam and the West are far less distinct than how both traditional Muslims and the media choose to portray them.

By making the dangerous journey to Iraq, Dr Musharraf not only sought the release of a Briton held captive abroad. He believes the humanitarian mission was a crucial step to representing the true Islam that he says is often overlooked by the media, a faith fundamentally opposed to violence and terrorism. He said: “We wanted to show that British Muslims are against any acts of violence and aggression. We are British citizens and we will protect British citizens.”

There is a conflict within the Islamic community between the pressures of integrating to British culture and the need to remain true to the Muslim identity, but as Dr Musharraf explains this does not need to create as much tension as many believe. He said: “Muslims are an international community. We are British Muslims and we have had to adapt to our local communities. The important things are the beliefs which are immutable from Islam.”

The presence of incendiary figures like Abu Hamza (above) in the media has led to a backlash by Muslims. The extremism that he and others have managed to make so public has caused Muslims to re-examine the core truths behind their faith which have been so distorted and twisted.

Abu Hamza has become a figurehead for all that is corrupt and evil about Islam, but in reality has no support on the ground from the vast majority of Muslims, who do not feel that he speaks for or even believes in the Islam they follow. Yet many Muslims feel that in the media the hook-handed sociopath plays a key role in the perpetuation of the image of Islam as a wicked and sinister faith.

Usmaan Sabir, a twenty-year-old student at Nottingham Trent University and a member of the Islamic Society, explained the feelings of many Muslims towards the media.  “Things get said by people like Abu Hamza and the media exploit them,” he said. “It’s hard to focus on the positives of Islam, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

A new generation of Muslims like Usmaan Sabir is reacting against those extremists who fan the flames of discord. Moderation, not extremism, is the basis of faith for the vast majority, who are devoted to living side-by-side non-Muslims to promote harmony and security.

Lord Adam Patel is one of only four Muslim peers in the House of Lords and has for years fought to bring a greater understanding of Islam to the highest levels of government. He feels the situation is hugely improved from when he first arrived in Britain in 1965 and that much of the discord between the non-Muslim and Muslim communities is a myth compounded by the media.

Lord Patel has been breaking ground in Britain for decades. In 1984 when the government sought to appoint him as a magistrate, it was initially on the understanding that he would abandon his traditional Muslim clothing, a compromise he was unwilling to make.
“I’ve changed the complete culture of the Magistrates Court,” he said. “I told them that I thought I was going to render my services to the community? If this is the case I don’t want to be a magistrate. I’m not doing it for the status.”

Thanks to Lord Patel’s principled stand the government decided to allow Muslim dress into the courts for the first time, a crucial landmark in the integration of Muslims into the British establishment. “I opened the doors for Muslims and the traditionalists,” he said.
Lord Patel was also the first peer to be allowed to wear traditional Islamic clothing in the chamber of the House of Lords, and is still the only Lord who uses this right.
“I said ‘I’m not going to wear a suit and tie’. Now I am the only person in the UK to wear traditional Islamic clothes in the House of Lords.”

Integration, says Lord Patel, is nowhere near as big a challenge as many would expect. There are those inside both communities who preach that Muslims and non-Muslims will find it extremely hard to find a middle ground which is satisfactory to all involved, but this is a view that is becoming increasingly outdated.

Rashid Mahmood Ghani, Imam for the Nottingham Islamic Centre, represents a more isolationist view of traditional Islam, which denies the benefits of mixing the two cultures. He said: “We have to emphasise the importance of shame and modesty. We don’t approve of alcohol or the mixing of the sexes. There is a clear divide and it is not possible to integrate the two ways of life.”

Contrary to the views of key Muslims such as Wakkas Khan and Dr Musharraf, Rashid Mahmood Ghani believes major events such as the London bombings and the war in Iraq, and the media’s treatment of them, are causing a retreat in the Muslim world, towards a more isolated, introverted position.

“The effect the media is having is drawing people to think ‘what are traditional Muslim values?’ and people are turning towards the Mosque for guidance.”  In reality the conflicts that many puritanical Muslims suffer in squaring their Islamic identity with British culture are unnecessary and based on false misconceptions on both sides, says Lord Patel. He said: “To those people who say it is impossible to be a traditional Muslim I say: ‘Look at me. I pray five times a day, I wear my cap. I wear the traditional clothing.’”

Understanding, says Lord Patel, is the key to greater integration and a shared sense of community. He said: “How on earth can we work together if you don’t know the good values of Islam and we don’t understand the good values of the West? On the contrary we ought to be working together and integrating in the mainstreams of society so we know each other so we can create a better country and better citizens in the country.”

British Muslims face a rough road ahead. Despite the prevalence of forward-thinking Muslims such as Lord Patel and Dr Musharraf, there are many within and outside the Muslim community to whom integration is an impossible, and in many cases undesirable reality.
Across Britain there are many who are endeavouring to work towards cohesion, but it is the emerging attitudes of the next generation on both sides that will prove to be the real litmus test. As Wakkas Khan explains, all the while Islam and terrorism remain synonymous, true integration is only an idea waiting to be realised.

“It’s an unfortunate period of history that we’re passing through,” he said. “Not every Muslim is a terrorist but every terrorist is seen to be a Muslim.”

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