Britain, one year on

If a year ago you had told me that London would get through the next year without another successful terrorist attack, I’d have been mightily relieved. If you’d also reassured me that the far right would still be on the far fringes of political life and that British attitudes toward Muslims were mostly unchanged, I’d ...

607998_Londonbombing5.jpg
607998_Londonbombing5.jpg

If a year ago you had told me that London would get through the next year without another successful terrorist attack, I'd have been mightily relieved. If you'd also reassured me that the far right would still be on the far fringes of political life and that British attitudes toward Muslims were mostly unchanged, I'd have been delighted. But I still can't help but feel a little disappointed about the progress—or lack of it—since the 7th of July, 2005.

Much of the commentary today will celebrate how little has changed in Britain. Having just been back there for a fortnight recently, I can reassure you that this is true. People pop in and out of the Tube just as they did before the attacks and the subject has nowhere near the monopoly on the national conversation that terrorism had in the US a year after 9/11. In some ways this is great, indicative of the very British way of just getting on with things. But I also feel that as a country we couldn't work out how to deal with the problem, and so we just decided to ignore it. The downscaling of the government's—at the time—much-trumpeted Muslim taskforces is emblematic of this.

If a year ago you had told me that London would get through the next year without another successful terrorist attack, I’d have been mightily relieved. If you’d also reassured me that the far right would still be on the far fringes of political life and that British attitudes toward Muslims were mostly unchanged, I’d have been delighted. But I still can’t help but feel a little disappointed about the progress—or lack of it—since the 7th of July, 2005.

Much of the commentary today will celebrate how little has changed in Britain. Having just been back there for a fortnight recently, I can reassure you that this is true. People pop in and out of the Tube just as they did before the attacks and the subject has nowhere near the monopoly on the national conversation that terrorism had in the US a year after 9/11. In some ways this is great, indicative of the very British way of just getting on with things. But I also feel that as a country we couldn’t work out how to deal with the problem, and so we just decided to ignore it. The downscaling of the government’s—at the time—much-trumpeted Muslim taskforces is emblematic of this.

Polls show that the problems of alienation and extremism haven’t gone away. The Guardian reported that the recent Pew Global Attitudes poll found that only 32 percent of British Muslims have a favorable opinion of Jews. Equally disturbing: Only 17 percent thought that Arabs had been involved in the 9/11 attacks. This culture of denial was summed up recently when one of the fathers of the bombers told the Muslim partner of a 7/7 victim that there was no evidence his son was involved. You can watch the encounter here.

A poll for The Times found that 13 percent of British Muslims view the bombers as martyrs; if you project that out, you get over 200,000 people. But encouragingly, the same survey found that 65 percent believe that Muslims need to integrate more into British society and 87 percent have close friends who are not Muslim.

So, how can attitudes be transformed?

Tony Blair is right that “government itself cannot go and root out the extremism in these communities.” The solution is going to have to come from internal Muslim leadership. Muslim Britons have been phenomenally poorly served by their so-called community leaders. As David Goodhart lamented in the aftermath of 7/7, Muslim leaders have been all too keen to dwell on their grievances—rather than celebrate the positive steps that have been taken. The former head of the Muslim Council on Great Britain didn’t exactly send out the right message about attitudes toward Jews with his decision to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day, and his decision to call the war in Afghanistan “misconceived” was misconceived to say the least. The new head seems to be an improvement, though.

What really should give us hope are the actions of regular Muslims like Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, who was killed fighting for the British Army in Afghanistan this week. His brother, a military veteran, said: “He was fiercely proud of his Islamic background and he was equally proud of being British and was very proud to live in Britain.” If Britain is to continue being a successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith liberal democracy, we must all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, believe that there is no contradiction between these things.

James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

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