Who’s in denial about the London bombs?

Whether they point the finger at Islamic clerics or Iraq, everyone seems to be looking for a foreign factor.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

On 7 July, four British citizens from Leeds and Huddersfield blew up themselves and at least 56 others in the British capital. Yet the post-bombing debate has focused on everything except the question of why young men born and raised in the British ‘way of life’ would do such a thing.

Instead, the finger is pointed at madrassa schools in Pakistan, which one of the bombers allegedly attended during the past year (‘On his way to terror school’ said a Mirror headline above a grainy snapshot of 22-year-old bomber Shehzad Tanweer arriving in Karachi last year); or at Iraq (‘it is an insult to the dead to deny the link [between London] and Iraq’, said one anti-war commentator); or at firebrand Islamic clerics resident in the UK (who ‘plot or slaughter with little or no interference from a weasly, terrified, politically correct government’, according to one tabloid columnist); or at Britain’s Muslim community itself, whose leaders are called upon to renounce terrorism in public forums with politicians, including one with prime minister Tony Blair today (1).

Whether they are pro-war or anti-war, part of Blair’s government or critics of Blair’s government, everyone seems to agree that something foreign was behind the bombs in London – whether it was hotheaded fanatics in the third world who brainwashed these young Brits or internal problems within Britain’s immigrant communities. This is a severe case of displacement activity. In place of the hard-hitting debate we really need – about British society and values and how such terrorists could be made and nurtured in our midst – officials and commentators look for pat explanations everywhere else instead.

Consider the madrassa theories. After the initial shock of discovering that the London bombers were three lads from Leeds and another from Huddersfield, some in the media could barely conceal their glee when it was revealed that one of the bombers may have visited a madrassa – a cranky Islamic fundamentalist school – in Pakistan last year. At last, they thought, an explanation for how these kids came to be terrorists.

Under the heading ‘Indoctrination, indoctrination, indoctrination’, the Mirror said that it was at one of these ‘terror schools’ in ‘poverty-stricken Lahore’ that 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer ‘fuelled his radical beliefs’ (2). UK foreign secretary Jack Straw voiced his concerns about ‘activities’ at these schools, while a senior British security official said sending a British Muslim to such a school is ‘the equivalent of sending him to a bin Laden boot camp’ (3). So it was those bloody foreigners that made at least one of the Brits into a murderous fanatic.

In fact, it is still unclear whether Tanweer simply visited a couple of schools during his stay in Pakistan or actually enrolled in one. Asad Farooq, a spokesman for the Jamia Manzoorul Islam school that Tanweer is said to have visited denies all knowledge: ‘We have no link with Shahzad Tanweer or any other foreign students at our madrassa.’ (4) Also, these are not ‘terror schools’ – they are fairly strange institutions where children, normally, are taught to memorise the Koran in Arabic. According to Peter Bergen, author of Holy War Inc., who has looked into what he calls ‘the madrassa myth’ – the idea that these religious schools ‘are graduating students who become terrorists’ – such institutions do ‘not teach the technical or linguistic skills necessary to be an effective terrorist’ (5).

In the four years since 9/11, links have been made between madrassas and terrorism (former US secretary of state Colin Powell said they were breeding grounds for ‘fundamentalists and terrorists’); Bergen rejects such claims. He recently examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists involved in four of the deadliest attacks against Western targets – the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali nightclub bombings of 2002. He found that 53 per cent of the attackers had either attended a higher-education college or received a college degree (compared with 52 per cent of Americans who have been to college), and only nine of them had attended a madrassa. All these nine were involved in the same attack – the Bali bombings. Even of these nine, five were college-educated and two were university lecturers (6). Did any of the London bombers attend a higher-education institution? That would appear to be a more accurate indicator of future terrorist tendencies than whether they visited a madrassa in Pakistan.

Even if Tanweer was turned on to terror while being taught Koran studies in Pakistan, that still leaves the biggest question unanswered: Why did he go there in the first place? Why was he, as friends and family have claimed, so ‘obsessed with his Pakistani background’, like other young British-born Pakistanis who often claim to feel ‘more Pakistani’ than their parents or grandparents? (7) And why do other young Muslims seem to turn their back on the British ‘way of life’ and listen instead to the ranting of mad mullahs or teachers at weird foreign fundamentalist schools? It is not enough to point the finger at madrassas without asking why some young Brits feel turned off by British society.

This attempt to find a foreign explanation for the London bombs can also be glimpsed in the debate about Iraq. Left-leaning and anti-war writers have declared that the London bombers detonated their rucksacks in response to Blair’s decision to follow US President George W Bush into Iraq. ‘What they did was not “home grown”, but driven by a worldwide anger at US-led domination and occupation of Muslim countries’, said Seumas Milne, comment editor at the Guardian. A report published by the Royal Institute for International Affairs (RIIA) yesterday claimed that British sucking up to America has made us a terror target: ‘Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and American military lives, Iraqi lives…and the damage caused to the counterterrorism campaign.’ (8)

Perhaps Milne, the RIIA and others have a sixth sense, because the truth is that we do not know why the London bombers did what they did. We cannot ask them why they did it, because they committed suicide while committing their atrocity; and we cannot ask those who may have backed them, since such individuals do not show their faces or declare their aims. Anti-war commentators simply assert that the London bombs were blowback for Iraq, because they have no evidence to show that was the case. Instead, ‘We were bombed because we invaded Iraq!’ has become like their earlier analysis-as-slogan, ‘The war is all about oil!’ – a pat explanation that is rarely backed up by facts but is meant to sum up everything that is evil about the war. As an explanation for what occurred in London, it’s as lame as pointing the finger at evil Pakistanis; and as an argument against the war in Iraq it leaves a lot to be desired. Pointing at the carnage in London and saying ‘See, that’s why we should leave Iraq’ smacks of cynical opportunism, and it attempts to play the ‘politics of fear’ as an argument-clincher as much as Bush and Blair did in the run-up to the war (see It’s not all about Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill).

No doubt these anti-war activists think it very radical to blame Bush and Blair for the bloodshed in London, but they are effectively playing the same game as the madrassa-bashers, and as Blair himself, who said the bombers were motivated by an ‘evil ideology’ – they are looking for an external explanation for what occurred in London, searching for some meaning to what appears to have been a meaningless, nihilistic act. But how does disgruntlement with the war in Iraq turn into a suicidal mission to kill British workers? And why didn’t these four Britons join a political campaign against the war instead of turning themselves into human bombs?

One thing that the criticism of madrassas and the radical stance on Iraq have in common is that both risk absolving the bombers of responsibility for what they did. Instead, their actions are explained as a consequence of Pakistani brainwashing or as some kind of bizarre, automaton reaction against the war in Iraq. The bombers are almost let off the hook, while debate about their place in British society and how that might have impacted on their outlook is studiously avoided.

Others have argued that the London bombs were the inevitable consequence of the hate speech and incitement uttered by firebrand clerics in the UK in recent years, including Abu Hamza al-Masri, formerly the imam of the radical Finsbury Park mosque in north London (and known as Hamza Hook to Sun readers because he has a hook for a hand and only one eye as a result of injuries sustained in Afghanistan in 1990). One newspaper says Hamza Hook and others have ‘fuelled rage’ among young British Muslims; we should put these foreign firebrands ‘on the first plane out of here’, says Carole Malone in the Sunday Mirror (9).

Firstly, such firebrands are often not as foreign as many think they are. Consider Hamza Hook, the most notorious of Britain’s Islamic clerics who was banged up in Belmarsh prison at the behest of the US authorities in May last year. Abu Hamza, like those lads from Leeds, appears to have been radicalised here in the UK, not ‘over there’. He was born in Egypt to a middle-class family and moved to London to pursue his studies in the 1980s. Reportedly, it was in London that he first became involved in radical Islam, thanks, in no small part, to then prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy of allowing Afghan Mujahideen leaders to receive treatment for injuries in London. According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor: ‘Abu Hamza was introduced to radical Islam through the religious studies he diligently pursued following encounters with Arab Mujahideen from the battlefields of Afghanistan who had come to London for medical treatment.’ (10)

Blaming the likes of Abu Hamza for turning British Muslim youth on to Islamic extremism is to avoid the big issue. He may be a crank who likes to wind people up by praising suicide bombers as ‘martyrs’ and blaming the Jews for just about everything. But again the question must be posed: what is it about British society that can make the rubbish spouted by a hook-handed has-been seem like an attractive alternative? Abu Hamza (if he hadn’t been put in Belmarsh) would probably still rant and rave outside Finsbury Park mosque even if no one turned up – but why have some young Muslims turned up, and in the process turned their backs on the mainstream in favour of listening to the ravings of a loon? It is easy to knock Abu Hamza, but far harder to ask why his musings are embraced by some young Britons.

Finally, some have asked whether problems within the Muslim community are causing young Muslims to become terrorists. Everything from the Muslim community’s view of women to its reported penchant for cutting itself off from the rest of British society has been picked apart, in the search for answers to the question of why four young Muslims became bombers. Today, Blair invited opposition leaders, including Tory leader Michael Howard and Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, and 25 of Britain’s Muslim leaders to a meeting at Downing Street where they all agreed to tackle terrorism ‘head on’ (11). It was a political-religious exercise in shared soul-searching, where government officials reached out to religious leaders to see if perhaps they had the answers to how to combat terrorism.

After the meeting, Howard said it was the responsibility of Muslim leaders to talk to their young people and prevent the ‘merchants of evil’ from influencing them (12). From this view, the problem is that the Muslim community is being preyed upon by evil men who want to produce violent fanatics. Some seem to think that if only there was a change of attitude among Muslims, then everything would be okay; one commentator argues that if only the Muslim community treated women as equals, then their young men might not be so blinkered and given to violent outbursts. Here, contemporary nihilistic terrorism is explained away as a consequence of BA – Bad Attitude.

All of these points of focus in the post-bombing debate have one thing in common: they are all about ‘them’, not ‘us’; they all focus on terrorism as a foreign threat rather than as something that might have its origins here at home. Terrorism is seen as being the product of faraway fanatics infiltrating British Muslims’ minds, or as a response by young disgruntled Muslims to wars in far-off lands, or as the deadly consequence of an immigrant community than can’t get its house in order. This is to displace the debate about the London bombs on to foreign factors – overlooking the fact that this act was seemingly plotted in Britain, and carried out by British citizens. We are in danger of missing the opportunity for a hard-headed debate about the society we live in, in favour of finger-pointing about what occurred on 7/7.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) Terrorism to be tackled ‘head on’, BBC News, 19 July 2005

(2) Indoctrination, indoctrination, indoctrination, Mirror, 16 July 2005

(3) Our safety is in the hands of Pakistan, Telegraph, 17 July 2005

(4) School probed over bomb suspect, Sunday Mail, 17 July 2005

(5) The madrassa myth, New York Times, 14 June 2005

(6) The madrassa myth, New York Times, 14 June 2005

(7) Indoctrination, indoctrination, indoctrination, Mirror, 16 July 2005

(8) It is an insult to the dead to deny the link with Iraq, Guardian, 14 July 2005

(9) Who cares what religion they are?, Sunday Mirror, 17 July 2005

(10) Abu Hamza: Profile, Christian Science Monitor, 27 September 2001

(11) Terrorism to be tackled ‘head on’, BBC News, 19 July 2005

(12) Terrorism to be tackled ‘head on’, BBC News, 19 July 2005

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Topics Politics


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