The past tends to be viewed through a defiantly rose-tinted lens. My memory of childhood and youth is one of security, happiness and a glorious ordinariness. I grew up in a town in the south of England called Walthamstow. It’s in the county of Essex but has long been an annex of East London. Working-class, earthy, bland, safe. I remember the local park where we played soccer until it was too dark to see the sweaters we’d thrown down on the grass to act as goalposts.
I write this now because the image is painful and poignant for me. Walthamstow-raised 28-year-old Abdulla Ahmed Ali would meet with his gang in this same park to plan the largest terrorist bombing in British history, one that could have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, children and babies, including Canadians flying on Air Canada jets from London to Toronto and Montreal. Ali and two others, Tanvir Hussain and Assad Sarwar, were convicted this week of conspiracy to commit mass murder. A fourth man was convicted of conspiracy to murder.
The group promised that “martyrdom operations upon martyrdom operations will keep on raining on these kuffars [non-believers]” and “ripping amongst your people and scattering the people and your body parts.” When asked if they had been brainwashed, their leader replied, “Yes my brain has been washed in the clean and cleansing waters of Islam and the Koran and the Sunnah [the path of the Prophet].”
It would be comforting to a certain degree, of course, to smugly assume that these men were aberrations, mere manifestations of angry and dysfunctional youth. There are two answers to such complacent and dangerous relativism. First, angry and dysfunctional youth fight and steal; they do not spend months planning slaughter. Second, these young Muslims are far from unique in a community that is deeply troubled and replicated throughout Europe.
Walthamstow itself is worth study. It was home to one of the men who helped kidnap American journalist Daniel Pearl, he who was told to “admit” he was a Jew before having his head cut off in front of a video camera. His kidnapper attended the expensive local private school in Walthamstow. (I and my friends came from families that could never have afforded such luxury.) The town and surrounding areas have seen an unparalleled increase in violent anti-Semitic incidents. In virtually every case the culprits are Muslim.
British media have revealed that the intelligence services have prevented dozens of terror attacks from Muslim extremists, and there have been many major exposes of English mosques where violence and intense hatred are regularly preached. There also exist several recordings of Taliban fighters speaking in strong regional accents only used by people born and raised in England.
There are 1.6 million Muslims living in Britain and, according to the most extensive survey so far conducted, 45% of them believe that 9/11 was an American or Israeli conspiracy. Almost 25% argue that the 7/7 attacks in London were justified because of the British government’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same number, around a quarter, believe Britain is not their country and 30% would rather live under shariah law. Twenty-eight percent hope that Britain will eventually become a Muslim fundamentalist nation and a massive 78% advocate punishment for anybody who displays cartoons offensive to Islam, such as those of Muhammad published in Denmark.
Similar numbers are reflected in other surveys and what is particularly obvious and repeated is how little support there is within the Muslim community for notions of free speech when Islam is allegedly mocked or even critiqued. Demonstrators in London publicly called for the Pope and leading Catholics to be slaughtered after Benedict XVI dared make reference to a question asked about Islam by a 14th century Byzantine emperor.
It’s difficult to see how a civilized country with free education and health care, a reliable and fair police service, judiciary and bureaucracy and a tolerant culture and tradition of decency and moderation can have produced so many such people. Certainly it’s not because they have been oppressed or denied the privileges of every other British citizen. It’s deeply significant that two of those charged in the terror plot were converts to Islam, as were three men convicted in the United States this year of planning murder attacks on a group of synagogues and Jewish centres.
Nor is race an issue. Hindus and Sikhs came to Britain at exactly the same time as Muslims–and Sikhs, because of their distinctive headgear, probably faced the most acute racism. These communities certainly encountered problems but also enjoyed legal support and the backing of intelligent British society, which is the vast majority of people. Both groups have produced extensive middle classes and are part of the greater British fabric. As for foreign wars, British Muslims are overwhelmingly South Asian and most authorities view their alleged fraternity with Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan as a mere pose.
The problems are deep, profound and disturbing. If we’re sufficiently brave and original we have to intellectualize the instinctive and ask what many know to be an obvious question. Is this about Britain and the West or–however complex and whether we like it or not–is it all about Islam?