By Kenan Malik
July 10, 2015
This past week marked the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 attacks in London. On July 7, 2005, 52 people were killed when four suicide bombers detonated explosive devices on subways and buses. There were commemorations across the nation to honour the victims, including a ceremony of remembrance at the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park and a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The 10 years that have elapsed have perhaps softened the original shock, which was not just at the death toll but at the realization that the bombers were not foreigners but British citizens steeped in this country’s life and culture. In the decade since, the home-grown Jihadi has become almost a fixture in British life.
There has been no repeat of the bombings, but the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has transformed the character of domestic Jihadism. Some 700 British Muslims are believed to have joined the Islamic State — not just young men like those who carried out the 7/7 attacks, but mothers, grandfathers, schoolgirls and doctors.
Three days before the anniversary, 12 members of the Mannan family from Luton, a town about 30 miles north of London, put out a statement explaining why they had travelled to Islamic State territory in Syria. The family, of Bangladeshi origin, claimed to be happy to be living in “a land that is free from the corruption and oppression of man-made law and is governed by the Shariah,” referring to Islamic law.
This exodus to Syria has led non-Muslims to point an accusing finger at Muslim communities. Last month, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, condemned those who, though not violent, “buy into” the prejudices of Islamism and “quietly condone” the actions of the Islamic State. A poll published last week found that 56 percent of Britons thought that Islam posed a threat to Western liberal democracy, a figure 10 point higher than a decade ago.
Surveys of Muslim opinion may seem to confirm such perceptions. A poll earlier this year showed that more than a quarter of British Muslims had some sympathy for the motives behind the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed by two gun-wielding Islamists. More than one in 10 thought the magazine deserved to be attacked for lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. A 2006 poll found that 40 percent of Muslims would welcome Shariah law in Britain.
At the same time, Muslim activists say that anti-Muslim attacks have skyrocketed in recent years. Figures from the Metropolitan Police in 2014 indicated that hate crimes against Muslims had risen by 65 percent in the previous 12 months. Mehdi Hasan, a prominent Muslim commentator, wrote recently of the “relentless hostility towards Muslims.”
All this might suggest a nation polarized between alienated Muslims and non-Muslims hostile to Islam. The reality is otherwise. What is striking about the past decade is not conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, but the relative ease with which different communities have got along.
Many polls have shown that Muslims identify with Britain to a greater degree than the population at large. In a 2009 survey, 77 percent said that they strongly identified with Britain, compared with 51 percent of the general population. Similarly, a poll in 2011 found that 83 percent of Muslims were proud to be British, compared with 79 percent of Britons in general.
While anti-Muslim hatred is certainly present, there is by no means a climate of “relentless hostility” toward Muslims. According to a poll from the Pew Research Centre, 19 percent of Britons had an unfavourable view of Muslims, while 72 percent looked upon Muslims favourably. Nearly twice as many of those surveyed had an unfavourable view of Roma people.
A generation ago, hate crimes like assaults, murders and firebombings were common. Today, vicious racist violence is, thankfully, rare. Much of the rise in hate crimes has involved verbal and online abuse. That is still unacceptable, but we should not exaggerate the hostility.
So, if in practice Muslims and non-Muslims coexist relatively peaceably, how do we explain the polarization in attitudes? Why do so many non-Muslim Britons regard Islam as a threat, while so many Muslims yearn for Shariah law?
In part, the seeming contradictions expose the difficulty of reading opinion polls; people’s answers often change significantly, depending on the wording and context of questions. But they also throw light on the character of British society today.
Politicians constantly call for a defence of British values against extremism. But beyond platitudes about liberal democracy, they find it hard to articulate what those values are. At the same time, these leaders constantly undermine fundamental liberal values in the name of fighting terrorism: They have increased state surveillance, restricted free speech and banned certain organizations.
Meanwhile, a growing disaffection with mainstream politics among Muslims and non-Muslims alike has found expression in a politics of identity, which encourages people to understand their problems through the narrow lenses of culture and faith. The overall result is that people see values less as ideals than in terms of identity. For many non-Muslims, for example, the idea of Shariah conjures images of Islamic State beheadings or the oppression of women. For many Muslims, supporting Shariah may mean no more than an affirmation of identity.
The real problem is neither Muslim disloyalty nor rampant Islamophobia. It is, rather, the emergence of a tribalised society in which people have an increasingly narrow sense of belonging. At the fringes, this can funnel disaffection into Jihadism on one hand, and into anti-Muslim hatred on the other.
Britain is not divided into warring camps, as some would have it. But the consequences of tribalism can be devastating.
Kenan Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is the author, most recently, of “The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics” and a contributing opinion writer.