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multiculturalism fans the flames of islamic extremism

the times, 16 july 2005

One was a loving father. Another helped out in his parents' fish and chip shop. All apparently chatted away as if they were going on holiday as they walked through King's Cross station with their deadly rucksacks. It is the contrast between the ordinariness of the London bombers' lives and the savage barbarism of their actions that is so shocking. But then, few recent terrorists have resembled the caricatures of mad mullahs, bearded fanatics and foreign zealots that people the press. Many have been Western born, Western educated, and seemingly ordinary.

The shoe bomber Richard Reid was brought up in south London. His fellow conspirator British-born Sajid Badat was educated at the prestigious Crypt Grammar School for Boys. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, convicted in Pakistan of the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, lived in east London and was educated at the LSE. Asif Hanif and Omar Sharif, the two Britons who carried out a suicide bombing mission in Israel became friends at university. The most detailed study yet on Al-Qaeda supporters shows that the majority are middle class with good jobs. Most are college educated, usually in the West. Fewer than one in 10 have attended religious school.

There was nothing extraordinary, then, about the background of the London bombers. So, why are these men, born and brought up in Britain, gripped by such a fanatic zeal for an irrational, murderous dogma, and seemingly possessed with a hatred for such virtues as democracy and decency? Muslims have been in Britain large numbers since the 1950s. Only recently has fanaticism taken hold. The first generation of immigrants faced greater hardships and more intense racism than do today's Muslims. Yet most thought of themselves as British and were proud to be here.

While that first generation often put up with racism, the second generation (my generation) challenged it head on, often leading to fierce confrontations with the police and other authorities. But however fierce those confrontations, we recognised that to fight racism we needed to find a common set of values, hopes and aspirations that united whites and non-whites, Muslims and non-Muslims, not separate ourselves from the rest of society.

It has only been over the past decade that radical Islam has found a hearing in Britain. Why? Partly because, in this post-ideological age, the idea that we can change society through politics has taken a battering. And partly because the idea that we should aspire to a common identity and set of values has been eroded in the name of multiculturalism.

Over the past week, much has been said about the strength of London as a multicultural city. What makes London great, mayor Ken Livingstone pointed out, was what the bombers most fear - a city full of people from across the globe free to pursue their own lives. I agree, and that is why I choose to live here. Multiculturalism as lived experience enriches our lives. But multiculturalism as a political ideology has helped create a tribal Britain with no political or moral centre.

For an earlier generation of Muslims their religion was not so strong that it prevented them from identifying with Britain. Today many young British Muslims identify more with Islam than Britain primarily because there no longer seems much that is compelling about being British. Of course, there is little to romanticise in old-style Britishness with its often racist vision of belongingness. Back in the fifties policy makers feared that, in the words of a Colonial Office report, 'a large coloured community would weaken... the concept of England or Britain.'

That old racist notion of identity has thankfully crumbled. But nothing new has come to replace it. The very notion of creating common values has been abandoned except at a most minimal level. Britishness has come to be defined simply as a toleration of difference. The politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, creating a more fragmented Britain, and one where many groups assert their identity through a sense of victimhood and grievance.

This has been particularly true of Muslim communities. Muslims have certainly suffered from racism and discrimination. But many Muslim leaders have nurtured an exaggerated sense of victimhood for their own political purposes. The result has been to stoke up anger and resentment, creating a siege mentality that makes Muslim community more inward looking and more open to religious extremism - and that has helped transform a small number of young men into savage terrorists.

There is nothing new, of course, in the use of terror tactics. What is new is the arbitrary, nihilistic brutality. In the past, whether we are talking Palestinians hijacking aircraft or the IRA bombing British shopping centres, terror was always in pursuit of political or strategic aims. No longer. The London bombers - like those in Madrid, Bali, and New York before them - issued no warnings, made no demands, left no list of grievances. Four men simply sneaked onto three tubes and a bus and without a word created carnage. For them, terror was an end in itself, not a means to an end. In this post-ideological age, few believe in political ends, or have a vision of political change. Few actually believe in anything, or can articulate what they believe in political terms. All they feel is a sense of anger or resentment or rage. So terrorists just lash out without any sense of what for. And without anything to believe in, without the moral restraints imposed by political activism, or the sense of responsibility to a cause or to a people, the unthinkable becomes possible. As in London last Thursday.