This is the full version of the article I wrote for the New York Times last month reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London (I cannot publish my New York Times articles in full on Pandaemonium until a month later).
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 honor the victims, including a ceremony of remembrance at the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park and a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Ten years on, it may be hard to remember that what made the 7/7 bombings so shocking was not merely the death toll but the realization that the bombers were not foreigners but British citizens steeped in this country’s life and culture. In the decade since, the homegrown jihadi has become almost a fixture in British life.
There has been no repeat of the bombings, but the emergence of the so-called Islamic State 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 traveled 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’.
This exodus to Syria has led non-Muslims to point an accusing finger at Muslim communities. In May, 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 recent poll found that 56 percent of Britons thought that Islam posed a threat to Western liberal democracy, a figure 10 per cent higher than a decade ago. Fewer people today believe that most British Muslims are ‘peaceful, law-abiding citizens who deplore terror attacks’ than they did at the time of 7/7.
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 sharia law in Britain.
At the same time, many 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 per cent 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 different. 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 Gallup poll, 77 percent said that they strongly identified with Britain, compared with 51 percent of the general population. Similarly, a Demos 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 Center, 19 percent of Britons had an ‘unfavourable’ view of Muslims, while 72 percent looked upon Muslims ‘favourably’. Almost twice as many of those surveyed had an unfavorable view of Roma people.
A generation ago, hate crimes like assaults, murders and firebombings were common. Today, such 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 sharia 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, increasing state surveillance, by restricting free speech and banning organizations.
Meanwhile there has been, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, growing disaffection with mainstream politics. Such disaffection has increasingly been given shape by the politics of identity which has encouraged people to understand their problems, and discover meaning and identity, through ever-narrower lenses of culture and faith.
The result of all this is that people have come to understand values in terms less of ideals than of identity. For many non-Muslims, the idea of sharia conjures images of Islamic State beheadings or the oppression of women. For many Muslims, supporting sharia may mean no more than an affirmation of identity. For Muslims, the fact that half the British population view Islam as a threat is an expression of ‘relentless hostility’. For many non-Muslims it is often no more than an identity-based vision of values.
The real problem is neither Muslim disloyalty nor rampant Islamophobia. It is, rather, the emergence of a tribalized society in which people have an increasingly narrow sense of belonging. At the fringes, this can funnel disaffection into jihadism, on the 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.
The photos are of the 7/7 memorial in London’s Hyde Park. The cover image is from Rachel Gunn’s ‘Divided Ground’.