7/7 anniversary: Islamophobia and the London bombings, one decade on
“Its roots are not
superficial, but deep, in the madrassas of Pakistan, in the
extreme forms of Wahabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia, in the former
training camps of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; in the cauldron of
Chechnya; in parts of the politics of most countries of the
Middle East and many in Asia; in the extremist minority that now
in every European city preach hatred of the West and our way of
“It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated. It can’t be remedied. It has to be stood up to.”
Those were the words of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the immediate aftermath of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London.
His speech, condemning jihadist extremism, was part of the rhetoric already entrenched in the so-called “War on Terror” which had gripped the US and Britain since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. But now they were spoken on home soil, they were relevant to citizens of the UK and to all those in London fearing another attack on public transport.
Blair’s words, however, marked a turning point in the perception of British Muslim communities.
“Police were being very reticent with what they were saying,” said Azru Merali, a founder of the Islamic Human Rights Council, which monitors Islamophobia in the UK, in an interview with RT.
“[The police] were very careful, as were some of the media, and then Tony Blair came out with his speech … and all hell broke loose.”
“So it wasn’t what happened. It wasn’t the media or the police investigating [the bombings], it was Tony Blair about a day later causing problems.”
The four bombers, all British citizens, had killed 52 people when their suicide packs detonated on three underground trains and one bus. The eldest, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was 30. The youngest, Hasib Hussain, was just 18.
Blair’s speech, which branded Islamic extremism an “evil ideology” with “devilish logic,” was not the beginning of Islamophobia in Britain. As Merali notes, it is tempting to see such events as a starting point when in fact they are part of a “trajectory” of popular sentiment. But by saying the acts were “founded in belief,” Blair paved the way for a decade of confusion over terminology, and unwittingly gave prejudice a context and legitimacy, the effects of which are still apparent in contemporary political speeches.
Published in the autumn after the attacks, a report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an organization which will host Blair after his resignation as Middle East peace envoy, said the authorities were “optimistic” that levels of hate crime against Muslims would sink back to pre-7/7 levels following an initial spike.
But Merali believes the rise in Islamophobia in Britain was in the making for “a long time.”
“Yes, things like 9/11 or 7/7 are important markers because there’s been an upsurge [of prejudice], but they’re not the only events,” Merali said.
Following any terrorist attack there is an “upsurge” of Islamophobia, Merali said, but afterward it would level off “at a slightly higher rate than before,” with Muslims targeted culturally rather than physically or verbally.
“What we saw was a higher level of reporting of things like invisible forms of racism, which could be things like discrimination in the workplace,” said Merali.
In the decade since the 7/7 attacks, which has seen ongoing conflict in the Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State jihadist group has triggered fresh debate over the terminology of terror and Islam.
After the Tunisian shootings on June 29, which left 30 Britons dead, Prime Minister David Cameron called on the media and the public to stop using the name “Islamic State” because the extremist group “had nothing to do with Islam.”
The call, however, seemed at odds with Cameron’s earlier speeches, which blamed British Muslims for “quietly condoning” extremist and radical thought. Cameron seems to be toeing a precarious rhetorical line between distancing himself from Blair’s dangerous anti-extremist sentiment, while still trying hold Muslims publicly accountable.
One poll picked up by media outlets even claimed the majority of the British public associated the word “Muslim” with the word “terrorism,” more often than they did “religion.”
Sajda Mughal was on the Underground train bombed just outside Kings Cross Station on July 7, 2005. As a Muslim and an anti-Islamophobia campaigner she rejects the idea the Muslim population should apologize for the actions of extremists.
“Extremism and terrorism are not ‘Muslim problems,’ nor should the Muslim community be made responsible for the attitudes and actions of an unrepresentative minority,” she told RT.
“It is unfair to ask all Muslims to apologize for the acts of a small minority of people. We hear this frustration when we speak to Muslim youth through our work at JAN Trust (her women’s charity which helps tackle radicalization), often they say, ‘Why do we have to apologize for the acts of a small minority?’ When Anders Breivik killed 77 innocent young people or Dylann Storm Roof shot innocent black people dead, no one asked white males to apologize.”
The mixed messages sent out by politicians are mirrored by equally impenetrable new anti-terror measures which have become more stringent and broad-reaching over the past 10 years.
The PREVENT program, part of the government’s wider CONTEST counter-terror strategy, has cost millions of pounds to implement and aims to tackle radicalization of vulnerable individuals.
But rather than present an inclusive and safe environment for people to speak out against radicalization, it has become divisive and left individuals in fear of persecution.
“It’s completely taken the United Kingdom back a decade, if not worse, in terms of how racial relations work,” Merali told RT. “Not really just about Muslims, it’s had an effect on everybody else.”
“People were already feeling the brunt of police surveillance before [7/7],” she added.
“Unfortunately I have to say with considerable justification that the fear that we’re seeing now in our community was already there over 10 years ago. Often you’d get cases of people utilizing that and really settling personal grudges by reporting people to the police.”
In the past weeks and months, however, the scope of new measures brought in by Home Secretary Theresa May has become increasingly apparent. The effects of anti-terror legislation are now felt by individuals from all backgrounds who are legally obliged to report their co-workers, pupils and associates.
Advocacy group CAGE, which has campaigned extensively on the excesses of the war on terror, predicted the PREVENT program would result in some “moderates” being reclassified as “extremists” and would unfairly target Muslims.
Its report criticizing PREVENT said it would cause widespread discontentment in the Muslim community and was likely to discourage individuals from cooperating with the authorities. Its predictions are now being echoed by other critics of the scheme, who believe vulnerable individuals are less likely to talk to their compatriots for fear they would be reported to the police.
“Year on year you see experiences get worse and worse,” Merali said. The rhetoric of both politicians and the media has contributed to a “very, very negative experience” for British Muslims, she added.
Though she admits that change cannot happen until the authorities “take a long hard look at themselves,” there has been a movement to tackle communities who feel ostracized and would not trust the authorities to investigate their concerns.
RT spoke to 7/7 survivor Sajda Mughal about her NGO, the JAN trust, which reaches out to women in marginalized communities and helps them to overcome social obstacles and find empowerment. Their Web Guardians program, which was set up in 2012, helps mothers protect their children from the threat of radicalization online.
Mughal said it took her “a long while” to “get myself together” and return to work after the bombings, but “these unanswered questions played on my mind daily and I was searching for answers.”
“That’s when I knew: What better place to start than to work with those who can make that difference – women and mothers? They can protect their children and we can ultimately protect society.”
While institutionalized Islamophobia threatens to push vulnerable young people away from the authorities, Mughal’s charity helps to educate women about the dangers of online radicalization, and helps them to recognize when their child is under threat.
“It takes a mother on a journey,” she said, “educating her with the practical skills to get online, exposing her to the issue of online radicalization and equipping her with the ability to channel their child’s grievances in a positive manner.”
The future is less certain for Merali. She says politicians and the media create an all-encompassing environment, which, if left unchecked, can turn a lack of understanding into pure discrimination.
“These institutions are powerful factors. At the end of the day, some guy down the end of the street who doesn’t know a Muslim can be invited by this type of environment to actually commit an act of discrimination, or an act of hatred.”
Merali called on the media to take greater responsibility in the way it reports on terror and extremism, “particularly [the portrayal of] people who are marginalized and vulnerable and who don’t have a voice.”
She added: “In the case of Muslims we’ve had well over a decade [of discrimination] which has marked Muslims as completely different and other.”
The rhetoric built up over the past decade, in particular, has turned Muslims into a “subcategory” of human being, she adds.
“We have to roll that back.”
“And really at the end of the day only the government can do that, only the media can take on a more aggressive role and actually critique what’s coming out of the government.”
The rhetoric used by politicians and the media has contributed to a state which conflates the words “Muslim” and “terrorist,” and which has seen a UK branch of anti-Islam group Pegida – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – attempt to hold rallies.
Mughal calls for the adoption of grassroots programs by the government to ensure marginalized and vulnerable individuals are no longer subjected to stigma attached to their faith.
For now, though, it seems as though the rhetoric of otherness is here to stay.
“Just some months back the #KillAllMuslims hashtag was trending. This is appalling and should never have been the case,” Mughal said.
“Authorities need to implement a bottom up approach. We desperately need a united front against Islamophobia.”