How could 62,040,606 Americans get it so wrong? So wailed a tee-shirt slogan last November. The reference, of course, was to the votes garnered by US President George Bush, which gave him a second term. If something does not happen to change attitudes — and very quickly at that — I expect to see another tee-shirt on my next trip to London bearing the slogan: How could 1.6 million Muslims get it so wrong?
In the wake of the 7/7 London bombings (and the me-too attempt a week later), everyone expected the Muslim community in Britain to be contrite about all that had happened. Instead, the only Muslim voices hitting the headlines were those calling for more of the same.
The Sunday Times ran a long story about how it had sent its reporter, a Muslim, to investigate the activities of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed — a Syrian-born radical cleric who lived on the British dole and used Britain’s traditional tolerance to preach violence to the society around him (he has subsequently left the country). According to the report, Bakri and his followers will be satisfied with nothing less than “flying the Islamic flag over Downing Street”. Sheikh Omar Brooks was quoted saying that it was a Muslim’s duty to stay apart from the rest of society: “Never mix with them. Never let your children play with their children.” A third man reportedly said that non-believers were dispensable.
It really does not matter whether Muslims in general share this extremist attitude, for all practical purposes the fundamentalists are the only ones being heard by the rest of Britain. And it is not just the Anglo-Saxons who are listening but also the youngsters in the Muslim community. MI5, says The Independent, has told Britain’s Prime Minister Blair that there could be as many as 10,000 young Muslim men on British soil who have had some form of military training. (Sheikh Omar Brooks himself has claimed that he was trained in Pakistan.)There was no visible backlash against the Muslim community in Britain immediately after the London blasts. Some commentators went so far as to mouth the usual politically correct spiel about how poverty and poor education were at the root of misguided youth adopting terrorism. But I am not sure how much more the British can stomach of being denounced as “kafir” by men who are living on the dole. There is still no open hostility aimed at the many Arab families who are seen frequenting the shops and restaurants of London but — make no mistake about it — there has been a change of attitude, a wariness that now extends to Muslims in general.
Some Britons are more open about their likes and dislikes. “Maybe now it’s time to start listening to the BNP,” says the headline next to a photo from the scene of the London blasts. It is a leaflet released by the British National Party for a council by-election in Barking, London. In case someone had not got the message, party leader Nick Griffin was quite explicit: “The Labour Party for years has allowed Islamic extremists to preach in mosques in Britain and use them to recruit people to their cause. It is the Labour Party that is to blame.” Griffin is already facing charges of spreading race hatred but everyone is afraid that he is simply articulating aloud what many Britons believe silently.