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7/7: a very British bombing

John Reid's speech about 'extremist bullies' warping Muslim minds misses the point. Today's radical Islamists are made by mainstream society.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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In his speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester yesterday, home secretary John Reid won rapturous applause when he said Britain would not be ‘browbeaten’ by radical Islamist ‘bullies’.

‘If we in this [Labour] movement are going to ask the decent, silent majority of Muslim men and women to have the courage to face down the extremist bullies, then we need to have the courage and character to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them doing it’, he said. This follows a speech he made in London last week, in which he called on Muslim mums and dads to ‘look for the tell-tale signs’ that their children might be turning radical, perhaps becoming ‘brainwashed by fanatics’ (1).

It is a relief that the Labour government has finally begun to face up to the reality of what is referred to as ‘homegrown terrorism’ – that Reid’s Home Office seems to be taking more responsibility for rooting out terrorism, rather than leaving it all to the Foreign Office or, worse, the Ministry of Defence. In the years following 9/11, Western leaders and ministers deluded themselves into believing that contemporary Islamist terrorism was a foreign threat. Such violence, they claimed, was the work of weirdo Arabs or Asians raised on a diet of falafel and hatred for the West in some hot and dusty backwater of the Third World.

The bombings in London, however, executed by three men from Leeds and their friend from Huddersfield, blew British politicians back to reality. The atrocity opened their eyes to the fact that this violence is very often the work of Western-born or Western-educated bright young men who speak and think like us, and who live among us. The 7/7 bombers – like the 9/11 hijackers and Madrid bombers before them – were not poverty-stricken; nor were they aliens to the West. They lived here, benefited from Western education and jobs, and indulged in Western culture. Yet still they decided to kill themselves and others in a piece of nihilistic and bloody theatre.

However, there are now some problems in the new debate about ‘homegrown terrorism’, as amply demonstrated by Reid’s and many others’ comments in recent months. Even though many now recognise that Islamist terrorism can be made here in the West, in gyms and mosques in Leeds or London, they still tend to describe it as a foreign infiltration – as the work of Reid’s weird ‘bullies’ and ‘fanatics’ who are apparently stealing their way into decent British society and ‘brainwashing’ Muslim youth. Many now accept that terrorism is ‘grown’ at ‘home’, but they argue that this growth is enabled and assisted by radical foreign imams or by sinister elements from Pakistan or Afghanistan – the kind of foreign Mr Bigs who allegedly instructed the 7/7 Brits to carry out their dastardly deed.

Even the argument made by more radical commentators, who claim that Tony Blair’s foreign policies have given rise to Muslim disgruntlement and even to 7/7 itself, is an attempt to find a foreign explanation – in this instance injustices abroad – for terrorism at home. Meanwhile, other commentators concerned about poverty and unemployment will argue that homegrown terrorism only emerges in certain degraded conditions, such as among alienated and isolated communities in the north of England who do not feel fully British. In other words, this terrorism may be made in Britain, but it is not British. It is still viewed by many as a fundamentally foreign entity, which only attaches itself, carbuncle-like, to sections of British society.

This entirely misses the meaning of ‘homegrown terrorism’: it is not only made in Britain; it is also made by Britain. The 7/7 bombers and their murderous attack captures this very well. The most striking thing about the 7/7 bombers is how un-foreign they were and how much they were submerged in British culture, politics and lifestyle. They did not cut themselves off from society, as violent sects and cults have done in the past; they didn’t even express any hostility to the institutions of British society or their fellow Britons any time prior to 7/7. Their ‘radicalisation’, both in terms of politics and group bonding, seems to have taken place in public rather than private, and it was shaped and directed by some very mainstream contemporary trends. In both their attitudes and their actions, the 7/7 bombers showed themselves to be very British indeed.

Self-radicalised

Reid continually talks about ‘radicalisation’, which he sees as a kind of polluting of young minds by sinister Islamist individuals. The documentarist Peter Taylor, who has made films for the BBC about al-Qaeda, discusses ‘those who seek to radicalise’ – presumably also referring to imams and other Islamists who exploit doubts about the war in Iraq, and also events such as the shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes by anti-terrorist police officers in Stockwell, south London, two weeks after 7/7, in order to stir up the anger of Muslim youth.

So Taylor says that, after the killing of de Menezes, ‘those who seek to radicalise’ presented his death in such a way that Muslims would believe ‘there was a shoot-to-kill policy and that any young Muslim is fair game’. Continuing with this theme of the radicalisers and the radicalised, who somehow stand apart from society, Taylor argues that the British authorities must ‘drain the water from the pond in which the alleged fish swim’: ‘In other words, you have to get the communities on your side, the side of the state, if the so-called terrorists are to be identified and defeated.’ He creates a powerful image of a ‘pond’, an entity separate from mainstream British society, in which there is a polluted kind of water that poisons its inhabitants (2).

In fact, there is little evidence that the 7/7 bombers were radicalised by an imam, an al-Qaeda bigwig or any other foreign element. The government’s report into 7/7, published in May, says of the 7/7 group: ‘Their indoctrination appears to have taken place away from places with known links to extremism.’ (My emphasis.) In other words, not in Taylor’s pond, but elsewhere. The report goes on to say that, yes, the bombers would have had the opportunity to attend lectures, watch videos and read material by extremists, ‘but it is not known if any did to any significant extent’. Rather, the four bombers seem to have ‘indoctrinated’ themselves ‘through personal contact and group bonding’. This flies in the face of Reid’s recent claims about Muslim kids being ‘brainwashed’ by others. On the question of whether ‘those who radicalised’ the four Brits may have been al-Qaeda leaders, the government report says there is still no evidence that any of them had ‘links to an al-Qaeda fixer’: ‘There is no reliable intelligence or corroborative information to support [these claims].’ Moreover, there is ‘as yet no firm evidence to corroborate…the nature of al-Qaeda support, if there was any’. In the case of 7/7, ‘those who radicalise’ seem to have been the four young men themselves; they were self-radicalised.

Rachel Briggs of Demos has further pursued the theme of the 7/7 bombers’ separation from mainstream British society. In a recent article, she favourably quoted a contributor to a recent Demos conference who talked about the ‘cocktail of ingredients’ that have given rise to violent anger among some British Muslims: ‘foreign policy, perceived or real Islamophobia, poor attainment, lack of participation and representation….’ Within ‘certain communities’, this individual said, such ingredients can come together to create terroristic anger (note again the isolation of ‘certain communities’).

Briggs writes of the ‘gulf between the state and Muslim communities’ and of ‘the sense of alienation that [can] fuel violence’. Again, we are presented with a view of a distinct part of British society, which has been neglected by politicians and officials, and where, through a combination of factors, terrorism can fester and take root. Apparently such terrorism grows away from the mainstream, often unseen by officialdom.

In fact, the most striking thing about the 7/7 bombers’ self-radicalisation is that it seems to have taken place, not in a privatised world created by radical Islam or governmental neglect, but in the public sphere and in the full view of mainstream society. The government’s report says the bombers were not radicalised in mosques but in gyms, including a gym funded by local government money, and during outdoor sporting activities with other groups of individuals: ‘Camping, canoeing, white-water rafting, paintballing and other outward bound-type activities are of particular interest because they appear common factors for the 7 July bombers and other cells disrupted previously and since.’ In other words, the bombers’ radicalisation seems to have occurred during engagement with others, rather than stemming from a sense of alienation while sitting at home, and in a public space rather than in a private room in a mosque or anywhere else.

As Faisal Devji, author of Landscapes of the Jihad, argues: ‘These men [did not] cut themselves off from British society; instead their politics and their bonding are conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny…. Most of the London bombers’ acts of bonding occurred in public – not in mosques but on rafting expeditions and at [paint-ball] shooting games, in clubs and gyms. There is nothing traditionally religious, or private, about that.’ (3)

There is something very new here. In the past, small violent sects or cults tended to separate themselves from the mainstream. For example, the People’s Temple cult set up a bizarre commune in Jonestown, Guyana, in the mid-Seventies, where eventually 913 of them died in a mass suicide. David Koresh’s cultish Branch Davidians also removed themselves from mainstream society; 76 of their members eventually died following an assault by armed FBI men. Or think of something like Charles Manson’s murderous Family group which was formed in the late 1960s. Individuals involved in these kinds of groups tended to break off links with their families, refused to engage with society’s institutions, and they often set up their own communities so that members could be exposed to sect-like thinking on an hourly and daily basis. This often had the effect of transforming individuals’ thought patterns and behaviour, enabling them to carry out often horrendous acts of violence. For example, the Family’s self-separation from the mainstream allowed them to transform into individuals capable of murdering a heavily pregnant woman (the actress Sharon Tate) and other civilians.

The 7/7 bombers, however, remained at the heart of the mainstream, living with their families, hanging out and playing cricket with their friends, attending anti-war marches, and using public outdoor sporting activities as an opportunity to bond. This suggests, very strongly, that they are a product of mainstream British society rather than of neglect or foreign radicalisation.

Getting their ideas from the mainstream

Even the bombers’ political motivation – to the extent that we know about it – was a product of mainstream and contemporary trends, rather than being some strange, exotic religious duty or something ‘bullied’ into them.

Both the 7/7 ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan and his close friend and fellow bomber Shehzad Tanweer made ‘martyr videos’, in which they expressed anger with Britain’s foreign policy, especially, in Tanweer’s words, with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peter Taylor argues that foreign policy failures, or at least perceptions of failures, were key to the ‘radicalisation’ of the 7/7 group. He writes: ‘I have no doubt that Iraq is the single most important motivating, radicalising factor for young Muslims who are so disposed in this country, or the USA, or elsewhere.’ Others argue that Western foreign policy actually nurtures al-Qaeda; it has ‘greatly helped al-Qaeda to achieve its goals by causing discussion, dissent, alienation and radicalisation in multi-ethnic communities in Western Europe’. Veteran left-wing commentator John Pilger went so far as to describe 7/7 as ‘Blair’s bombs’ (4).

Here, again, we have an idea that 7/7 was a largely foreign enterprise. The argument is that Britain and the West’s foreign policy made some Muslims feel alienated and angry and led the 7/7 bombers to take violent action. It is argued that the bombers made an essentially political response to the war in Iraq: we are told they were ‘radicalised’ by it, in a political and active sense. This misses the point about the terrorists’ claims to have been motivated by foreign policy, which again is a mainstream response rather than any kind of peculiarly Muslim anger with wars overseas. The 7/7 bombers did not make an anti-imperialist strike against British foreign policy or Western imperialism more broadly; rather they were expressing a sense of disgruntlement with British life and politics through the issue of Iraq.

This is in no way unique. In the past three years, Iraq has become the issue through which many British citizens have experienced and expressed their sense of dislocation from public and political life, as evidenced in the gathering of one million citizens to protest against the war in Hyde Park, London, in February 2003. That was not a traditional anti-imperialist demonstration but a gathering of various strata of British society, from the young to the old, workers through to the middle classes, who claimed that they were ‘not being listened to’ by the British government and felt increasingly distant from the Blairite project. The 7/7 bombers expressed this same, mainstream sense of angst with contemporary British life, only in a more violent form. There was nothing peculiar or original about their focus on foreign policy – that is the issue through which displeasure with or cynicism about the authorities is expressed in contemporary Britain. The bombers’ violent outrage can be seen as a more bloody demand that government ‘listen to us and take our concerns seriously’.

In other ways, too, the 7/7 bombers, as well as other alleged radical Islamists, are products very much of mainstream British ideas. According to the government’s report on 7/7, Sidique Khan, for example, was a strong believer in encouraging young people to stay fit and healthy. Apparently his talks to young Muslims, usually given in a gym, focused on ‘clean living, staying away from crime and drugs, and the value of sport and outdoor activity’. This script could have been written by any New Labour government apparatchik, who have made healthy living and sport into key planks of their interventionist policy to shape and mould our lifestyles.

For the government, promoting good health can very often turn into berating and even punishing those who are seen as unhealthy or obese or feckless. Could it be the same for radical Islamists? A group of British Muslim men from Crawley in West Sussex is currently on trial, accused of plotting a terrorist attack on British soil. It has been alleged that they discussed blowing up a nightclub or poisoning booze at football grounds. One of them allegedly said of nightclubs: ‘No one can put their hands up and say they are innocent…those slags dancing around.’ A witness claims the gang also talked about ‘poisoning football fans by contaminating beer cans and burgers’. They also allegedly discussed blowing up the Bluewater shopping centre in north-east Kent, which, thanks to some pretty degraded media coverage and political attention has become famous (or perhaps infamous) as the haunt of ‘chavs’.

The truth of these allegations remains to be decided by a jury. But if anybody really did plot such things, then it seems to me they were more influenced by contemporary British culture than foreign Islamism. It has become de rigueur recently, particularly in political and media circles, to slate the working classes for their binge-drinking and generally bad behaviour. Officials fret over the sight of young girls in mini-skirts falling down drunk, while TV documentaries and newspaper articles expose the apparently seedy and violent life of ‘football hooligans’. It is also open season on chavs. One website, for example, refers to the Bluewater shopping centre as ‘the most chav-infested place on the face of the Earth’, overrun by ‘the Burberry-clad hordes’. If a group of men did talk about attacking ‘slags’, poisoning football fans and blowing up Bluewater chavs, they could very well have been taking their cue from mainstream fear and loathing of these sections of society rather than from some Pakistani ‘Mr Big’.

The politics of pity and identity

What of the 7/7 bombers’ belief that they could speak and act on behalf of Muslims everywhere, the ummah? John Reid bemoans the attempts of certain radical Islamists to create ‘no-go areas’ for British officials, where only Muslims will be welcome. Surely this shows that certain radical Islamists, and the 7/7 bombers themselves, were influenced by foreign al-Qaeda-style ideas about the need to stand up and fight for Muslims around the world?

Actually, even this aspect of the 7/7 bombers’ actions was shaped much more by contemporary British and Western culture than it was by foreign radicalism. In Sidique Khan and his colleagues’ belief that they, as Muslims, could represent all other Muslims, we can glimpse today’s undemocratic politics of identity, which defines people by their origin and even skin colour rather than by their political convictions or allegiances.

Over the past 20 years, the politics of identity has superseded the old politics of left and right, replacing traditional collectivities with sectionalised communities which each apparently have their own needs and interests. The politics of identity plays down traditional democratic forms in favour of elevating personal experience as the defining factor of political action on the world. Thus, individuals can speak for others who share their identity, even if they were never elected by them, or have never even met them. As Munira Mirza has argued on spiked: ‘[I]n a world where any old hack can be called a “community leader”, it is hardly surprising that [Khan and Tanweer] also thought they were qualified to speak [on behalf of all Muslims]. What Khan and Tanweer’s terrible action shows is the price of endless, meaningless community consultation, where some people are rewarded political power for merely being the right skin colour or religion.’ (5)

Likewise, Khan and Co’s decision to act on behalf of others, rather than for their own self-interest or for a democratic community, is a very mainstream form of political action. In our post-political, identity-directed era, a great number of groups claims to act in the interests of people they actually have few or no links with, and from whom they certainly have not won any kind of democratic mandate. So NGOs and charities claim to act on behalf of the people of Africa; Greenpeace and other environmentalist campaigners say they act to protect future generations, those who are not even born yet; anti-abortion campaigners act for the unborn; campaign groups like Fathers 4 Justice, despite being tiny in terms of membership and support, claim to act for all fathers; anti-poverty campaigners increasingly focus on the issue of child poverty, speaking, apparently, for those voiceless children neglected by society and possibly even their own parents.

Each of these groups presumes to represent great numbers of people even though they have never submitted their ideas or personnel to the rigour of any kind of mass elective process. At a time when political collectivities and solidarities are in decline, we can see the emergence of a new, profoundly anti-democratic politics of pity – a politics which vicariously, and often patronisingly, campaigns for others who are apparently less able to articulate their grievances, rather than for a self- or community interest. The 7/7 bombers did precisely the same: they acted for all oppressed Muslims, without first consulting them or even trying to win support for their actions within their local communities or families. They were a product of identity politics and victim culture more than radical foreign Islamism.

An extreme form of self-harm

Finally, what of Khan and the others’ transformation of themselves into suicide bombers? It is argued that this, more than anything, demonstrates that they were influenced by a foreign and alien culture. Suicide bombing is something that strange foreigners do, apparently, and which has no role or place in British society. Notably, 7/7 was the first suicide bombing in Europe (if you discount the Madrid bombers’ suicide by explosion in 2004, when they were surrounded by police a week after they planted rucksack bombs on rush-hour trains). In fact, I would argue that even the 7/7 bombers’ use of suicide as a weapon shows that they were influenced very much by Western culture. Their suicide bombing should be seen, not as foreign thing, but as an extreme form of self-harm, the elevation of the West’s ‘politics of the body’ to a new and dangerous level.

We still know little about the 7/7 group. But we do know they were obsessed, like many other young Britons are, with working out and keeping fit, with perfecting the body. Khan, Tanweer and Jermaine Lindsay all met in gyms and were described by their friends as ‘keep-fit fanatics’. They seemed to view their bodies as pure instruments, with which they could possibly transform events in the real world; they literally made their bodies into weapons. This fits very much into today’s cultural obsession with the body as a site of experimentation and even transformation. As mass political avenues have been shut down, the body has increasingly become an area for action and meaning. So there has been, over the past 20 years, a rise in tattooing, piercing, cosmetic surgery and even self-harm in the form of ‘cutting’ and ‘slashing’. All of these can be seen as attempts to find meaning and expression in the most biological self, the body, where it seems increasingly difficult to do so in society or through traditional politics. According to medical writer Stephen Bowler:

‘What this represents is the transformation of our common cultural understanding of human corporeality, from contingent assumption to axiomatic locus of meaning – in other words, from something we take for granted to something we feel compelled to obey…. From being the most immediate of categories, the body has become one of the most mediated, attuned to priorities beyond the self in the hope that this will put some flesh on the bones of the self. Tattooing and piercing are thus brought into the mainstream of fashion, tweaking the flesh in the desperate attempt to connect inner needs with outer norms, through the medium of a corporeal statement. Transcendentalism is literally written on the flesh – in Sanskirt in the small of the back, maybe, a perfect expression of the solipsistic silliness of such acts….’ (6)

If the 7/7 bombers saw their bodies as weapons – as one of the few means they had with which to effect change – then they are by no means alone. This, too, is very British, very contemporary. The bombers may or may not have dreamt about meeting 72 virgins in Paradise, or of receiving some other religious reward – but fundamentally their use of the body was an attempt to realise the self when other means of doing so are no longer apparent. Their atrocity was a ‘corporeal statement’ more than a political act. Just as tattooing can be, in Bowler’s words, a search for ‘transcendentalism’, so the 7/7 bombers’ detonation of themselves – their destruction of their own bodies – can also be seen as an attempt to transcend the meaninglessness of now in search of some higher purpose.

The 7/7 bombers were no foreign infiltration; nor were they necessarily the product of having been neglected by the mainstream. Rather, they were the mainstream: their political thought and their style of action were shaped by contemporary British ideas and values. From their bonding in public places to their adoption of Iraq as the issue through which to express their dislocation, from their narcissistic elevation of identity to their use of the body for transcendence, their terrorist act was made here at home. It was literally homegrown terrorism. The 7/7 bombers, like other radical Islamists, were moulded by the same politics of identity and angst, and the same suspicion of modern life, that is widespread in Western societies – and which expresses itself in less violent forms in anti-capitalist protests, green movements, new religious movements and other contemporary outfits. What distinguishes radical Islamists, of course, is their use of often horrendous violence. This can be seen as a consequence of the fact that radical Islamism, unlike other contemporary identities, provides its adherents with a distinct sense of being outsiders, and with readymade, off-the-peg identities that allow them to contextualise their very Western disgruntlement as being part of some seemingly grand war between Muslims and infidels.

John Reid and others need a second reality check on homegrown terrorism. They should stop looking for explanations overseas, and explore what the 7/7 bombings and the fashion for radical Islamism reveals about Britain and the West today. 7/7 was less an attack from without than a scream of rage from within, where the thought and action of contemporary society was turned against that very society; it was less evidence of any kind of ‘clash of civilisations’ and more the consequence of the decline and fall of Western civilisation and its move into a new era of identity, narcissism and malaise. The 7/7 atrocity was a very British bombing.

Brendan O’Neill is deputy editor of spiked. An edited version of this essay was first published on Rising East, the online journal of the University of East London edited by Andrew Calcutt. Visit Rising East here; visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Confront Muslim extremists – Reid, BBC News, 28 September 2006

(2) Intelligent democracy, Peter Taylor, Rising East Issue No.4

(3) See An explosion of pity, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) See It’s not all about Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) See Why we should ignore Shehzad Tanweer’s pompous video, by Munira Mirza

(6) See Body politics: why are we so obsessed with our flesh?, by Stephen Bowler

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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