Letter from London
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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

Alarmed London still stands tall

Bombs test toleration; some wonder if it's time for less tolerance


Londoners now fear that they may be facing a sustained terrorist campaign. Two weeks after the first wave of four attacks in the city, a copycat sequence of carnage was only averted by sheer luck. Brilliant police and intelligence work subsequently netted all five second-wave suspects, and other arrests have since been made, but one of the five is still in Italy, the bomb-maker is still at large, the network behind the bombers has not yet been cracked, and the instigators and organizers at the head of the chain are not yet known. The synergy between the Scotland Yard detectives and the Metropolitan Police is remarkable -- developed during the years of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army, which, if I may be allowed to recall it, could always count on supporters in the United States. But how many extremists are involved in Britain today? And how many other cells could there be?

When the identities of the first attackers were discovered, the security services found their worst-case fears confirmed. These were young suicide bombers from within the ranks of British-born Muslims.

There are now significant Muslim populations throughout Europe. In Britain they number 1.6 million. In France, which has about the same population as Britain, there are 5 million, more than 8 percent of the total. In Germany Muslims number about 5 percent, and in the Netherlands, where some Islamists have been announcing “Our religion today, your religion tomorrow,” over 5 percent.

A typically British toleration has in the past allowed extremist groups to set up in London. Critics in France in particular, which has had a much tougher policy, labeled the British capital Londonistan. Imams were not vetted and few moves were made to monitor mosques and other centers for inculcation of violence and hate. If the British authorities thought this would earn them immunity, they have been rudely awaked.

Most people here would judge that without doubt British involvement in Iraq has exacerbated the situation, and that was the conclusion of an official intelligence assessment leaked three weeks before the first attacks. Government spokesmen point out, however, that terrorist outrages long antedated the second Gulf war, and that is true. We are at grips essentially not so much with particular grievances, as with an Islamist ideology. In the end what counts is who will win the struggle within Islam.

One focus is Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, and so were most of the hijackers who perpetrated the atrocious attack on the United States in 2001. The Saudi Wahhabi brand of Islam, fiercely puritanical and aggressive, has been spreading throughout the Middle East with the help of petrodollars.

Historically, Islam has been tolerant of the other people of the Book -- Jews and Christians. They were second-class citizens, forced to pay higher taxes, not allowed to participate in any of the higher reaches of government, and subject to discrimination and restrictions of various kinds; but their existence was accepted and they were protected. Wahhabi Islam, however, does not regard them as people of the Book. The Islamists refer to the European governments as infidels.

It is difficult for Europeans to take the measure of what confronts them. Even so exceptionally acute and principled an observer as Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary, who resigned in opposition to the 2003 Iraq war, was still saying the other day that the best way to defeat terrorism was to act against poverty. Most Muslims who came to Britain did so to escape poverty, and in various degrees have succeeded. A recent photograph reproduced throughout the British media showed a crew of young men white-water rafting in Wales, smiling with bonhomie as they partook in this team pursuit. A few weeks later some of those young men blew themselves up in London.

One ironic scene sticks in my mind. As one of the second-wave bombers lay spread-eagled over his rucksack, in which explosives which failed to detonate were contained, a Pakistani man traveling in the same carriage of the London Tube asked him solicitously, unawares: “Are you alright, mate?”

The whole question of conditions for British citizenship is now up for debate. In the United States, of course, the strategy toward newcomers was decided long ago. They were to be required to acquaint themselves with American culture and the English language, and to profess their loyalty to the host country. In Britain there has been no such procedure. The failed policy of “multiculturalism” played down British identity, and was content that incoming communities should form themselves according to their own internal patterns in isolation from the traditional mainstream culture or even in opposition to it.

London, however, has been a successful multicultural city. As television interviews with Londoners have proceeded live onscreen, the amazing variety of the people of the capital has emerged clearly. Again and again, in one house, living side by side, will be various different nationalities. So much have we changed in half a century. The identities of the bombers’ victims, coming from a multiplicity of nationalities and faiths, and including the young Brazilian electrician shot dead by the police in tragic error, tell the same story. An attack on London is an attack on the world.

The Muslim communities are mainly appalled, and there have been outright statements of condemnation from Muslim representatives and many ordinary people. But there has also been some denial. The chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque said there was no proof that the bombers were Muslims. The closed-circuit television images, he suggested, could have been of innocent travelers: “There are thousands of youths passing by. How do you know it was them?” And a recent opinion poll suggested that as many as a quarter of British Muslims felt some sympathy with the feelings and motives of the bombers, while a third were opposed to the lifestyle of the West as immoral and thought it should be ended. Significantly, far fewer women than men were of the latter opinion.

Just how should those poll findings be interpreted? If you asked Catholics in Northern Ireland their opinion of the IRA, all would condemn terrorism but a quarter might well add that they understood what drove the terrorists to do it. If you asked Christians in Britain whether they considered that society was decadent, you might well find that a third of them thought so.

Looking for comfort, some observers draw an analogy with the Catholic church. In Tudor England there were 40 Jesuits at large, in touch with a spymaster. Catholics intrigued with Philip of Spain to invade the country. A little later, conspirators plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. This treachery by a fifth column aroused such deep antipathy to Catholics that still, two centuries later, the Gordon Riots could erupt in London. When I became a Catholic 40 years ago, my co-religionists were regarded almost everywhere as foreign. That began to change under Cardinal John Heenan; then came Cardinal Basil Hume, whom the Queen was to refer to as “my cardinal.”

It is a thought-provoking comparison. But does it hold? Christianity from the beginning has distinguished between the things of God and the things of Caesar, between politics and faith. Law in Christian countries has not been dictated by religious prescriptions. So while Catholicism has its own fundamentalist trends, it has evolved to operate well within a pluralistic democratic culture. But that has not been the natural Islamic model. In the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, “Without politics Islam is nothing.” Scriptural Islam always feels a tug towards sectarianism. Nevertheless, Islamic society and tradition is much more diverse than it is often painted, and there are alternative patterns of leadership within it.

London today feels alarm and vulnerability, and with good reason. But this is a city that has surmounted terrorism before. After the first wave of the recent attacks, there was shock: What could have made them do this? After the second there was also anger: How dare they do this? After both there was defiance, and that will endure.

John Wilkins edited the London-based Catholic international weekly The Tablet from 1982 to 2003.

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

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