The hidden life of ‘Londonistan’
By Jonathan Spyer
The responses of senior British officials following the London bombings last week are highly revealing. They contain within them clues to a decades-long failure of political judgment. This failure allowed the forces which produced the bombing to grow and proliferate on British soil, freely, under the noses of the authorities. Innocent Londoners, whose courage and dignity in the face of the bombings of July 7 were inspirational – are paying the price of the complacency of their leaders.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, successive British governments adopted an astonishingly myopic policy of tolerance toward the ideologues and activists of radical Islam. Britain’s liberal asylum laws allowed the entry of radical ideologues of global Islamism, many wanted by the authorities in their own countries. These individuals set about organising and proselytising deep in the heart of Britain’s urban Muslim communities. British Muslims, though suffering from the same difficulties of integration into British society as other newcomers (an unemployment figure of 10 percent above the national average, for example), are for the most part a law-abiding population. There is, however, a layer of mainly British-born, deeply disaffected young men for whom radical Islam possesses enormous appeal. A number of these young men have gone on to play prominent roles in the actions of the global jihad. It is now clear that the bombings in London were the work of individuals of this type.
I should probably declare a certain personal involvement here. In the mid-’90s, I left my home in Jerusalem to spend a year studying in London. At that time, I was peripherally involved with a private organisation concerned by the activities of radical Islamist activists among Muslim communities in London, and by the complete failure of this to register in public debate. The result of this for me was the spending of more dreary evenings than I care to remember in obscure mosques in working-class areas of the city, listening to Arab Islamist exiles such as the Syrian-born Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, and the Saudi Mohammed Masari, exhorting small audiences of young Muslim men toward involvement in the jihad.
Not being blessed with the gift of prophecy, neither I nor my colleagues could know that within a decade, the same ideas sounding forth in forgotten corners of London would bring mayhem and holy murder to the heart of the capital. But we were aware that something was afoot. In mainstream political and media discussion in the UK, meanwhile, the issue was nonexistent.
The result was that, largely unseen by the wider British public, a burgeoning militant Islamist subculture proliferated. London – “Londonistan” as the Islamists cheerfully began to term it – became a jihadist hub. The city played host to Islamist publishing houses, gatherings and newspapers: The Hamas monthly, Filastin al-Muslimah, was only one of many publications produced there. Individuals such as Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri and the Palestinian Abu Qutada preached support for the global jihad at regular gatherings in urban mosques. A recent British government report estimates between 10,000 and 15,000 supporters of radical Islamist groups resident in Britain by the end of the ‘90s.
And from this fertile, unmarked ground, some of the best known names of the jihad have grown. The “shoe bomber” – Richard Reid, a convert to Islam radicalised by the fiery sermons preached at the Brixton Mosque in south London. Omar al-Sheikh, the killer of journalist Daniel Pearl, and the disaffected, brilliant son of Pakistani immigrants. Dhiren Barot, Nadeem Tarmohammed and Qaisar Shaffi – British citizens and al-Qaeda members currently on trial for plotting to attack major financial centres in United States cities. And, of course, Omar Khan Sharif and Asif Mohammed Hanif, the British-born students of Omar Bakri Mohammed, who came to Tel Aviv via Gaza in 2003 and carried out the bombing of Mike’s Place bar on the beachfront, killing three Israeli civilians.
The March 2004 bombings in Madrid sounded an alarm for the British authorities. It was now clear that offering asylum to radical Islamists and permitting them freedom to agitate offered no long-term immunity from attack. Some measures were taken. Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Qutada, among others, were arrested (though the latter has since been released). We are told that the resources of the security services began to be massively channelled toward the effective monitoring of radical Islamist networks. But the vital “paradigm shift” leading to wide-ranging action against radical Islamism has not taken place. Neither is it certain that it will happen now. The reason for this is because parallel to the actions of the radical Jihadists, a much broader, far-reaching effort at apologetics has taken place. This has created a strong lobby arguing for the retention of the ruinous policies of the ‘90s.
The strange romance of parts of the European left with radical Islam is a much remarked-upon phenomenon of the current political scene. The response of the left/Islamist axis in Britain to the horrific events of last week is already becoming apparent. The Guardian newspaper is carrying a slew of op-eds from such luminaries as Tariq Ramadan, and also the UK-based Islamist Faisal Bodi, who seeks to blame the attack on British involvement in Iraq.
These elements, strongly represented in opinion-forming circles in the UK, will be doing their utmost in the weeks and months to come to cast the blame for the events of 7/7 everywhere except where it belongs. They will seek to portray all attempts to focus the discussion on the past folly of policies toward domestic and external radical Islam as “Islamophobic,” and illegitimate. Consequently, the achievement of rational policy in the vital judicial, policing, intelligence and educational fields to ensure the defeat of this scourge is in the first instance a contest of political will. The prevention of a repeat of the terrible scenes witnessed last week in London may hinge on the outcome of this contest.
Dr Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya. © Haaretz, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.