7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War
by milan rai
London, Pluto Press, 2006. 196 pages
Hardback: UK £35, US $65. Paperback: UK £11.99, US $18.95
A series of anti-terror operations in Britain, the most recent (at the time of writing) being the arrest of nearly two dozen British Muslims for an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic aircraft, has meant that the spotlight remains firmly fixed on the activities of young Islamist militants in the context of the intensifying “war on terror”. Undoubtedly, it is the horror of the “7/7” terror bombings that slaughtered fifty-two commuters on London’s underground railway system and on a bus, together with the fear generated by the activities of violent Islamists elsewhere, that has heightened collective anxieties about the general public’s safety. Fifteen months after the events of 7 July 2005, the question still being asked is why four British Muslims decided to kill themselves and dozens of their fellow citizens in an apparently indiscriminate fashion.
Milan Rai’s 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and The Iraq War accordingly sets out to analyse the conditions in which such “Muslim fanatics” developed, and to understand “how extremism and fanaticism could reach these levels in the British Muslim community” (p. 3). In particular, the book addresses the important issue of how far the London bombers were motivated by the Iraq War. In the process (as the back cover claims), it “exposes official deceit at the highest levels … establishing the crucial [italics added] role of British foreign policy in generating a home-grown version of al-Qaeda”.
Rai, quite appropriately, takes into account “the other factors that have been offered as possible explanations” (p. 3) for the bombers’ actions, such as “brainwashing” by some evil mastermind, a violent interpretation of Islam, cultural alienation, socio-economic deprivation, and personal background. But in each case, he suggests, the available evidence to support the proposed explanation remains inadequate. He argues instead that while these factors may have been accepted as “part of the jigsaw … the key to this puzzle lies elsewhere … [in] the crushing realities of the global Muslim community and in occupied Iraq” (pp. 3–4).
Rai, however, does not pursue his analysis of the itemised “other factors” as fully as he ought to. For instance, while he agrees that “community violence” flows from segregation, exclusion, deprivation, racism and police harassment, and that it results in vigilantism or “self‑defence”, he does not agree that this can lead to the kind of “political violence” of the 7/7 bombings (p. 93). This may be, I feel, because he does not seem to acknowledge fully the role that social and cultural traditions still play in many British Muslim communities. This reality generates precisely the kind of alienation and sense of moral consciousness that sees not just the local community but the umma (the global community of Muslims), its norms and values, as being under attack from the corrupt, unrighteous “Christian–Jewish power block”. Armed jihadism may have seemed to the bombers as representing their only available strategy for returning society to what they perceived to be a state of decency.
Rai demonstrates empirically that the vast majority of Britons (and Muslims overwhelmingly so) have long accepted the connection between the London atrocities and the war in Iraq. Yet Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government have stubbornly continued to deny it—and this despite the pre-invasion warning of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee that the terrorist threat “would be heightened by military action against Iraq” (p. 15). A year after the invasion, Michael Jay, the head of the Foreign Office, likewise challenged the rejection by government politicians of a direct link between the Iraq War and the increase in global “Islamic terrorism”. Jay argued that British foreign policy (perceived as considerably less than even-handed by Muslims) and actions in the Middle East had angered British Muslims and seemed “to be a key driver behind recruitment by extremist organisations” (p. 17). Through a forensic examination of the evidence available, Rai not only refutes the British government’s denial of the link between the conflict in Iraq and the London bombings, but also establishes the importance of the Iraq War as an essential element in the violent radicalisation of some young British Muslims.
With regard to this second issue, however, there does appear to be some confusion in Rai’s approach. For instance, he argues that Islam, contrary to popular perceptions, cannot be blamed for the terrorist acts of the London bombers, since the Islam in which three of the four grew up is uninterested in military jihad, or indeed in the umma (though British Barelwis1 have not hesitated in the past, when feeling provoked, to take violent action, as for example in The Satanic Verses episode). But Rai ignores the possibility that the bombers might have shifted to another strand within Islam, i.e., “Wahhabism”, especially of the bin Laden variety, which invokes the unity of the umma and, highlighting its suffering at the hands of non-Muslims, calls for its defence. Indeed, it would seem that at some point the bombers, like many other young Muslims, became impatient with the folk Islam of their parents, which they believed paid insufficient attention to the suffering of the umma. Consequently, they moved to the more severe, rigorous, individually demanding and activist Wahhabi/jihadi ideology of al-Qaeda, and committed themselves to carrying out the atrocities in furtherance of what they saw as their “religious duty” to their fellow Muslims. This may have been a different Islam from that in which they grew up, but to discount religious belief is to overlook a major factor shaping these individuals’ beliefs and actions.
Another puzzle that Rai investigates here but seems unable fully to resolve is how “polite, educated” (p. 24) young men, wide-ranging in terms of personality and background, at least some of whom had appeared to be “the very epitome of assimilation into British society” (p. 31), became transformed into violent political extremists. A possible explanation that Rai does not sufficiently probe could be that, while some of them might well have led, at least on the face of it, highly integrated lives, this does not mean that they were unaware of, and deeply alienated (indeed humiliated) by, “a culture of disdain for them and their faith” (p. 81) that formed part of their everyday experience. It is entirely plausible that their mask of apparent normality concealed a deep inner rage about what was happening in the world. The British government’s response to 11 September 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the intensifying anti-Muslim backlash could have combined with contacts with radicals, and with horrific images and incendiary rhetoric easily accessible on websites and satellite channels, to transform their attitudes, igniting explosive action. As Omar Khyam (charged in 2006 with conspiring to bomb nightclubs and other targets in Britain) said at his trial, “I was born here and felt allegiance,” but after the West’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, “for the first time I began hearing that Britain should be attacked.”2 The fact that British foreign policy seemed to be immovable, alongside the feeling that Muslim voices were not being heard in places of influence (as lead London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan said in the video broadcast after his death, “our words have no impact upon you”), resulted in some British Muslims taking measures born of feelings of inadequacy and “unbearable psychological pain” (p. 142). A sense of grievance and humiliation became part of the backdrop to the London bombings.
But what about this study’s claim that the war in Iraq was the crucial factor in the radicalisation of the bombers? Here I am not totally persuaded. The bombers themselves suggested that they viewed the Iraq conflict as just one example of the sustained and long-running onslaught by the West on the umma. My view, unlike Rai’s, is that the situation in Iraq is more likely to have reinforced, rather than generated, terrorist tendencies, themselves caused by a far more complex set of factors than simply the “war on terror”. All the same, our understanding of these processes is not helped by the fact that the Blair government continues to deny that terrorism is the consequence of its foreign policy (in particular towards Iraq), despite authoritative analyses by its own officials that have concluded that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism, has become a “cause célèbre for jihadists”, and has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world, radicalising an already disillusioned youth. While this process of denial and the policies that flow from it continue, this recruitment looks set to persist.
1. Adherents of a strand of South Asian Islam which, in contrast to the puritanical, scriptural, law-oriented denominations, emphasises the life of the Prophet Mohammad as the model of Muslim behaviour and the power of Islamic saints to intercede with God on believers’ behalf. The focus of the Barelwis’ religious practice is folk customs and kin networks, not revivalist political organisations.
2. David Pallister, “British Defendant in Terror Plot Trial Tells of Gradual Conversion to Militant Jihadist”, Guardian (London), 15 September 2006.