ONE was a loving father. Another helped out in his parents
fish and chip shop. All apparently chatted away as if they were
going on holiday as they walked through Kings Cross station
with their deadly rucksacks. It is the contrast between the
ordinariness of the London bombers lives and the savage
barbarism of their actions that is so shocking. But, then, few
recent terrorists have resembled the caricatures of mad mullahs,
bearded fanatics and foreign zealots that people the press.
Many have been Western-born, Western-educated and seemingly
The shoe bomber Richard Reid was brought up in South London.
His fellow conspirator Sajid Badat was born in Britain and educated
at the prestigious Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester. Ahmed
Omar Sheikh, convicted in Pakistan of the murder of the American
journalist Daniel Pearl, lived in East London and was educated
at the London School of Economics. Asif Hanif and Omar Sharif,
the two Britons who carried out a suicide bombing mission in
Israel, became friends at university. The most detailed study
yet of al- Qaeda supporters shows that the majority are middle-class
with good jobs. Most are college-educated, usually in the West.
Fewer than one in ten have been to religious school.
There was nothing extraordinary, then, about the background
of the London bombers. So why are these men, born and brought
up in Britain, gripped by such a fanatical zeal for an irrational,
murderous dogma, and seemingly possessed with a hatred for
democracy and decency?
Muslims have been in Britain in large numbers since the 1950s.
Only recently has fanaticism taken hold. The first generation
of immigrants faced greater hardships and more intense racism
than todays Muslims do. Yet most thought of themselves
as British and were proud to be here.
While that first generation often put up with racism, the
second generation my generation challenged it
head on, often leading to fierce confrontations with the police
and other authorities. But however fierce those confrontations,
we recognised that to fight racism we needed to find a common
set of values, hopes and aspirations that united whites and
non-whites, Muslims and non- Muslims, and not to separate
ourselves from the rest of society.
It has been only over the past decade that radical Islam
has found a hearing in Britain. Why? Partly because, in this
post-ideological age, the idea that we can change society
through politics has taken a battering. And partly because
the idea that we should aspire to a common identity and a
set of values has been eroded in the name of multiculturalism.
Over the past week, much has been said about the strength
of London as a multicultural city. What makes London great,
Ken Livingstone pointed out, was what the bombers most fear
a city full of people from across the globe, free to
pursue their own lives. I agree, and thats why I choose
to live in this city. Multiculturalism as a lived experience
enriches our lives. But multiculturalism as a political ideology
has helped to create a tribal Britain with no political or
For an earlier generation of Muslims their religion was not
so strong that it prevented them from identifying with Britain.
Today many young British Muslims identify more with Islam
than Britain primarily because there no longer seems much
that is compelling about being British. Of course, there is
little to romanticise about in old-style Britishness with
its often racist vision of belonging. Back in the 1950s policy-makers
feared that, in the words of a Colonial Office report, a
large coloured community would weaken . . . the concept of
England or Britain.
That old racist notion of identity has thankfully crumbled.
But nothing new has come to replace it. The very notion of
creating common values has been abandoned except at a most
minimal level. Britishness has come to be defined simply as
a toleration of difference. The politics of ideology has given
way to the politics of identity, creating a more fragmented
Britain, and one where many groups assert their identity through
a sense of victimhood and grievance.
This has been particularly true of Muslim communities. Muslims
have certainly suffered from racism and discrimination. But
many Muslim leaders have nurtured an exaggerated sense of
victimhood for their own political purposes. The result has
been to stoke up anger and resentment, creating a siege mentality
that makes Muslim communities more inward-looking and more
open to religious extremism and that has helped to
transform a small number of young men into savage terrorists.
There is nothing new, of course, in the use of terror tactics.
What is new is the arbitrary, nihilistic brutality. In the
past, whether we are talking about Palestinians hijacking
aircraft or the IRA bombing British shopping centres, terror
was always in pursuit of political or strategic aims. No longer.
The London terrorists like those in Madrid, Bali and
New York before them issued no warnings, made no demands,
left no list of grievances. Four men simply sneaked on to
three Tube trains and a bus and without a word created carnage.
For them, terror was an end in itself, not a means to an end.
In this post-ideological age, few believe in political ends
or have a vision of political change. Few actually believe
in anything or can articulate what they believe in political
All they feel is a sense of anger or resentment or rage.
So terrorists just lash out. And without anything to believe
in, without the moral restraints imposed by political activism,
or the sense of responsibility to a cause or to a people,
the unthinkable becomes possible. As in London nine days ago.
Kenan Malik is a broadcaster, author and lecturer