“We need a counter-narrative.” How often have we heard that since 7/7? We need to tell a better story to those young British Muslims for whom bombs and beheadings hold a greater allure than anything we have to offer. Someone’s seducing them away with a narrative of lies, so we must seduce them back again with a narrative of truth.
There’s a problem with narratives. Most that spring to mind are fictional. And while we like to think it’s stories as subtle as Ulysses or humane as Middlemarch that drive civilisation along, in fact what quickens the popular imagination are simpler tales of goodies and baddies, in which the baddies are always someone else. Artless fairy stories enchant us in our first years and retain their hold on us until our last.
The Government’s proposed hymn to British values is equally naiive. Man wakes up, kisses wife (but not in a homophobic sort of way), reads chapter of Magna Carta aloud to family, goes bareheaded to work, eats humanely killed pork sandwich, practises sundry acts of tolerance, returns home to gin and tonic, prays unfanatically to secular god, and goes to sleep thinking of the Royal Family. Indubitably, there are worse ways of getting through the tedium of existence, but as a narrative this one’s unlikely to prevail against millenarian fantasy and a plentiful supply of virgins. In a battle of facile narratives, the one with more action wins.
But why must it be a choice, anyway, between blowing people up on buses and a docile embrace of British values to which very few Britons of any faith or temper subscribe? Extreme views can kill, but disagreement is the breath of life. Non-conformity has always been one of the great British virtues, and that includes non-conformity to things British. The terrorist isn’t a problem because he doesn’t conform; he’s a problem because he does. It’s what he conforms to that makes him dangerous.
That the thing he conforms to is not the spirit of Islam any number of commentators, Muslim and otherwise, have been arguing since 7/7. The point is taken. But that leaves open the question of where, then, we go to understand this particular form of terrorism’s nature and motivation. If you’re the softly spoken Jeremy Corbyn – and beware softly spoken men, I say; beware the snake who doesn’t rattle his whereabouts in the undergrowth – you will argue that the barbarism of the terrorist can only be understood as a response to the barbarism of Western foreign policy. This is the pin-the-tail-on-the-wrong-donkey narrative in which the person who really planted those bombs on the London Underground was Tony Blair.
The writer Mehdi Hasan similarly sprays guilt around and, for good measure, suffering as well. If we think 7/7 was a terrible time for the victims, he wants us to remember who else got it in the neck. When the bombers were identified as British men with names like his, “a knot tightened at the pit of my stomach”, he wrote in The Guardian. “We’re screwed,” he told a Muslim friend. Beware the grammar of narrative. Self-concern appears to come too quickly here, trumping the horror of the moment. You’re screwed, Mr Hasan? There are dozens dead and hundreds injured and bereaved, and you’re screwed?
I’d be lying, however, if I didn’t admit I understand the reflex. Let a Jew commit an atrocity and I, too, dread the communal consequences. Jews and Muslims share this knowledge: they know how the one is immediately made to stand for the all.
In pictures: The 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings
In pictures: The 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings
1/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Security staff and workers from Hyde Park observe a minutes silence at the 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park
2/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
People pause for a minutes silence at Kings Cross Underground station in London, as Britain remembers the July 7 attacks amid a welter of warnings about the enduring and changing threat from terrorism a decade on
3/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Members of staff working within the grounds observe a minutes silence to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the July 7 terrorist attacks at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon
4/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Police officers within the grounds observe a minutes silence to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the July 7 terrorist attacks at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon
5/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Representatives from 7 Company, Coldstream Guards and HQ London District join the national act of remembrance for the 7th July bombings 10th year anniversary beside the Ministry of Defence Main Building in central London and led by Rabbi Major Reuben Livingstone
6/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
People observe a nationwide minute's silence on the 10 year anniversary of the 7/7 London attacks which killed 52 people, facing in the direction of a plaque and flowers laid at the location of where a suicide bomber blew themselves up during the morning rush hour on a bus in Tavistock Square
7/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
George Psaradakis (centre), the driver of the number 30 bus which was blown up in Tavistock Square, looks at floral tributes left close to the scene of the bombings in London
8/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
People stop to observe a minute's silence at Aldgate underground station, in memory of the victims of the July 7 bombings
9/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Flowers left by the July 7 memorial plaque at Aldgate Station, London, which names those who were killed in the bombings at the station
10/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Members of various religious groups pray during a service in St Paul's Cathedral, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the London Bombings in London
11/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Poppy petals fall from the roof during a service in St Paul's Cathedral, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the London Bombings in London
12/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
A police officer looks at flowers left at Kings Cross Underground station in London
13/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Flowers left by the July 7 memorial plaque at Aldgate Station
14/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Boris Johnson and David Cameron place wreathes at the July 7 memorial in Hyde Park, London
15/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
David Cameron and Boris Johnson take part in a wreath laying ceremony in London's Hyde Park, in memory of the 52 victims of the 7/7 London attacks
16/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
David Cameron and Boris Johnson during a ceremony at the memorial to the victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings, in Hyde Park
17/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
From left: Paul Crowther, Chief Constable, British Transport Police, Adrian Leppard, Commissioner City of London Police, and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, carry wreathes at the July 7 memorial in Hyde Park
18/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
People look at flowers left in Tavistock Square
19/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
7/7 survivor Gill Hicks (centre) arrives with flowers at Russell Square tube station
20/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
People embrace outside Edgware Road tube station, as Britain remembers the July 7 attacks
21/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
A lady carrying flowers leaves Russell Square tube station
22/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Faith leaders promote religious unity in central London, as Britain prepares to mark 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings in which 52 people were killed
23/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
Gill Hicks, (L) a survivor of the 7/7 London terror attacks, embraces police constable Andrew Maxwell outside Kings Cross Station in London, during an event to launch a walk by faith leaders promoting religious unity ahead of the anniversary of the attacks
24/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
A memorial dedicated to the 52 people that were killed during the 7/7 terror attacks in London is pictured in London's Hyde Park
25/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
The July 7 memorial in Hyde Park
26/26 7/7 bombings anniversary
A memorial dedicated to the 52 people that were killed during the 7/7 terror attacks in London is cleaned in London's Hyde Park
But understanding must work both ways. After 7/7, Mehdi Hasan complains, the Muslim community was subjected to “unprecedented scrutiny”. But wasn’t that an inevitable response to “unprecedented outrage”? Where else, if not in the Muslim community, were we to look for explanations of a phenomenon that gave itself Islamic credentials and cited Islamic grievance as its motive? Yes, this was an arrogation of religious affiliation the terrorists had no right to claim. And yes, the scrutiny must have been demeaning and frightening for Muslims, the majority of whom should not have had to apologise for what they had not done. But everyone was demeaned and frightened. The dead should not have died for what they had not done either.
Mehdi Hasan’s narrative separates the doer from the deed, forever finding baddies somewhere else. The scrutiny to which Muslims were subjected is seen as a driving force of terror, no matter that that scrutiny was itself provoked by terror. In this way is time inverted to change the dynamic of cause and effect, to remove the responsibility for their actions from those who act, and to apportion blame to everyone affected by a crime except the criminal. The British Government, Mehdi Hasan continues, still scattershooting culpability, “helped turn Libya into a playground for jihadists” – as though the playground can be held responsible for the playground bully, as though space creates what happens in it.
As a narrative, this is no more convincing than Cameron’s hymn to British values. It might give comfort to people whose favourite fairy story it already is, but it is dangerously alienating of those who prefer more sophisticated reading and dangerously indulgent of those who don’t. If a narrative of them-and-us lies at the heart of Isis’s recruitment success, how does the story Jeremy Corbyn and Mehdi Hasan tell slow that recruitment down? Whom will it deter? And whom, on the other side, will it persuade? But that’s rhetoric for you: it cares only to hear itself speak. And so we are left still waiting for a story we can all believe in, and meanwhile the butchery goes on.