Johann Hari: Faith under fire

Muslims were no less the target of Thursday's atrocities than anyone else. And in Aldgate, at least, they are equally determined to meet the terror with stoicism and defiance
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The Independent Online

At half past nine on Thursday morning, I left my flat next to Aldgate East to head to work on the Tube. There was a small crowd - a few City boys with black briefcases, a hijab-wearing student, a pensioner - talking to a police officer, who was mysteriously putting "keep out" tape next to my road. "Where did the explosion happen?" a woman asks. "Everywhere," the policeman says quietly. She looks puzzled. "There have been several ... incidents," he says. "Please step back."

Nobody panicked. Even the battered people trickling from the Tube - thick with dust and soot and caked blood - had a strange look of bemused tranquillity. Across the road, there was a gaggle of people crowded around an open-topped car; the radio was on full-blast. "The explosions were at 10 to nine," a woman says, apparently to herself, over the blare of Radio 5. "9/11 was at 10 to nine." Her voice is flat. "It's happened, hasn't it?" Everybody is realising that they were only a few minor decisions - a later train, an earlier bus - away from dying. But nobody is crying. Nobody is screaming.

The odd etiquette of terror attacks quickly spreads through the crowd. Strangers make eye contact for slightly too long. One man still has a working mobile and he performs the most un-London of acts: he offers it to people he has never met to make calls. "Are your people OK?" one woman asks another. "Yes. Yours?" People begin to talk awkwardly about how close they were to the explosions; there seems almost to be a subtle one-upmanship: "Well, I always take that train." "I was on the train just before." "I was about to get on!" "I practically live on that train!"

It was supposed to be a day for the causes of peace: 7/7. It was supposed to be a day for campaigners to fight for Africa and against global warming, and for everyone to celebrate the ultimate symbol of peaceful competition, the Olympic Games. Al-Qa'ida decided to turn it into a day for death. But the streets refused to be terrorised. In the City, people told to leave their workplaces lingered in pubs, exchanging office gossip or watching the cricket. Walking between the mini-Ground Zeroes bleeding across London, there was endless talk of how people will get home. It seemed so right: when terror comes to London, it becomes another excuse to argue about the train timetables.

I headed for the East London Mosque - a few minutes' walk away from the bomb in Aldgate - to watch afternoon prayers. In the stark white prayer hall, there are 300 Muslim men, some wearing traditional white robes, others in leather jackets and jeans. Chairman Mohammed Bari reaches the podium and says: "Only yesterday, we celebrated getting the Olympics for our city and our country. But a terrible thing happened in our country this morning ... Whoever has done this is a friend of no one and certainly not a friend of Muslims. The whole world will be watching us now. We must give a message of peace."

As everybody mills outside the mosque, there are groups forming to go and give blood at the Royal London Hospital up the road. Many people make a point of smiling at me, an obvious non-Muslim in their midst. There is an awareness here - although not yet in the rest of the country - that the Bin Ladenists who planned these massacres despise democratic, non-violent Muslims, who choose to live in the West, as much as they despise the rest of us. This is not a fight between Muslims and the rest of us. It is a civil war within Islam, between democratic Muslims and Wahabi fundamentalists who want to enslave or kill them. Yassin Dijali, 31, says: "It could have been our children on those trains too. This is where we belong. These people are insane."

But at the mosque, a series of anxieties is rippling out. Who were the attackers? A minority insist that we still don't know the affiliation of the bombers; perhaps it was Irish nationalists? But others are anxious: what if a rogue group of British-born Muslims are responsible? "We are worried people will try to attack the mosque tonight," says a young man who asks not to be named.

If some British Muslims are responsible, there will now be a long, hard fight to defend the decent democratic Muslim majority from charges of being a "fifth column". And with horror I wonder if any asylum-seekers were involved. If so, we will have to batten down for a hard fight to defend the rights of refugees from resurgent Blunkettry.

London's response to the attacks is subtly different to that of other cities. Like New York, we have our pictures of the missing-presumed-dead, but there is none of the visceral nationalism and I have yet to see a single Union Jack. Unlike Madrid, I could find no backlash against our political leaders (or at least, not yet); people seemed to react as if this was not a political act but a natural disaster, with no deeper causes than the tsunami.

On Friday morning, sitting outside a café on Whitechapel High Street, one of the lingering Jewish residents of the old East End, an 86-year-old called Henry Abelman, is drinking tea, as he does every day. He was here the last time fascists attacked London; he says with a laugh that he expects to be here the next time they toss some bombs at us too. "Not so long ago, we had bombs like this every day for six years coming from an army backed by twenty million people. That didn't destroy us or divide us, so what do you think a few spoiled brats with home-made bombs are going to do?"

Like Henry, I'll see you all on the Tubes and on the buses Monday morning.