Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 7/7: the aftermath of tragedy

Five years ago, bombers struck at the heart of British society. But what that terrible day revealed was the depth of our tolerance
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The Independent Online

Today it is five years since bombs strapped on to the bodies of four British Muslims blasted through the transport system of London, killing 52 commuters, and maiming and terrorising countless others. Those left behind must feel both that time has frozen in that unbearable moment and that it has callously gone by, as it does, in a hurry, impervious to personal agonies. Bloodlust topped with (some legitimate) grievances, with craving stirred in, makes a deadly blend. The four jihadis believed their killing spree was just retribution for nefarious government policies and, better still, would give them a no-cost ride to Paradise. They consigned survivors, families and friends of victims to a man-made hell, leaving their own in earthbound purgatory. Two of the wives were pregnant; one, Hasina Patel, wife of the ringleader, Mohammad Siddique Khan, lost the baby she was carrying.

Some of the affected have never been able to get on to buses and tubes again. A close English friend of mine who was very near one scene of carnage guiltily confesses that she avoids any tube carriage with young, brown-skinned men: "You know I am not Islamaphobic – I just can't do it. Something happens to me – a terrible fear. It's unfair and wrong. But I can't help it." I understand. Her reactions are natural, intuitive. That she ceaselessly reflects on her own fears and possible prejudices makes her humane – and thoroughly British.

Since the shocking summer of 2005, my friend has been running English classes for Asian women (of whom a large number are young Muslim wives from Pakistan and Bangladesh) in their homes, for free, using a voluntary group of female Londoners. Other Britons have sought imaginative ways to understand what happened and to renew trust. The children's TV channel CBBC, for example, used the attacks to teach young people appropriate lessons about violence and prejudice through a fictional film called That Summer's Day, based on the true stories of kids trying to get home on that terrible 7 July. Lucid books and articles were written, plays too – some, like Simon Stephen's Pornography, were profoundly unsettling as they saw the killers as a product of desolate Western modernity.

For all our racial and religious divisions – and for all the ever-increasing tribalism, growing mutual mistrust and various furies that roam like gangs through our badlands and internet highways – remember and thank the gods (or any humanist substitutes) for this blessing: our country, and its capital in particular, was not split asunder by the bombs of five years ago. Instead Londoners reached out to each other and affirmed their unspoken bonds. In multicultural Edgware Road, where I was filming a short news report, a sobbing young woman in hijab and jilbab (long cloak) was grasped by a white man in jeans and a trendy haircut, who hugged her for a long time, until she was all wept out. An obviously shaken WPC, speaking softly and allowing time, helped a wailing old Muslim woman across the street. The spirit of the Blitz had passed on to new generations and the many different peoples sharing these isles.

That virtue can and does encourage co-operation and empathy between citizens, including those divided by history, politics, power and culture. One reason why so many migrants from Islamic states want to come here is that it is one of the safest and easiest places to find acceptance and demand rights. As a writer and columnist, I frequently criticise – nay, nag – Britain for failing to deliver real equality to people of colour. That is an ongoing battle. But I know too that I would not live anywhere else.

In the United States, after the atrocities of September 11 2001, most citizens united in grief and loss and determination. But simultaneously the levels of paranoia and hatred across the country reached dangerous levels. Previously, American Muslims had been wrongly blamed for the Oklahoma bomb and faced abuse, threats and violence. They were already cast as the new enemy within. September 11 fleshed out, in the most horrific way, pre-existing expectations. And so was launched the neocons' ideological and provocative "war on terror", which led to the Iraq debacle in 2003 and thereon to the London attacks. Adam Curtis's documentary trilogy, The Power of Nightmares, made for the BBC in 2004, was a brave exposé of the American power clique, its brazen ambitions for global control – and its craven devotees, led by Tony Blair. Although more than two dozen American films have been made about the September 11 attacks, The Power of Nightmares has never been shown in the US. Over here, by contrast, such detailed scrutiny and contextualisation helped to reinforce the attachments between Muslims and non-Muslims sceptical of Blair's propaganda and decisions.

Millions of Britons, though shaken by the London assaults of 7 July 2005, were politically literate and able to retain clarity through the dark days. Kenneth Clarke, now the Secretary of State for Justice, said in September of that year: "If the Prime Minister really believes it, he must be the only person left who thinks the recent bombs in London had no connection at all to his policy in Iraq." Others in high places felt impelled to dissent from the official line. Peter Brierley, whose son Shaun, a Lance Corporal and the father of a four-year-old child, was killed in Iraq, spoke for many – two-thirds of Londoners, in fact – when he expressed sympathy for the victims of "7/7" and connected that to the illegal war in Iraq and the countless thousands killed by the allies there.

From the moment the news of the London catastrophe broke, we witnessed a stunned nation holding on to its self-control, determined not to surrender to base instincts. Racism against Muslims did not suddenly escalate after that fateful day. Salma Yacoub, a leading member of the always- agitating Respect party, accepts there was no such surge. Muslims prepared for that eventuality. Many families blocked their letterboxes fearing arson attacks – I did that too; others reinforced security locks, had metal grilles installed over their windows, and for months would not let their kids walk home from school. These precautions were understandable – but they turned out to be needless.

There are other examples of forgiveness, unity and strength in our country. The opposition to the Iraq war was across all boundaries; no race or religion characterises the increasing numbers of Britons sickened by Israel's occupation of Palestinian land and oppression of its people. Middle-class white Britons have long given time and money to help destitute and desperate asylum seekers, most of whom come from Muslim countries. I find today that white Britons are more likely to defend Muslims who opt for strict and joyless Islamic practice than am I. In all professions, visible Muslims are given opportunities to make their mark. I even saw a saleswoman in Harvey Nicks wearing hijab. We now have Muslim women MPs, peers who pray to Allah, Muslim judges, Muslim headteachers, Muslim news readers, Muslim writers, Muslim tycoons and so on. No other Western country comes close. After the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people and injured 1,800 in 2004, there was no obvious eruption of anti-Muslim feeling. However, my friends in that city tell me there was no banding together either – not as in the UK – and little attention paid to the needs of Spanish Muslims.

The reporter and broadcaster Rageh Omar wrote in his compelling memoir, Only Half of Me: Being a Muslim in Britain (Viking, 2006), that the London bombers "were attacking the idea that Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community can thrive in the West ... They were attacking the idea that you can have a British identity but still be part of the wider global 'nation of believers'. The belief that a Western city can ever be part of the modern story of Islam is sacrilegious to the fundamentalist vision." We didn't allow that to happen then – and this week, some Imams like Taj Hargey of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford are inviting all Britons to come in and pray with them as they remember 7 July 2005 and affirm their shared humanity.

Now for the bad news. In mosques, schools, homes, community centres, even universities, brainwashed Muslims are separating themselves from fellow citizens and the best Britain has to offer. Last week, we heard that young Muslim children are being taken out of music lessons – and so-called community leaders denied this was a problem. Rosie Waterhouse, the director of the MA course in investigative journalism at London's City University, described in this paper the alarming activities of the Islamic Society there, which pushes for religious and gender segregation in an institution that should be open and free and inclusive.

Rachel North, a vicar's daughter, who survived the King's Cross bomb on 7 July 2005, said that year of the bombers: "They fell into a trap of hate and despair and alienation. I believe that any of us could fall into the same black hole, but there is a way out of the darkness. My way is to ... ask for help, to draw strength from fellow humans instead of fearing them and drawing away from them." The tragedy is that many Muslims now reject common human fellowship, repulse these embraces and teach their children to do the same. State institutions and good citizens have an obligation to stop the contagion. If we don't, fanatics using quieter means will soon achieve the aims of Mohammad Siddique Khan and his co-conspirators – and the 52 people who lost their lives that day will not RIP.

For several years, thoughtful and concerned Muslims hoped that the self-segregation and religio-cultural conservatism was a phase and would soon pass. Now we know better. An integrated British society is anathema to radical Islam, and is the next frontier in its bid for domination. We need to stand up to its ideological soldiers both for the sake of our faith – with its incredibly diverse and enlightened civilisations – and even more for Britain, the country which is now home to millions of us. Racism, inequality, unjust laws still dog our lives, but it seems at moments of highest tension – terrorism, illegal wars in Muslim lands – that Britons have unexpectedly drawn together and overcome mistrust and pessimism. This is a rare and vital resource, a mineral deep in the soil that nourishes our waters, becalming people when tempests hit the nation. We must take care of it.