7/7 bombings, London and British Muslims: five years on

Some brief, perhaps random, thoughts.

I didn't have a chance on Wednesday to write anything about the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings.

It was, as the cliché goes, a day that changed the world. Well, my world, at least. It was a deeply traumatic time for London, for those who lived or worked in the capital, for those of us who love this great city. As a Londoner and a commuter, I saw the faces of fear and anxiety on the Tube, on the buses, in the workplace.

As a journalist, I witnessed and documented how armed police became a common sight on our streets and how barricades were erected around parliament and Westminster -- and how terror-related stories came to dominate the news agenda.

And, as a British Muslim, I noted with despair how both the Islamic faith and Muslim communities across the UK came under greater scrutiny, criticism and condemnation from politicians, the media, the security services, self-appointed "experts" and, of course, the far right. The 7 July attacks in London, as I argued in a BBC Radio 4 documentary last weekend, had a much greater impact on Muslim/non-Muslim relations in this country than the 11 September attacks in the United States.

Take the recent YouGov poll which revealed that 58 per cent of Britons associate Islam with extremism and 50 per cent believe that the religion is linked with terrorism. (Other polls, like this Gallup survey which showed Muslims in London were more likely to identify strongly with the UK than the population at large, sadly attract less attention from the media.)

This might sound like navel-gazing from a moaning Muslim but, as even the conservative commentator Peter Oborne wrote in the Daily Mail on Wednesday, "Muslims, too, were the long-term victims of the 7/7 atrocities". He added:

Society turned against them. Completely innocent people found themselves being blamed for a crime that they had not committed. Muslims were traduced, spat at and physically attacked.

Police stopped them in the street as terrorist suspects. Yaser Iqbal, a Birmingham barrister, recalls: "I can still vividly recall the menace and hatred in the eyes of almost every white face that stared at me on that day -- and they all stared."

While I agree with much of Oborne's analysis, I have to admit that it could have been much, much worse for Britain's Muslims. I'm proud that there were no riots or pogroms or sectarian violence, and that British Muslims were not rounded up or interned en masse by the British state. But I do often wonder (dread?) what might happen if, God forbid, there was to be another terrorist attack in the capital perpetrated by "home-grown" Muslim terrorists.

Home-grown. It's a disturbing and depressing phrase. I remember, as I watched the images of death and destruction on Sky News on the morning of 7 July 2005, thinking: "Please God, don't let it be Muslims." Days later, sitting in a hotel room on holiday abroad, I saw the names and faces of Mohammad Sidique Khan, Hasib Hussain, Shazad Tanweer and Germaine Lindsay flash across the television screen. Young British Muslims. Just like me. Three of them the British-born children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Just like me. And I cried. I knew that my city, my country and my own particular faith community would never be the same again.

The British Muslim journalist Zaiba Malik, author of the new book We Are a Muslim, Please, wrote in the Guardian on Monday:

When I think back to that day five years ago, Thursday 7 July, I remember the disruption -- the gridlocked traffic, the sirens, the overloaded mobile phone network. It was all so noisy. Then I remember staring at four men on the cover of every newspaper under headlines such as: "Home-grown suicide bombers" and "British Muslim terrorists".

One in particular, Shazad Tanweer, grabbed my attention; partly because he looked younger, less harsh than the other three, and also because he was born just a few streets away from where I grew up in Bradford.

As I stared at Tanweer and the others, I cried, knowing that from now on things would all be so different for us, for British Muslims. I was also mourning the past, for that time when there were no extremists or fundamentalists, no Islamism or Islamophobia, no war on terror; for the time when we just got on with our lives.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.