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.

Show Hide image

Ariana and the Arianators: "We really are like a family"

The pop star provides her fans with a chance to express themselves joyfully - their targeting was grimly predictable.

Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May began like any other. Children and teenagers streamed through the doors wearing pink T-shirts, rubber wristbands and animal ears (one of Grande’s signature looks). They screamed when she came on stage and they sang along with every song. It was only once the music had ended, and the 20,000-strong audience began to leave the venue, that the horror began – with a bomb detonated at the main entrance.

The show was just one date on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona in February, moved across the United States and Europe, and had stops scheduled for South America, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since the Manchester attack, Grande has suspended the tour indefinitely.)

Since releasing her debut album in 2013, Grande has successfully transitioned from teen idol to fully fledged pop star (all three of her studio albums have sold over a million each) with a combination of baby-faced beauty and Mariah Carey-style, breathy vocals. Her most popular records are bubblegum pop with a Nineties R’n’B influence, a combination also expressed in her fashion choices: Nineties grunge meets pastel pinks.

She entered the limelight at 16 on the children’s TV programme Victorious, which ran on the Nickelodeon channel, pursuing her musical ambitions by performing the show’s soundtracks. Many of the young people who grew up watching her as the red-haired arts student Cat Valentine on Victorious would become fans of her pop career – or, as they call themselves, the Arianators.

As she outgrew her child-star status, Grande’s lyrics became more sexually suggestive. Recent songs such as “Side to Side” and “Everyday” are more explicit than any of her previous hits. She has repeatedly insisted that young women should be able to speak openly about sex and feel empowered, not objectified.

“Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” she tweeted in December. “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

Grande also has a reputation as something of a gay icon. She has advertised her records on the gay dating app Grindr, headlined shows at Pride Week in New York, and released a single and a lipstick to raise money for LGBTQ charities.

Cassy, a 19-year-old film student and fan, told me the fanbase is “made mostly of young women from 14-23, but I run into guys and non-binary fans all the time.”

“It’s pretty well known that Ariana has got a LGBTQ+ fan base. She’s so outspoken about it and that’s what draws us to her. Because she’s accepting of everyone, no matter who you are.”

Like many child actresses-turned-pop star, Grande has a fan base skewed towards the young and female: teenage and pre-teen girls are by far the majority of her most dedicated supporters. A writer on the Phoenix New Times described the typical Ariana Grande crowd as “pre-tween, tweens, teens, young gay (and fabulous) men, moms with cat ears, and multiple candidates for father of the year”. The Arianators form tight-knit groups on social media. I spoke to several over Twitter after the attack.

Arena concerts, which often have more relaxed age restrictions than nightlife venues, have long been a safe space for children, young people and teenage girls. They provide a secure place for concert-goers to dress up, experiment, play with burgeoning sexualities, dance, scream and cry: to flirt with an adult life still slightly out of reach. Glitter-streaked tears stream down the unapologetic faces of fans touched by an emotion bigger than themselves. It is appalling, if grimly predictable, to see children, teenage girls and young gay men targeted by agents of regressive ideologies for expressing themselves so joyfully. On 23 May, Isis claimed the attack.

“I went to my very first Ariana concert on 9 April,” Cassy tells me. “It was one of the warmest places I’ve ever been. People were so happy, smiles just beaming from their faces. People were being themselves – if that meant showing up in drag, they did. It was such an amazing place to be.”

Andréa, a 17-year-old fan from France, told me about her first experience of a Grande concert. “It was incredible,” she said. “Everyone was so kind, excited and happy. We really are like a family.”

The fans are devastated by Monday’s bombing. Thousands of messages appeared on social media to commemorate those who lost their lives. “As an Arianator,” Alexandre, aged 16, told me, “I’m really sad and I’m scared.”

“We’re all taking it really hard,” Cassy said. “We’re a family and we lost 22 members of that family last night.”

Ariana began her gig in Manchester with the song that has opened every night of her current tour: “Be Alright”. In it, she repeatedly reassures the crowd, “We’re gonna be all right.” It’s a phrase that her fans are clinging to after the attack. So, too, are the lyrics of “Better Days”, by Grande and her support act Victoria Monét, which was also performed the night of the explosion. “There’s a war right outside our window,” the words go. “I can hear the sirens . . ./I can hear the children crying . . ./I’m hoping for better days . . .”

“It’s hit us all very hard because we’ve lost some of our own,” said one Arianator who runs a popular Twitter account about the tour. “People we interacted with on a daily basis. People that just wanted to have a night of fun. These are dark times, but we are looking forward to better days.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496