Poor Melanie Phillips. Her new book, Londonistan, which argues that the London attacks of 7 July 2005 were the culmination of a sinister Islamist conspiracy to infiltrate Britain and bring our civilisation to its knees, has hit the shelves just a few weeks after the government's report into the bombings revealed that, in fact, they were the work of four ordinary blokes with no clear links to al-Qaeda. What Phillips presents as the handiwork of "clerical fascism" looks increasingly like Britain's Columbine, a murderous stunt executed by four bored and overgrown adolescents who had nothing better to do.
Phillips repeats the rumours that Mohammad Sidique Khan, the 30-year-old teaching assistant turned ringleader, had "links to an al-Qaeda fixer". But according to the government report, "there is no reliable intelligence or corroborative information to support [these claims]". Moreover, there is "as yet no firm evidence to corro-borate . . . the nature of al-Qaeda support, if there was any".
Phillips writes that Abu Hamza, the hook-handed imam formerly of Finsbury Park Mosque, now doing porridge in Belmarsh for incitement to murder and racial hatred, "radicalised" three of the London bombers. Really? The bombers may have once listened to Hamza giving one of his cranky sermons, but as the report makes clear: "Their indoctrination appears to have taken place away from places with known links to extremism." Yes, they would have had the opportunity to attend lectures, watch videos and read material by extremists, "but it is not known if any did to any significant extent". The four bombers seem to have "indoctrinated" themselves "through personal contact and group bonding". This took place not in radical mosques, but at gyms and during outdoor sporting activities such as "camping, canoeing, white-water rafting and paintballing". I look forward to Phillips writing about the threat that Boy Scouts outings and extreme sports pose to the fabric of western civilisation.
Phillips claims the bombers were driven by "an ideology that had taken hold like a cancer, not just in the madrasas of Pakistan but in the streets of Leeds and Bradford, Oldham and Leicester, Glasgow and Luton". So why were so many on the "streets of Leeds" utterly bamboozled by what the four did on that grey morning? In truth, the most shocking thing about 7/7 is that there seems to have been no clear ideology or political motive behind it. It looks more like a murderous scream of frustration, a quest for overnight killer-celebrity, than part of a "world war being waged by clerical fascism against free societies" (Phillips's words).
In another piece of bad timing, one of the main endorsers of the book - the Iranian author Amir Taheri, who shares the view that radical Islam poses a potent threat to the world - was exposed, at the end of May, as the source of a mistaken story about extremist antics in Iran. Taheri claimed in a column that, in an eerie echo of Nazi Germany, a new Iranian law will force religious minorities to wear coloured badges "to indicate their non-Islamic faith". Canada's National Post reported on it, as did Phillips in her blog, where she described the law as "horrific", a "global obscenity". But the story, in the words of Maurice Motammed, Iran's only Jewish MP, was "totally false". The National Post has now published a grovelling retraction.
Most journalists would be mortified if their book was published just as an official account ripped strips off many of their central claims and as one of their supporters was shown to be unreliable. But Phillips is not most journalists. Something has happened to her in recent years. This once fine writer has become obsessed with radical Islam, to the extent that she will not let the facts dent her deeply held conviction that an evil army of crazed Muslims has launched "an attack on the historic core of western liberty", and that the need to confront this army is "no less critical than when [Britain and the US] stood shoulder to shoulder against Nazi Germany".
The basic claim of Londonistan is that the capital has become a hub of radical Islamist activity. The title is borrowed from French intelligence officials, who mock Britain for allowing so many dodgy characters to set up shop here. Phillips argues that Britain is "appeasing" the radicals in our midst, leaving them "undisturbed to organise, recruit for, fund and disseminate the jihad against the west" - we're even paying them "generous welfare benefits to do so". These radicals have been able to flourish in Britain because the nation has committed "social and cultural suicide". A once proud defender of liberty and democracy has become a "quisling state", so consumed by multiculturalism, defeatism and fear of offending minorities that we're even willing to allow Islamists to plot murder against us without raising a peep. Phillips is especially scathing of the left, which, she says, is anti- Semitic and in thrall to radical Islamists.
I have thought hard about the best word to use to describe Phillips's book, and really only one will do: hysterical. To be hysterical is to exhibit excessive or uncontrollable emotion, including fear and panic, and that perfectly describes Londonistan. Phillips sees evil conspiracies of wicked men where a sensible person would see ragbag collections of wackos and saddos. She describes Abu Hamza as "one of the most dangerous men in Britain". But surely he is the radical Islamist equivalent of Gareth from The Office - someone who likes to talk about weapons and war, but who hasn't done much actual fighting. She says Hamza had "amassed inside his mosque a huge arsenal of weapons". Come on, Mel! As you well know, these weapons included blank firing guns, hunting knives and an old chemical suit - an arsenal that wouldn't be sufficient to launch a small terrorist attack, let alone spearhead "the destruction of western society and its foundation values".
Describing a march by Muslims in London in October 2005 to mark al-Quds Day - when Muslims offer solidarity to the Palestinians - Phillips describes "murderous sentiments being screamed by . . . marching jihadists". In one especially discomforting section, she describes seeing women walking British streets in traditional Muslim garb and wondering whether their attire is "a political statement of antagonism towards the British state". She says they create a "niggling sense of insecurity and unease", and claims that, in the wake of 7/7, their "deliberate concealment . . . appears to be a security issue too".
Phillips's paranoia is perhaps best captured by the front cover of Londonistan, which has a photo of a baby wearing a bobble hat with the words "I love al-Qaeda". Remember that incident? Some parent stuck the hat on their kid before going on a London demo against the publication of the Danish cartoons in February. It sums up Phillips's way of blowing minor incidents, or in this case mere silliness, into terrible exterminatory threats.
Phillips's exaggeration of jihadism betrays a bigger political oversight. She fails to understand that today's handful of cranky extremists - who do occasionally launch scrappy, bloody attacks - express the demise of radical political Islam, not its re-emergence. Even the fact that some of these individuals have gathered in London exposes their weakness: there is nowhere else for them to go in a world that, since the Afghan- Soviet war, has become increasingly hostile to radical Islam. As Fawaz Gerges writes in The Far Enemy: why jihad went global, a far more intelligent contribution to this debate: "[T]he rise of Osama Bin Laden as an international star among jihadis coincided with the declining fortune of religious nationalists, who suffered a crushing military defeat at home." Al-Qaeda's campaign, such as it exists, represents the death agony of radical Islam, the final scream of a dying movement. That may explain why it seems so unwieldy and unpredictable.
In From Rushdie to 7/7: the radicalisation of British Islam, Anthony McRoy makes a similar point to Phillips, though less hysterically. He, too, overemphasises the role of Islamic radicalism. He claims most Muslims have been radicalised - indeed, "Islamic radicalism has become mainstream" - and cites as evidence a tendency to identify with international issues such as Pales-tine and Chechnya over domestic ones. In fact, the shift from second-generation Muslims fighting for equality at home through left-leaning campaigns in the 1980s to third-generation Muslims sharing the pain of Palestinians and Chechens today says more about the decline of political alternatives in Britain than it does about the lure of Islamist ideologies from overseas. With little to focus on or fight for at home, young Muslims tend to project their angst and aspirations on to victims abroad. They have not been "won over" by radical Islam, but rather have been lost by mainstream British society, which can seem directionless and unsatisfying.
But at least McRoy does not resort to scaremongering. My critique of Londonistan is written more in sorrow than in anger. Phillips once had interesting insights to share. All Must Have Prizes (1998) is the best book on education that I have read. Since 9/11, however, her writing, much of which has focused on radical Islam, has become increasingly shrill and paranoid. She says Britain has been "subverted" by radical Islamic ideology, when in fact it is she who has been subverted. And that is a shame.
Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of "spiked" (www.spiked-online.com)