Two weeks after the London bombing, the conspiracy theories had gone mainstream outside the Leeds Grand Mosque. “Even if it was how they say it was, you’ve got to think, who benefited most from this? It goes all the way to the top. It’s a battle against Islam.” This wasn’t some devout al-Muhajiroun fanatic or old-timer implying that George Bush and Tony Blair had a hand in plotting the London bombings – but a woman in her early twenties. She is a student reading chemistry at Leeds University, my alma mater. And she certainly wasn’t the only one saying such things.
Naveed, 27 years old and clean-shaven, told me while he sat getting his hair cut in “Bobby’s” on the Leeds Road, Bradford, that 9/11 was a conspiracy created by the west against Islam and that “maybe this was the same thing”. Added to this were the floods of whispers from dozens of other ordinary Muslims I have spoken to in Leeds and Bradford since the bombings. “Why did they buy pay-and-display tickets?” “Why did they buy return train tickets?” “They must have been set up, tricked.” “By whom?” “Who do you think?”
A worrying dynamic of denial seems to be quickly taking root in the Muslim communities of the north. Far from London and the “rightly guided” spokesmen, it’s not just about externalising blame, but about repositioning it on to the very people whom it is easiest and most politically correct to hate – America’s president and Britain’s prime minister. British Muslims have been told by Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, that the real detective work will have to come from them. “We have to seize a moment in which the Muslim community of Britain changes from . . . a position of shock and disbelief into active engagement in counter-terrorism,” he said recently. But even if Pakistani Muslims in the north manage to accept that these bombers were regarded as real members of their communities and at the same time were prepared to blow themselves up, what success will Sir Ian have in getting them to police themselves?
External factors such as institutional racism, cultural ignorance and Islamophobia have placed great strains on community/ police relationships, but there are also factors internal to Britain’s northern Pakistani Muslim community that aren’t so obvious from London. Of these, the issue of honour is perhaps the most sensitive.
This concept goes to the heart of the conflict of values that affects almost all second- and third-generation Pakistani immigrants. It is also an issue that has been reinvented by these generations to maintain a sense of identity.
Marilyn Mornington, a district judge who chairs the Northern Circuit Domestic Violence Group, which is funded by the Home Office, has spoken publicly about the problems of carrying out investigations into so-called honour killings in these communities. “The difficulty we have is akin to the problems in Northern Ireland, of getting people to come forward and, in effect, shame their community. The difficulty that the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the judicial authorities have is that people will not give evidence against perpetrators, sometimes because they support what they’re doing . . . and, even if they don’t support it, they feel it would be against the honour of their community to stand out against it, or to speak out, or to give evidence . . . The communities are extremely insular.”
She says that this insularity is not just a problem of racism, Islamophobia, poverty and lack of education, but also a result of the baradari system, a system of brotherhood or closed families that is particular to the Mirpuri people. In the main, British Mirpuris come from the very rural and conservative parts of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The Mirpuri Development Project has estimated that Mirpuris make up around 70 per cent of the British Muslim population: the biggest concen- trations are in northern towns such as Bradford, Leeds, Derby and Huddersfield. The baradari system is integral to Mirpuri culture. A family unit will stick together, largely marry only close relations and will refuse to allow outsiders into the village. In Pakistan, it ensures that in very poor rural areas where little or no state provision exists, the villagers can provide themselves with the basic structures of a community, such as health, justice, childcare and security. But when Mirpuris have migrated, the system has migrated, too.
There’s nothing sinister about this. It’s just that in Britain the state provides health, justice and security services. Once the benefits of the baradari system are largely taken away, you are left with a lot of downsides, such as the code of honour and extreme social insularity.
This insularity has led such communities to permit the Islamists to twist their young people’s sense of identity to such an extent that a boy from Leeds has more empathy with the dead and dying Muslims of Palestine than the dead and dying Muslims of London.When the four Yorkshire lads blew themselves up in London, they were also declaring a civil war between Britain’s two versions of multiculturalism: that of the ghettoised north and that of integrated London.
Sir Ian Blair can suggest that shock and disbelief should be used to motivate Britain’s northern Muslim communities into “active engagement” against terrorism, but shock and disbelief might not be enough.