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.
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.