Explosions in Gaza still reverberate in London

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: July 7 2006

Nearly a decade in the job has seen Tony Blair emerge as one of politics’ imperturbable performers. The British prime minister mostly says what he thinks. Momentarily this week the easy fluency seemed to desert him. Quizzed about the calculated destruction being wrought by Israel in Gaza, Mr Blair was hesitant.

The stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians was “ghastly, terrible”, he offered to a committee of senior members of parliament at Westminster. There was no more important issue to sort out than this conflict. But, no, he would not take sides over the seemingly vengeful response of the Israeli government to the abduction by Palestinians of Corporal Gilad Shalit.

Later, I overheard a senior British official give a more trenchant view of the blowing up of generators and bridges in Gaza. Nothing could justify hostage-taking by Hamas or other Palestinian groups. But the decision of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, to visit collective punishment on Palestinian civilians was “illegal and disgusting”.

During his meeting with the MPs, Mr Blair was pressed also on the radicalisation of parts of Britain’s Muslim community. It is a year to the day since four young men brought terror to London by placing bombs on the underground rail network and on one of its trademark red buses.

Here, the prime minister left hesitation behind. The duty to tackle extremism lay above all with moderate Islam. It was not enough, he said, for Muslims to condemn terrorist attacks such as the one that killed 52 people in London on July 7 2005. They must confront the dangerous misrepresentation of the west.

It was no good saying terrorism was wrong but that the violence was explicable. The challenge to extremism from British Muslims needed to be much stronger: “You are wrong in your view about the west, you are wrong in your sense of grievance, the whole ideology is profoundly wrong.”

A year, and countless postmortems, later, two observations about the London bombings stand above the rest. Each of the four suicide bombers was British, three of them from the same, run-down suburb of Leeds; and conflict in the Middle East – in Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine and Iraq – serves as the recruiting sergeant for this home-grown terrorism.

It was the Britishness of the perpetrators that made July 7 the more shocking. If the culprits had been jihadis infiltrated from, say, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia or Somalia, it would have seemed more comprehensible. London would have fitted in to the subliminal picture of a global war against the west.

Instead, a year of intensive investigations has failed to uncover any accomplices. Two of the four had travelled to terrorist training camps in Pakistan but no firm evidence has been found to place the attacks in a wider al-Qaeda conspiracy.

During the subsequent 12 months another 60 people in Britain have been charged with unrelated terrorist offences and, according to the security services, four major plots have been uncovered. Again, almost all the suspects are British.

There are myriad explanations for the radicalisation of such, usually young, Muslims. Some lie in the disaffection of isolated communities largely cut off from economic and social opportunity. Others in the uncertain identities of second- and third-generation immigrants, especially those from Pakistan. Still others in the takeover of some mosques by fundamentalist imams. Moderate Muslims will acknowledge they have often been too reluctant to challenge the medievally literalist version of Islam preached by extremists, sometimes too eager to embrace the victimhood that feeds a communal sense of grievance.

None of this, though, should be taken to deny the impact of western, above all US and British, intervention in the Arab world. For disaffected Muslims, images from the front line – of American troops in Falluja, of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, of war planes over Afghanistan and Israeli tanks in Palestine – breathe angry life into 7th-century theology.

Mr Blair paints on a bigger canvas. The contest with the jihadis is one of ideology – a struggle about values rather than one rooted in territorial dispute. In this description it is a clash, if not of civilisations, about the nature of civilisation.

He is right to the important extent that the ambitions of those who seek from afar to recruit Britain’s alienated young Muslims reach well beyond Islamist victories in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The theology that gave us the Taliban and al-Qaeda demands the defeat of western liberal democracy.

Yet Mr Blair cannot shrug aside the effect of the images relayed each evening via satellite television. To view the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as imperialist adventures, or as inherently anti-Islam, may be misguided. In my view, Mr Blair’s record of support for Muslims in Kosovo speaks for itself. But Muslims are far from alone in challenging the government’s motives.

None of the above should be taken as suggesting that Britain’s, or anyone else’s, foreign policy should be shaped by threats. The vital line here is between understanding and appeasement. Pulling out of Iraq tomorrow would please some Muslims. Most probably, it would also see thousands more of their co-religionists killed in a civil war. Likewise, support for an Israeli state unthreatened by its neighbours cannot be held hostage to those who would emulate the London bombers.

Yet even in his hesitation this week, Mr Blair seemed to grasp the importance of an equitable settlement between Israelis and Palestinians: “In this respect,” he said, “I think there is a real issue to do with the west and the Muslim world.” The explosions in Gaza reverberate in London.

This week the AP newswire quoted Mr Olmert as saying of Israel’s military operations: “I want no one to sleep at night in Gaza. I want them to know what it feels like.” For all the justified pain felt at the kidnapping of Cpl Shalit, this chilling statement is not that of a leader seeking the settlement with Palestinians to which his government remains nominally committed.

The retribution being exacted in Gaza by Mr Olmert shames Israel’s democracy. It speaks to a policy that can only prolong the conflict. It risks becoming Israel’s Abu Ghraib. Mr Blair should say so. Loudly. Not to appease Muslim extremists, nor in the hope of averting another attack on London. But because, in one of the prime minister’s own favourite phrases, it is the right thing to do.