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London: In an imaginary homeland, the English jihad rises

It takes a special kind of hate to do what she did: for the slight young woman to walk into the office of a man she had never met; to reach out to shake his hand; to stab him in the abdomen; to pull out the knife, her hands covered in blood, her victim screaming; to dig it in again.

"A woman has shown to the ummah’s men the path of jihad," the Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki’s magazine Inspire exulted after Roshanara Choudhry’s stabbed Member of Parliament Stephen Timms in the summer of 2010. "A woman, my brothers! Shame on all the men!"

Michael Adebolajo and the still-unidentified accomplice who hacked to death a British soldier on the streets of south-east London had more likely than not read those words. This we know, from credible media accounts: having converted to Islam in 2003, Abebolajo had joined the reactionary Islamist group al-Muhajiroun. Adebolajo was well-known to al-Muhajiroun leader Anjem Chowdhury, and also to the United Kingdom’s domestic intelligence service MI5. He had possibly been detained on his way to fight with the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab in 2012.

Security is tightened around Woolwich Barracks on 23 May 2013 in London. Getty Images

Security is tightened around Woolwich Barracks on 23 May 2013 in London. Getty Images

For years now, there’s been evidence that there are plenty of people like Adebolajo around. In 2008, for example, Parviz Khan, was arrested for plotting to behead a British Muslim soldier and videotape the execution. Al-Awlaki died in a drone strike and Choudhry is serving a life term—but their ideas are alive.

The real question that should arise from the latest blood spilt by the English jihad isn’t why some individuals do murderous things; killing, after all, isn’t something conducted by terrorists alone. The terrorist is distinct from the serial killer in having a political message—for both friends and enemies. The real issue isn’t Abebolajo’s act, but the toxic politics which informed it.

‘Londonistan’, French intelligence officers derisively called it: the city which was the improbable cradle of the global jihad that sprang up in the 1990s. From his pulpit at the Four Feathers Club, Umar Mahmoud preached to Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up a transatlantic flight in 2003, and 9/11 conspirator Zacharias Moussaoui. Mustafa Kamel Mustafa—Bosnian jihad veteran, Brighton-trained civil engineer, and one-time nightclub bouncer—sent volunteers to Yemen. Saudi-origin Omar Bakri Mohammad set up al-Muhajiroun: implicated, expert Jytte Kalusen has shown in 19 of 56 jihadist plots linked to the UK between 1998 and 2010.

The bombing of the Indian Army’s XV corps headquarters in Srinagar in December, 2000; the attack on a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003; the 2010 9/11 anniversary plot: all these involved elements of al-Muhajiroun based in the United Kingdom.

London brought about all kinds of almost magical ideological metamorphosis—turning Dhiren Bharot, son of an affluent Gujarati Hindu family, into an Kashmir jihadist and then an Al Qaeda bomb-plot operative; London School of Economics student Syed Omar Sheikh into a Jaish-e-Muhammad killer.

From soon after 9/11, these jihadi networks began turning their gaze homewards. In March, 2004, for example, several Pakistan-origin men were arrested on charges of attempting to carry out bombings across the United Kingdom. In the course of his trial, Leeds resident Omar Khayam said he had learned explosives tradecraft at an Inter-Services Intelligence-run camp near Rawalpindi, set up to train Kashmir jihadists—before dramatically discontinuing his testimony, saying "the ISI in Pakistan has had words with my family relating to what I have been saying about them”.

The murderous July, 2005, suicide-bombings of London’s mass transit system followed. Muhammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, who blew themselves up in those attacks, were known to Khayam, who they met at a Pakistani jihad camp in 2003.

It’s hard to discern any kind of real pattern to this radicalisation. Bharot enjoyed every privilege British citizenship and parental wealth could procure. Khan and Tanweer were impeccably middle class. Richard Reid, though, like Adeboljo, appears to have been a social misfit. Choudhry, born in Newham, East, London to Shohid, a tailor, and Nometha, was the eldest of five children. She lived out her parents’ immigrant dreams: having secured A-levels Newham Sixth Form College, she was in the final year of a degree in English at King’s College, London.

For an answer to the question—why?—we must turn away from individual stories. Terrorism is, in part, a psychiatric problem as much as a political one: reams have been written about how easily the sexually-anxious, disempowered young men who are drawn to the armies of pious can be recruited by street gangs instead. For a fuller answer, though, we must examine the United Kingdom’s troubled politics of identity—the ground, as it were, on which the seeds of hate flourished.

In the late 1970s, as conflicts over race exploded in rioting and vigilante clashes, the British state manufactured its policy of official multiculturalism. The strategy was simple: the political system outsourced its engagement with ethnic minorities to a new contractor-class. In the United Kingdom’s cities, the state ceded authority to so-called community leaders—often individuals linked to extremist Muslim groups like the Jama’at-e-Islami. The must-watch documentary Undercover Mosque shows how the state ended up financing venomous religious propaganda.

The new generation of Islamists who rose in the 1990s rebelled against these brokers by arguing there could be no justice in a secular-democratic order. The English jihadists’ notion of “we” and “them” stems from the intellectual secession that followed.

Choudhry, defended her attempt to kill Timms by pointing to his support of the Iraq war—a land she had never visited, other than through al-Awlaki’s website. "We must stand up for each other”, she said. "We must fight them”, said Adebolajo, "I apologise that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same." In his parents’ homeland, though, the killing is being done by jihadists. Adeblojo’s real homeland, like that of Choudhry, is in fact a virtual one: a nation of the imagination.

Kenan Malik, a British scholar, wrote in a thoughtful 2011 essay that young British Muslims found themselves "detached from both the religious traditions of their parents, which they often reject, and the wider secular society that insists on viewing them simply as Muslims. A few are drawn inevitably to extremist Islamist groups where they discover a sense of identity and of belonging".

Ever since the London bombings of 7/7, the United Kingdom has sought to deal with emergence of the virtual Islamic homeland by reinventing multiculturalism—spending millions marketing purportedly moderate, anti-jihadist forms of Islam. This project, however, has simply perpetuated ghettoisation. In a 2006 survey, six of every 100 British Muslims were reported to support the 7/7 bombing; the following year, 25% said the terrorist attack was a government plot.

Lawrence Krauss—a leading physicist, and former advisor to United States president Barack Obama—was appalled to find himself facing a gender-segregated audience at London’s University College. He attacked the United Kingdom’s deference to "vocal and aggressive" Islamic reactionaries who were seeking to impose their values on society.

For Indians, the debate is familiar. Ever since 1947—and well before it—Indian politics has been deferential to identity-based claims, pandering to all manner of fanaticism. The consequence has been, in Kenan’s words, just as true of India as the United Kingdom, a nation divided “into cultures and groups defined largely by their difference with each other”. Every group competes for victimhood, "seeing itself as composed not of active agents attempting to overcome disadvantages by striving for equality and progress, but of passive victims".

"This," wrote Salman Rushdie, "is the question of our time: how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere”? The answer isn’t complicated: it is respecting the rule of law and universal democratic values come first.

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