Al Jazeera

‘Folk devils’: Anti-Muslim prejudice still rife 10 years on from London bombings

“I was preparing myself for death. I was thinking, ‘This is it. Today is the day that I die’.”


An image of the bomb-shattered bus shown to the court during an inquest into the 2005 attacks.

A loud bang, human bodies tossed around as an explosion-shattered train jerks to a halt deep underground, black smoke, darkness and the sound of screaming. Those are Sajda Mughal’s memories of the morning commute to her London office 10 years ago on July 7, 2005.

“My immediate thought was that we’d hit something and derailed. And then I thought the next train will be coming and it will hit us and there will be a massive explosion and we will all burn to death,” Mughal, then a 22-year-old office worker, told Al Jazeera.

I was thinking about the past and in a big rush of thoughts I was thinking things like, ‘I haven’t got married yet, I haven’t had kids. I haven’t said goodbye to loved ones’.”

Mughal had escaped with her life, but in an adjacent carriage 26 people were already dead or dying. Many more were seriously injured. The same number again were dead elsewhere in the city in bombings aboard two more trains and a bus, as well as the four young Muslim men, all British born or raised, who carried out the suicide attacks.

For Mughal, the relief of survival was soon followed by the shock of realisation that those responsible had claimed to act in the name of her own religion. One decade on, she said that Muslim communities in the UK were still dealing with the consequences of their murderous actions.

“I’ve seen the rise of Islamophobia first-hand. My organisation and I have been subjected to death threats and abuse,” said Mughal, who subsequently left her job to launch an anti-radicalisation awareness programme aimed at Muslim mothers through JAN Trust, a women’s charity.

“We have seen a rise year on year in the number of women contacting us regarding incidents such as hijabs being pulled off, being spat at or institutional Islamophobia. The youngest victim we dealt with was a seven-year-old girl suffering Islamophobic bullying. Things like this are detrimental to community cohesion. More and more young Muslims are telling us they feel disconnected from society.”

Mughal’s concerns and fears for the future seemingly echo those of many other British Muslims. A survey commissioned by the British Future think tank earlier this month found that 56 per cent of Muslims feel that community relations have deteriorated in the decade since the ‘7/7’ attacks.

Meanwhile, another poll in the Huffington Post found that 56 per cent of Britons believed that Islam posed a threat to western democracies, while a survey last month of words most associated by Britons with Muslims was topped by ‘terrorist’, mentioned by 12 per cent of respondents.

Imran Awan, a researcher in Islamophobia at Birmingham City University, told Al Jazeera that a sharp increase in anti-Muslim prejudice, ranging from arson attacks on mosques, violence and verbal and online abuse, could be traced back to the 2005 bombings, but added that government policies since then had also fuelled alienation and suspicion.

“What we saw was this whole notion that Muslims were the new folk devil,” he said. “But what is interesting back then and even more so today is that as well as these sort of incidents it is the reaction of the government that has a really big impact.”

‘The rules have changed’

Within weeks of the bombings, Tony Blair, then prime minister, announced a flurry of tough measures including banning extremist groups and creating a new crime of “glorifying” terrorism. “The rules of the game have changed,” said Blair. “We’re angry about these extremists. We’re angry about what they’re doing to our country.”

But Blair’s draconian posturing also stirred up resentment among Muslims already feeling scrutinised, Awan said. Most controversially, the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy, initially launched with the cautious backing of many Muslim organisations, was quickly rejected as a police-run surveillance programme that targeted Muslims as a “suspect community”.

With Muslims once again in the spotlight amid fears about the threat posed by fighters returning from Syria and the absconding of families and schoolgirls to territory held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Awan said he was concerned that the mistakes and hardline rhetoric of the past decade were being repeated.

Speaking at a security conference last month following the death in Iraq of 17-year-old Talha Asmal, dubbed the “UK’s youngest ever suicide bomber”, David Cameron, the prime minister, accused some Muslims of “quietly condoning” extremism.

Days later, in the aftermath of an attack on a Tunisian beach resort in which 30 British tourists died, Cameron said that groups such as ISIL posed an “existential threat” to the UK and promised a “full-spectrum response at home and abroad”.

Cameron has already vowed to introduce tougher powers even than those established in the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, rushed into law earlier this year following the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, which included measures obliging public sector employees including teachers and even nursery staff to be alert for extremism in their day-to-day work.

“There is a real perception at grassroots level that Muslims feel under siege,” said Awan. “I spoke to a family recently. The father said, ‘I have a really big beard. My wife wears a full niqab and when I take my kids to school now I’m really worried that the teachers will think I am radicalising my own children’. Because the CTS Act says nurseries should be mindful of two-year-olds being radicalised.”

Potential threat

Yet, many security analysts accept that the focus of counter-terrorism efforts in the UK on Muslim communities remains necessary because of the potential threat posed by the involvement of hundreds of British Muslims in the war in Syria.

In a new book, “We Love Death as You Love Life” on the history of Islamic extremism in the UK, Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute think tank concludes ominously that “the undercurrents of a new storm surge are building”.

“If you look at it from the side of the security services, they’ve got a much better understanding of the problem and they’re much better at the technical side of counter-terrorism,” Pantucci told Al Jazeera.

“But on the preventative side it is a mixed picture. Radicalisation continues to happen. There are people in this country who still want to try to launch attacks to kill other citizens.”

Pantucci accepted that many Britons in Syria had no intention of mounting attacks in the UK. But he said that fighters posed a proven risk at home, citing the case of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London bombings who made several trips to Kashmir that brought him into contact with senior al-Qaeda operatives.

“These guys go out there in some cases with good intentions,” he said. “But the problem is that history has taught us that some of these people are pliable if a senior figure says, ‘Do you really want to have an impact? Maybe you should go back home’.”

Going backwards

Ten years on from the 2005 attacks, Talha Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, accepts that Muslim organisations and individuals must once again take the lead in engaging with those at risk of radicalisation within their communities.

“The Muslim community now is better equipped, better prepared and better connected with wider society,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera. “After 7/7 there was a sense of urgency to open up and build interfaith alliances, to be more relevant and inclusive and responsive.”

But he said worsening discrimination, heavy-handed law enforcement and negative media stereotyping of Muslims was making the job harder, and warned that attempts by the government to legislate an acceptable version of Islam would only backfire.

“We have gone backwards in terms of civil liberties and the rule of law. 7/7 also reversed a lot of progress in the name of racial equality,” said Ahmad.

“If we are talking about challenging extremism then the government cannot dictate which Muslim group or which version of Islam is more acceptable than others. The new legislation effectively expects the state to act as a thought police.”

Muhbeen Hussain was an 11-year-old schoolboy in northern England at the time, but he says that for his generation the day of the London bombings changed everything. “It made being a Muslim an issue,” he told Al Jazeera.

Now 21 and the founder of British Muslim Youth (BMY), Hussain believes young people have been excluded from a debate about radicalisation largely framed by politicians, security experts, academics and community leaders, even though they have been those most affected by its consequences.

Ten years on from ‘7/7’, British Muslim Youth on Tuesday launches a national youth consultation that it hopes will rectify that by asking young Muslims their views and concerns with the aim of identifying the factors pushing some of them down the path towards extremism.

“Young people need to be at the front of the debate,” said Hussain. “We have Islamophobia on the one side and we have these ideological nutters trying to hijack Islam on the other side and we have to tackle both. We have an ideological war at both ends. We have an issue and we have to deal with it and there is no stepping back.”

A version of this story was originally published by Al Jazeera on 7 July, 2015.