Europe's answer to Londonistan

About the author

Gilles Kepel is a Professor at the Institut d'Ìätudes Politiques (IEP) in Paris and an expert on Muslim and Middle East affairs.

On 5 August, four weeks after the bombings of London’s transport network that killed 52 innocent passengers and injured 700 more, Tony Blair announced a series of anti-terror measures that signified a radical departure from the traditional British approach towards its Muslim community. If implemented, their combined impact would be to end the policy of “Londonistan” – the contract whereby political asylum was given to radical Islamist ideologists in return for keeping Britain safe from violence.

Tony Blair’s proposals include the expulsion of fanatical Islamist clerics (following the French and Spanish example) and the closure of religious centres where “extremism ferments”. Together, they herald a new age of conscious societal integration in Britain in place of the general atmosphere of laissez-faire.

Also by Gilles Kepel on openDemocracy:

“The trail of political Islam” (July 2002)

“Tightrope walks and chessboards” (April 2003)

“The war for Muslim minds” (November 2004)

“Turkey’s European problem” (December 2004)

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The measures will affect the fate of four noted figures of Londonistan. First, Omar Bakri Muhammad – the flamboyant Syrian founder of al-Muhajiroun, supporter of Osama bin Laden and the “magnificent nineteen” hijackers of 9/11 – made the sudden decision to take a “holiday” in the Lebanon, after two decades’ residence in Britain. The British home secretary swiftly transformed his visit into a permanent ban on re-entering the country.

Second, Omar Bakri’s fellow-scourge of Britain’s tabloid press, the Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza, remains in detention pending a decision to strip him of his acquired British nationality and extradite him to the United States.

Third, the equally controversial Abu Qatada – the Jordanian-Palestinian known as “al-Qaida’s ambassador in Europe” – languishes in prison awaiting extradition to Jordan; this move remains hypothetical, so numerous and diverse are the possibilities of judicial appeal.

Fourth, Tony Blair referred to the case of Rachid Ramda – an Algerian national, whose extradition over possible involvement in the 1995 bombings of the Paris metro France has been demanding for a decade – to illustrate the need to “change the rules of the game”.

A smashed consensus

The British government’s new course has thrown British liberals into turmoil. They have denounced Blair’s measures as “sabre-rattling” that poses a deadly threat to their society’s traditional freedoms. But looking beyond the political controversy, it is clear that the abandonment of Londonistan raises profound and complex questions regarding the very model of a multicultural society.

Before the 7 July attacks (and the abortive 21 July reprise), Britain was the multicultural champion of Europe, along with the Netherlands – whose own approach has been questioned increasingly since the murder of film director Theo van Gogh by a fanatical Islamist of Moroccan origin in November 2004.

Londonistan used to represent the tip of the multicultural iceberg, to the point of becoming a caricature of it. It posited the theory that the offer of refuge to radical ideologues would allow them to exert a positive influence on young people tempted by Islamist violence, and thus dissuade them from rebelling against a state which had allowed Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, Omar Bakri and the like to flourish.

For a decade, the policy “worked” insofar as it did save Britain from violent attack. But it had a cost: the spread of radical, extremist discourse, regarded as lawful provided it did not lead to violence. This discourse made its voice heard in Britain thanks to a total absence of a national identity among many young people (despite their British citizenship), as well as to the exacerbation of an international Islamist identity accentuated by the grand deeds of the global jihad.

This global identity was fuelled by the internet, whose dissemination of the spectacular acts of jihadi heroes rendered the ideologists of Londonistan less significant and reduced their influence and value among the most radical minorities.

In this light, new legal restrictions have above all a symbolic, after-the-event effect. But they also illustrate the fact that the intellectual bedrock permitting Londonistan to be built in the first place retains its relevance. This bedrock is a multiculturalism that regards what differentiates religious and ethnic communities as essential, and that sees what unifies individuals as citizens of the same society – beyond race or faith – as of secondary importance.

The unique aspect of multiculturalism is not the emphasis on differentiation as such – for every society is differentiated, chiefly by never-ending conflicts among the social groups driving it; only totalitarian utopias appear free from such fissures. The unique aspect is the belief that individuals are determined by an unchanging cultural “essence” that is particular to each “community”, and that the political (and indeed legal) establishment must take these essences into account as a priority.

In Britain, multiculturalism was the product of an implicit social consensus between leftwing working-class movements and the public-school-educated political elite. Their alliance allowed one side to monitor immigrant workers (Pakistan in particular) and the other to secure their votes, through their religious leaders, at election time. The July bombings have smashed this consensus to smithereens.

In one sense at least, and in spite of the massive difference in the number of deaths, British society was more deeply traumatised by the two London attacks bombings than Americans were in the aftermath of 9/11. The United States assailants were foreigners; the eight people involved in London were the children of Britain’s own multicultural society.

They were, moreover, deeply religious men who were radicalised as much (if not more) by videocassettes and the internet as by prayers at the mosque. They seem to have had no allegiance to any of the Muslim community leaders co-opted by the political establishment. They reveal a divided social system where entire groups define themselves primarily through the identity of their religious community, but whose leaders cannot prevent young members of these groups seeking to emulate al-Qaida and fight a war against an “impious” society.

Multiculturalism, after all, makes sense only if it leads to a peaceful society, where community leaders keep their “flocks” in check and instil in their followers religious and moral values conducive to the maintenance of public order. In Britain it has now failed in this role. No wonder the British – following the Dutch precedent – are engaging in fearsome debate over how best to escape from their impasse.

What kind of Europe?

What next? The array of anti-terrorist measures designed to dismantle Londonistan will probably lead to lengthy legal battles. Beyond this, British society faces difficult choices. David Hayes of openDemocracy presents a theory (see “What kind of country?”, 29 July 2005) as applicable to the rest of the European Union as to Britain itself – so comparable are the problems of each European country despite their differing historical contexts.

In Hayes’s formulation, the draconian choice is between two models: radical secularism versus radical multiculturalism. In Britain, radical secularism would entail the abolition of the Anglican church’s established religious status, and eventually lead to a redefinition of the pact between the new secular state and its citizens using a written constitution as its basis. At the other extreme, multiculturalism pushed to its limits would end in the creation of an autonomous “Muslim parliament”, elected by its community, responsible for governing it, and equipped with the means to apply the law and respect the public order. In short, exactly the framework laid down by the Ottoman empire in relation to its Jewish and Christian minorities.

These two options may seem excessive. But they serve as two hypotheses between which European societies must choose their own path. Above all, they indicate how urgent it is for this debate in Britain to be taken up in continental Europe.

France was ridiculed abroad when Bernard Stasi’s commission recommended a ban on the display of all religious symbols in schools, and when the advice was implemented by law. This policy has since excited the interest of observers who note that France has the largest number of Muslims in Europe – far more even than Germany or Britain.

This article is a longer version of one originally published in the (London) Independent on 22 August 2005

These observers also remark that the combined results of secularism, conscious integration and a preventative security policy in France – the inverse terms of multiculturalism – has meant that the country has been spared terror attacks for a decade.

This has had important practical dimensions. When two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq were threatened with death if the law enforcing secularism in schools was not abolished, the mobilisation of the French Muslim community made a significant contribution to their release.

But nothing can be taken for granted in France’s secular republic. The marginalisation of many young people of Maghrebi and African origin, the spread of jihadi websites, the departure of some young men to fight on the frontline in Iraq or Pakistan – the ingredients for the same lethal cocktail that afflicts other countries - exists in France. But there have been no terrorist attacks on French soil since 1995, and those who predicted them have not been proved right – until now. (The planned bombing of Strasbourg’s Christmas market or cathedral in December 2000, prevented by good intelligence work, was organised from Germany – another example of the need for a European as well as a national frame of reference).

The problem raised by the London bombings is as relevant to the inhabitants of Paris, Rome, Brussels, Amsterdam, and (of course) Madrid as it is to Londoners. We Europeans cannot – must not – bury our heads in the sand.

The end of the Londonistan way of living is not enough. Terrorism poses above all the question of what we – including fellow-citizens of Muslim or any other faith or non-faith – want to do with our European identity. It is time that the European Union, after the disaster of the constitution, addresses this issue. Europe must play a role in solving the global problems of terrorism and extreme Islamism.