The gap between us: British Muslims and 7/7

Mohammed Sajid
17 July 2005

The northern English county of Yorkshire shows many faces to the world. It is the proud home of the scholar Alcuin, the Brontë sisters, artist David Hockney, playwright Alan Bennett, sculptor Henry Moore, and musicians Waterson:Carthy. It is a beautiful land of green valleys, moors, and dales as well as handsome towns and cities. It is no stranger to conflicts over class (such as the epic coal miners’ strike of 1984-85) and religion (the “Rushdie affair” of 1989 began in Bradford), and even to serial murder. But few would have predicted that Yorkshire might also be home to a cell of extremist murderers: three of the group who planted bombs in London underground trains and buses on 7 July 2005, killing at least fifty-one people as well as themselves in the process.

Among openDemocracy’s other articles on the implications of the London bombs, part of our Democracy & Terror debate:

Isabel Hilton, “Letter from wounded London” (7 July 2005)

Mary Kaldor, “London lives” (8 July 2005)

Francesco Grillo, “An attack on the world” (12 July 2005)

Jim Lederman, “Counter-terrorism: a true popular war” (14 July 2005)

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Since the explosions, news has slowly been filtering out about who the bombers were, their backgrounds, families and lifestyles. It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that young British men with apparently normal family lives and careers did indeed perpetrate the attacks.

But it can seem that the more we know, the less we understand. Can British people with normal lives and education (even to university level) become so disaffected in this liberal democracy, where religion is practiced freely, that they proceed to kill themselves and their compatriots in the name of religion? And, more widely, what is happening to this generation of British Muslims?

The answer to the first question is straightforward. It is possible for this to happen. The events of Thursday 7 July show that the men who carried out these attacks acted systematically – hiring a car, travelling to London, fanning out and detonating their lethal bombs – as part of a well-planned and cold-blooded operation.

The answer to the second question, a core part of the explanation for these events, is far harder to reach. It is also essential, for although these attacks are being blamed on specific sectors of the Muslim community in Britain – the minority loyal to al-Qaida – the community as a whole feels their repercussions. If further attacks are to be prevented, if a spreading backlash of anti-Muslim attacks on people and mosques is to be averted, understanding of the context and motives of the 7 July events is essential.

Two aspects of the reality of Muslims in west Yorkshire seem especially important in building such understanding: segregation and leadership.

The community gap

Islam is a religion characterised by rich debates and differences of opinion on many theological points. This has led to many transnational sects: not just the major Shi’a and Sunni groups, but sub-sects within them like the Sunni Deobandi and Barelwi and the Shi’a Ismaili. These sub-sects often have large international followings, including mosques dedicated to preaching their particular style of Islam.

The apparently senior figure among the London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, came from the west Yorkshire town of Dewsbury, fifteen miles (twenty-five kilometres) south of Leeds. It is interesting to note that Dewsbury – after the northern Indian city of Deoband itself – houses the international headquarters of the Deobandi sect.

This Dar-al-Alum (“centre for learning”) occupies a large mosque in the heart of West Yorkshire, in the Dewsbury-Batley conurbation. The Deobandi are a large sect preaching a puritan form of Islam, including segregation of the sexes and abstention from any form of participation in politics. The basic rationale for these attitudes is that legislative authority belongs only to God; thus, for men to sanction their own governance even in the smallest capacity would be anti-Islamic.

The preferred Deobandi method of interacting with society is through propagation. The sect runs a network of mosques – locally, nationally and internationally – which host visiting delegations from the Dewsbury mosque. At the local level, Deobandi membership consists predominantly of people of Gujarati Indian origin, as well as Pakistanis and growing numbers of new converts from among the Afro-Caribbean and white British population.

A fascinating anomaly about Dewsbury is that in the British general election of May 2005, the voters of the town elected a charismatic young Muslim of Pakistani origin, Shahid Malik, as their Labour member of parliament. This was despite the fact that Malik was denied the specific endorsement of any local mosque (a fact perhaps hinted at in the first words of his acceptance speech at the count: “All praises to Allah, the most gracious and kind. Yes I am a Muslim, and yes I am here”).

In the context of the long process of post-colonial immigration, many Muslim immigrants to Britain have sought refuge in communities similar to the ones in their countries of origin. The origins of most people in west Yorkshire’s Muslim community lie in the Chach and Mirpur districts of Pakistan and the Gujarat region of India.

This coalescing tendency, combined with the segregationist nature of the Muslim community in west Yorkshire, make for a high degree of social separation between communities; local schools often have high concentrations of either Muslim children or white children, and second and third generation Muslims can reach university age without integrating into the wider British society in any meaningful way. For many individuals, this can lead to an awkward and isolated existence at university or in the early stages of adult life. Such isolated individuals are easily susceptible to the most extreme elements of Islamists who provide a strong sense of fraternity.

The generation gap

If this segregation is the first inherent feature of the Muslim community in west Yorkshire, the second major factor affecting the current generation of British Muslims is the quality and style of its leadership.

The first generation of local Muslim leaders, predominantly migrant workers, were little concerned with politics. They concentrated on building mosques, establishing burial facilities and halal food outlets. Today, they are being replaced by a new generation of well-educated young men aware of their transnational religious identity and significance. This new breed of young Muslim leader is generally trained to a graduate or postgraduate level, and its members are well versed in lobbying techniques.

1997 was a critical year for British Muslims in this respect. Many of their biggest national groups underwent convulsive changes in leadership. The Young Muslims (YM) split with its mother organisation, the UK Islamic Mission (Ukim); new groups committed to parliamentary lobbying, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) were set up.

The MCB is an umbrella organisation representing most of the smaller mainstream Muslim organisations in Britain. It has enjoyed much perceived success in foreign-policy discussions and areas related to domestic legislation affecting Muslims. Through relentless, highly publicised campaigns led by its general-secretary Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the MCB is fast becoming the representative voice of British Muslims. It has been foremost in condemning the 7 July attacks.

But this very influence has helped create both a sense of unease and great polarisation within the British Muslim community, now 1.6 million strong. The MCB is finding natural partners with other traditionally moderate groups such as Ukim and the IHRC. But other groups, like the Muslim Association of Britain (Mab), see the very “success” of the mainstream organisations as evidence of their compromising, over-accommodating attitude to the government and authorities.

Meanwhile, groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir and Mujahiroun have won a small but significant reach within young members of Britain’s Muslim community by preaching a militant, extreme message. They have also been experiencing a turnover of leadership, involving celebration of their own, more macabre kind of political progress. Some Muslims use the term “hijacking” to characterise the phenomenon of a cycle of relatively young leaders in a local area, each proclaiming a more violent anti-establishment message than his predecessor.

There is thus a dangerous bifurcation opening up in British Muslim politics, involving two different models of “success” and influence. Whereas the moderate groups are becoming better at gaining access to policy-makers, the extreme groups are becoming better at gaining access to young Muslims in search of certainty, fellowship, meaning and direction in life, and a cause.

So what is happening to this younger generation of Muslims that leads a few of its members to embrace violence? I would say that the problem lies with the opportunist new leaders of some of the smallest Muslim groups. These groups use isolated individuals to promote their own agenda of hate, violence and bigotry. These tactics are now being used on the streets of west Yorkshire as openly as on the streets of Iraq. In the current world political climate this led to the terrible events of 7 July.

The Muslim community in Britain is at a pivotal stage in its development. After 7 July 2005 in London, it has reached the “end of the beginning”.

Further Links:


BBC: Muslim news

History of Muslims in Britain

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