Letter From London: Britannia Stays Cool

Finished with their Sunday morning of studying the Koran, the dozens of young boys in the Muslim Center in east London raced to put their shoes back on. Talking excitedly, they filed upstairs to spend the rest of the afternoon playing Arabic board games and Ping-Pong. Three days earlier, terrorist bombs had ripped open three subway cars and a double-decker bus, taking the lives of at least 52 people and injuring 700. Now, life was getting back to normal.

The Muslim Center, which adjoins a mosque, is just a 10-minute walk from where one of the bombs went off. And for the city's 600,000 Muslims, the bombings had made their place in society suddenly precarious. Some Islamic organizations had issued warnings for Muslims to stay off the streets for fear of reprisals.

But by the weekend, the streets were again bustling with veiled women and men wearing traditional beards. “Yes, I'm worried, but I'm not overly worried,” says Shibbir Ahmed, a local government official who volunteers with the Young Muslims Organization U.K. Ahmed, who was born in Bangladesh but grew up in England, said he has faith in Londoners' ability to maintain respect for different cultures. The terrorists, he said, “are trying to destroy that social cohesion. But I don't think they will succeed.”

So far it seems that Britain will not go the way that America did after September 11. Following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, while anti-Muslim attacks were relatively scarce, there was a general hysteria about terrorists “in our midst.” The government, if anything, was more hysterical than the citizenry, with legislation that ran roughshod over civil liberties, as well as mass arrests and eventually the detention of more than 13,000 people. There were mass arrests, deportations, public displays of military might, and clash-of-civilizations media coverage, like Newsweek's cover story “Why They Hate Us,” which bore a picture of a turbaned child holding a machine gun.

Of course, there are big differences between the 9-11 attacks and the London transit bombings, not least because of the (thankfully) much-smaller death toll. Britons were not caught unawares, having long expected an assault on their capital. It's also something for which they have decades of experience, from the Nazi blitz during World War II to more recent Provisional IRA bombs.

Yet even with the different scale and historical context, the British reaction to the assault on their capital has provided lessons in civil society and liberty to which America's leaders should pay attention. Within a day of the attacks, Londoners were back on the Underground and in pubs. They could do this because their institutions, political parties, police, and media had all withstood the attacks as well.

There have been some scattered anti-Muslim incidents, especially in the North where Muslims are a small minority but a substantial one in many towns. About a half-dozen mosques suffered assaults, from graffiti to arson, and at least one Muslim man was assaulted. But Islamic leaders attribute these actions to extremists or thugs, and say that overall, they continue to be well treated by British society. In particular, they praised the restraint shown by politicians, the police, and the media in the aftermath of the attacks.

“They have all been extremely responsible,” said Massoud Shadjareh, the chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, an advocacy organization in London. “I am surprised myself that I am saying so, speaking as someone [who] is usually critical of their actions,” he said.

In a press conference after the attacks, Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick made a special point of disassociating Islam and terrorism. “The words ‘Islam' and ‘terrorist' do not go together,” he said. “These acts go totally against what I understand is the Muslim faith.”

Anwar Ali, an 18-year-old who works in an Islamic bookshop around the corner from the Muslim Center, said that while he wasn't surprised to hear of anti-Muslim incidents in economically troubled northern England, where there has been longtime friction, he did not expect serious trouble in London, with its cosmopolitan spirit. “There's mutual respect,” Ali says. “Everyone's all right with each other.”

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London's Islamic community occupies a unique place in the Western world. It is the most diverse in terms of class, country of origin, and history. It makes up fully 8 percent of the city's population. People of South Asian descent appear as newscasters and soap-opera characters, sports stars and business leaders, yet at the same time, many Muslims maintain traditional dress, with women in veils and men in traditional clothing seen in both rich and poor neighborhoods. “There is a lot more confidence in Britain to hold on to your identity and be part of your society,” says Shadjareh.

The British reaction also stands in contrast to that of the Spaniards, who, after the Madrid attacks of March 11, 2004, reacted with massive public demonstrations, denouncing both the war in Iraq and what they saw as a cover-up by the conservative party then in power, which resulted in that government's ouster. Here, though, party politics has remained at the sidelines.

In the United States, the post–9-11 response was most apparent in subway stations and shopping malls, where commuters and shoppers suddenly found themselves being watched over by machine gun–wielding National Guardsmen. This GI Joe response was ostensibly to protect against further attacks, although how a potential machine-gun battle in the middle of Grand Central Station was supposed to make anybody feel at ease is unclear. It did, however, mentally prepare Americans for the feeling that they were at war -- and appropriately so, one supposes, considering that they were about to embark on two.

Britain already has an official secrets act that allows prior censorship, a domestic intelligence agency, the MI-5, and a very extensive network of video-camera surveillance. But it also has had a potent civil-liberties backlash in response to police excesses during the years of the Irish Republican Army bombings. A British law allowing indefinite preventive detention for suspected terrorists, enacted in December 2001, was overturned last December by the Law Lords, Britain's counterpart to the U.S. Supreme Court. Current law allows house arrest in some circumstances, but only with the personal approval of the home secretary. The Blair government is seeking new anti-terrorism legislation, but it is being resisted by rank-and-file MPs in all three major parties, including Blair's own.

“We are very conscious of the fact that we don't want to tear up our civil liberties,” says Ramesh Chhabra, the spokesman for Tory Party Shadow Home Secretary David Davis. Chhabra said that while the Conservative Party has long complained about the current immigration system, it's not going to use the attacks as a way to promote tightening the law. And in comparison with the religious rancor that erupted in the United States, with Christian leaders like Franklin Graham referring to Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion,” England's Islamic, Christian, and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement condemning the attacks.

“The interreligious community is strongly united, but it is in a state of fragility after acts like this,” said the Reverend Alan Green, the Church of England representative who has been meeting with Muslim leaders since the July 7 attacks. “We have been as proactive as possible to show that the different faith communities stand together.”

Londoners, so far, are following the lead of Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said, “We won't let a small group of terrorists change the way we live.”

Samuel Loewenberg is a reporter based in Madrid, Spain. He has written for The New York Times and The Economist, among other publications.