As Britain marks the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks in London, one question dominates discussions in the media, political organisations, and family circles.
The question is: to what extent do British Muslims support the cause for which the four terrorists were ready to kill and die last July?
A poll conducted for the London Times last week provides elements of an answer. It shows that 13 per cent of British Muslims, over 120,000 individuals, think that the terrorists should be regarded as "martyrs." Seven per cent believe that suicide attacks on civilians in the United Kingdom can be justified in some circumstances. And, 16 per cent are persuaded that though the 7/7 attacks may have been wrong the cause was right. Two per cent say they would proud if a member of their family joined Al Qaeda.
These are disturbing findings. But, do they reveal the full picture?
The answer is no.
One major problem is that almost everyone has fallen into the trap laid by radical Islamists who claim that they and they alone represent " true Islam", whatever that means. The truth, however, is that the Islamists, divided into countless ideological shades, are political activists motivated by political ambitions in pursuit of political goals. The only religious thing about them is their vocabulary.
The Islamists operating in Britain, and other democracies, would be hard put to claim any religious grievance.
No one prevents Muslims in Britain from practising their faith. There are more places of Islamic worship in Britain, proportionate to the Muslim population of the country, than in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A majority of British Muslims are Sunnis of one denomination or another. None would be allowed to have a mosque in Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic, which is home to more than two million Iranian Sunni Muslims.
Again, proportionate to the size of their community, more British pilgrims perform the Hajj each year than do Muslims from Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic nation. As for Islamic prescriptions on food, known as halal, it is more widely observed in Britain than in some Muslim states. Today, even some Chinese and Italian restaurants in Britain have "halal" signs.
Proportionally more Muslims fast in Britain today than they do in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
And nobody prevents Muslims from having their newborn sons circumcised, while the National Heath service foots the bill.
In Britain today, all books on Islam are freely available and, since there is no censorship, anyone can write and publish whatever he thinks of the faith. That, of course, is not the case in most Muslim countries where " unauthorised books" provide raw material for auto da fe.
When it comes to questions of dress and appearance, the freedom that Muslims enjoy in Britain is not available in any Islamic country. Women wear whatever kind of hijab, veil, niqab, chador and burqaa they like, or are forced by their men-folk, to don.
Whereas the Taliban authorised only one form of beard and treated other styles as "un-Islamic", British Muslims grow a wide variety of designer stubbles, from full-length cascade-like contraptions to well-groomed Van Dykes . In any London street on an average day you could witness a parade of supposedly Islamic clothes: from the so-called "khaksari" to the standard issue shalwar-qamis, and passing by a variety of tribal and other folkloric attires from over 150 different lands.
The British, pursuing their old imperial policy of "benign neglect", which means letting "others" do whatever they like, including stewing in their juice, as long as they do not break the law, have even ignored practises such as polygyny. Those who live in Britain or are frequent visitors know at least a few polygynous ménages wherever there is a substantial Muslim presence.
Until the 7/7 attacks the British penchant for "benign neglect" covered the activities of the most dangerous terrorists. Many political parties and groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hizb Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party), that are banned in Muslim countries were free to operate in Britain without hindrance while London flourished as the real capital of the Arab media that included dozens of newspapers, magazines , radio stations and websites dedicated to violent action.
Some might remember the exasperation of the Algerian government, to cite one example, begging the British authorities not to let London be used as a base for the deadly Islamic Armed Group (GIA). France spent 11 years seeking the extradition of the mastermind of a terror attack on the Paris Metro. (The man was extradited only after the 7/7 attacks.) Many remember Abu-Hamza al-Masri, the man who had seized control of a mosque in London and turned it into a base for terror. But, few might recall that he had been granted British citizenship and never told to moderate his language. Some may have forgotten that the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the hero of Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation, was planned in London. Not surprisingly, the British capital came to be known as "Londonistan".
Until 7/7, Britain was an earthly paradise both for ordinary Muslims who wish to practice their faith in peace and for Islamists who think they have a mission to recast the world after their dreams that are nightmares for everyone else.
In the past 12 months, the British government has tried to develop what Prime Minister Tony Blair calls a new understanding with Muslims in the United Kingdom.
Blair's policy in this respect, however, is likely to fail.
The reason is that the Blair analysis is based on a fundamental contradiction. Moments after the attacks, the prime minister declared that the tragedy had nothing to do with Islam. And yet he immediately invited the self-styled "leaders of the Muslim community" to Downing Street to discuss the matter. That exercise led to the creation of a commission, filled with " Muslim leaders" . As might have been expected the commission came up with the classical recommendations of the usual suspects in the do-gooders' universe: better schools, more jobs, improved PR, and help for those suffering from " identity crisis."
However, there is no such thing as a Muslim community in Britain. There are over 100 communities with different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, different understandings of Islam, and distinct social and religious structures.
These communities have two points in common.
The first is a general attachment to a broad, though never defined, idea of Islam in the same way as Calvinists, Catholics and Moonists might all describe themselves as Christians. If spelled out, that attachment could lead to conflict among the communities. Kept implicit and vague, it enables the communities to see themselves collectively as an " us" vis-a-vis the larger British " them."
The second point is that all the communities realise that while delving into
theological matters would divide them, focusing on political issues, such as Palestine and Kashmir, could offer a degree of unity vis-à-vis the broader " them." The result is been an excessive politicisation of Islam in Britain as its religious aspects are de-emphasised.
Today, what Islam must decide in Britain, indeed in all democracies, is whether it wants to be a religion or a political movement. The current British policy of treating Islam as a special case, a political movement that is also a faith, is bad both for Britain and, in the longer run, for Islam.