7/7 Bombings Prompted An Outpouring Of Unity That Britain Needs To Return To

06/07/2015 07:24 | Updated 06 July 2015

To mark the 10 year anniversary of the London 7/7 terrorist attacks, HuffPost UK is running Beyond The Bombings, a special series of interviews, blogs, in-depth features and exclusive research reflecting on how Britain has changed since.

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The victims of the London 7/7 bombings represented London. They were white, black, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. They hailed from places as varied as Israel, Poland, the Caribbean, Turkey, France and Australia.

Just one day before the devastating attacks that killed 52 people and injured nearly 800, the city was celebrating winning its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, following a campaign that often preached about the diversity of its residents.

But London’s confidence in multiculturalism was shaken when it was revealed that the men who blew themselves up in Tube trains and a bus were all British Muslims, second generation immigrants who claimed to kill in the name of their faith. The country began looking inwards, asking whether the four ‘home-grown’ suicide bombers were a product of their religion, or background.

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Tributes to the 52 victims of the bombings at Edgware Road Tube station a week after the attacks

Ten years on, more than half of Britons (56%) now regard Islam - the religion generally, as distinct from Islamic extremists - as a threat to the UK, according to an exclusive YouGov poll for The Huffington Post UK. This is a marked rise from just 46% of people who said the same thing in a poll taken the day after the 7/7 attacks.

It would be easy to conclude that 7/7 was the starting point for this rise in intolerance, but there’s plenty of evidence that the bombings actually did the opposite.

Some academics and media commentators believe that in fact, Britain’s worst ever terror attack led to a spirit of tolerance, and a sense of unshakable unity between the country’s different cultures.

At first, the reaction was certainly ugly. A report from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) found that there was a “temporary and disturbing” increase in faith-related hate crimes across the UK in the five weeks after the attacks. Most were verbal or minor physical assaults and attacks on mosques as well as Sikh temples. This wasn’t just in London: The South East Wales Race Equality Council reported a “very big” rise in incidents from 10 a month, to more than 30 in just two weeks.

But just a month after the bombings, the increased violence suddenly vanished, the EUMC report found, and levels of faith-related hate crime returned to normal.

What caused Britain to choose unity over hatred? Academics and commentators attribute it to the actions of politicians, religious leaders, police and some elements of the media, which went to great lengths to emphasise the message that these four killers did not represent Islam.

“The strong stand taken by political and community leaders both in condemning the attacks and defending the legitimate rights of Muslims saw a swift reduction in such incidents,” the EUMC report says.

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Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London at the time, made it very clear that reprisals against Muslims would be dealt with. While the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “We have to be clear that the people who carried out these acts are criminals. Whether or not they seek to justify their acts by reference to religion, what they did was mass murder. No religion supports that. It is therefore absolutely crucial that there be no backlash against any section of the community. Any such backlash would simply play into the hands of the murderers.”

Christian and Jewish leaders quickly expressed their support for their counterparts in Islam, and the British Muslim Forum, a body representing over 300 mosques, was one of several groups to issue a fatwa or decree condemning the attacks, even taking out adverts in major newspapers saying ‘Not in our name’. A ‘7 million Londoners, 1 London’ advertising campaign celebrating the diversity of London could be seen on billboards, lampposts and city buses, calling on people not “to be divided by acts of terrorism”.

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The '7 Million Londoners, 1 London' campaign was created by the Mayor of London

Dr Jonathan Leader Maynard, who studies terrorism and other forms of political violence at the University of Oxford, says that spirit of tolerance is something often forgotten about the 7/7 narrative. “What was intense about 7/7, and also about 9/11 - and this is sometimes lost - was that immediately after there was very little anti-Muslim sentiment.

"There’s some wonderful photos of the memorial that instantly rose up around Ground Zero, and an extraordinary array of peace messages from Americans who were visiting, [such as]: ‘This is about all humanity coming together’, ‘You should not blame Muslims’, ‘All religions are in favour of peace’. There was incredibly strong solidarity, very much like you saw after 7/7.”

And it seems to have had an effect. An Ipsos Mori poll for the BBC showed that despite the bombings, there appeared to be no increase in racial intolerance in Britain in the Summer of 2005. A majority of people (62%) thought that multiculturalism made the UK a better place. Another poll for the Greater London Authority, conducted in the September of 2005, showed that 64% of Londoners agreed.

“The lesson of 7 July is that strong, co-ordinated action by all stakeholders works effectively,” the EUMC report said.

Ben Page, director of Ipsos Mori's social research institute, said the first survey showed "the majority of both white British people and Muslims… seem very tolerant of each other, in contrast to media reporting following the London bombing.”

July 7 survivor Gill Hicks lost both her legs and 75% of her blood in the attacks after standing just metres from a Tube bomber. When she was carried from the wreckage, not expected to live, she was given an identity bracelet marking her as “One unknown, estimated female”.

But she agrees “100%” that there was a spirit of tolerance after the bombings and feels that social media has kept some of this feeling alive. “In 2005, we didn’t have Twitter,” she says. “That meant that we didn’t have a hashtag, and what that means is that we didn’t have that moment that people could rally around globally and say ‘We’re all Londoners now.’ [Social media] has created a sense of a global community and complete support. I would argue that we have become a closer place in the light of the attacks.”

But, 10 years on, and after the Tunisia beach massacre, the most serious attack on Britons since 7/7, that spirit of tolerance may have been lost. Support for multiculturalism seems to have plunged: the YouGov research for HuffPost UK (taken before the Tunisia mass shootings) found that only 37% of Britons now say multiculturalism makes the UK a better place to live. A striking fall from 62% in the weeks after the Tube attacks.

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Home Secretary Theresa May lays flowers at the scene where 38 people were killed by terrorists in Tunisia

In 2013-2014, hate crimes in England and Wales rose 5% according to Home Office figures. The extra 2,244 incidents were driven by a 45% increase in religious hate crimes, as a direct response to the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013. In June of that year, the Metropolitan Police reported there had been a specific increase in Islamophobic hate crime in the wake of Rigby’s killing.

The YouGov/HuffPost poll found a decrease in the proportion of people who view British Muslims generally as "peaceful law-abiding citizens". Today, 15% of people agree with the statement that "a large proportion of British Muslims feel no sense of loyalty to this country" and are prepared to "condone or even carry out acts of terrorism", up from 10% a decade ago.

Much of this change has been down to the “steady trickle” of media coverage which questions and focusing on the Muslim community, Oxford’s Maynard says. “It’s really right wing media coverage that has gradually, I think, built up a perception in a lot of people’s minds that this is about the Muslim community in Britain, rather than about a certain section of the Muslim community in Britain.”

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Ged Grebby, the chief executive of Show Racism The Red Card (SRTRC), the anti-racism campaign which works with 50,000 people a year, mainly children, says “you don’t hear positive stories about Muslims.”

He claims we are “bombarded” with negative media images of Muslims, as well as migrants and asylum seekers. Meanwhile, he says community cohesion success stories are covered far less often than 10 years ago. “I think we dwell on the negatives, hugely,” he says. “There’s very little coverage of multiculturalism and all the good things that go on between religions.”

Grebby has seen disturbing growth in Islamophobia among young people over the last ten years. SRTRC research carried out with 6,000 school children between 2012 and 2014 found a third of those aged between 10 to 16 agreed or partially agreed that Muslims are "taking over our country" while on average respondents thought Muslims made up 36% of the population, grossly overestimating the true figure of around 5%. Nearly half of the children (47%) said there are poor relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in England.

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Show Racism The Red Card found strikingly negative views of Muslims among UK school children as young as 10

When the ‘poppy hijab’, a headscarf which aimed to say that the wearer is “proudly British and Muslim” launched for Remembrance Day in 2014, Sughra Ahmed, President of the Islamic Society of Britain said it was “a way for ordinary Muslim citizens to take some attention away from extremists who seem to grab the headlines.”

But Grebby notes that public gestures of solidarity after tragedy can still bring out the tolerance of British society. “We’re based here in Newcastle and the English Defence League marched on the weekend after Lee Rigby’s murder. There were 2,000 people or so, by police estimates, on their demonstration.

“Now, if the family of Lee Rigby hadn’t said that he wouldn't have supported a demonstration and they were actually quite strongly [against] people jumping on the bandwagon around his murder and supporting the EDL, I think you would have had 20,000 or 30,000 people or even more. So I think there is a lot of tolerance within our society.”

“Instances like Lee Rigby, or 7/7, these are the things that overwhelmingly bring people together and don’t lead to the pogroms that you would have in Bosnia or somewhere like that in the past,” Grebby said.

To Oxford’s Maynard, this makes sense. He doesn’t believe that specific incidents, like 7/7 or Lee Rigby’s death, act as the direct catalysts for intolerance. Far more impactful than a one-off attack are wider social trends like the numbers of young people leaving Britain to support Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he says.

“The atmosphere of coverage of people leaving to support Islamic state has led, I think, to an increasing narrative amongst some part of the British population. Whereas after 7/7, people were inclined to say oh, what a few, strange people,’ now there’s a sense that it’s more about the relationship between British society and Islam as a whole.

“So I think that’s part of why to some degree my view would be that tolerance has gone down somewhat, because people have now gained the impression that rather than this being about a few crazy individuals, it’s about a more widespread social problem.”

Typically, terrorists are viewed as strange individuals “completely unlike anyone else” he explains, but this is often a mistaken view. When Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right terrorist, murdered 77 people in shooting attacks in 2011, observers assumed his was mentally ill. But Breivik was proved to be sane at his trial, shocking many that he was more ‘ordinary’ than observers expected.

“One of the most important findings from 40 or 50 years of research on terrorism and other formed of extreme violence... is that people who get involved in these sorts of things are fairly ordinary people. They are not psychopaths, they are not crazy, they are not sort of inherently evil, they are not sadists, there relatively ordinary people who gain a certain set of political beliefs, and personal motivations that make these sorts of acts look justified.”

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Anders Breivik was declared sane and sent to prison for bomb and gun attacks that killed 77 people and injured 200

Understanding the nature of radicalisation, and that the average person is susceptible to it, is key to improving tolerance towards Muslims and other groups, Dr Maynard says: “To explain to people how this can occur can also make clear to people that this not about some sort of macro ideological labels like atheism or Islam, all of which contain far too much diversity to really be helpful.”

Lord Parekh, the Labour peer and political philosopher who chaired the government’s 2000 report into ‘The Future Of Multi-Ethnic Britain’ says that the phenomenon of Brits heading to Syria and Iraq has made us both more compassionate and more fearful towards Muslims. “At one level, British people are more understanding of what is going on within the Muslim community, I mean these stories about kids going off the Syria, or families disappearing in order to live under ISIS control. When this whole thing happens there’s a lot of concern, and there’s even a certain amount of compassionate concern. Why are Muslims doing this? Can we help them in some way?”

“At the same time, as one would expect, there is also a considerable amount of fear, that what happened in 7/7 ten years ago could happen again.” Indeed the YouGov/HuffPost poll suggests a strong climate of fear around terrorism: 79% of people believe an attack on the scale of 7/7 in Britain is likely to happen again, while just 13% believe it is not and 8% do not know.

A new government measure to tackle radicalisation, slammed by critics as extreme and intrusive, has been inspired by the feeling of fear, Parekh said. The ‘Prevent’ duty, which came into force last week as part of the Counter-Terrorism And Security Act, requires requires staff at schools, nurseries, universities, prisons and NHS trusts to monitor and report students and service users for signs of radicalisation, looking out for “changes in behaviour and outlook” and examining IT data.

Parekh slammed ‘Prevent’ as overly counterproductive, saying: “The government is trying to add to it all sorts of things, for example to monitor children, to make sure that in schools they have the right friends. If they come home and dress in a certain way or they like a certain kind of food, well alarm bells should start to ring that they are turning jihadist. Well, this kind of thing reminds me of the Soviet Union, where people could be hanged on the basis of what their children say and teachers’ job was to use the children to collect stories about the parents. We are doing the same thing. I don’t think it is is going to work.

“My feeling is that because of this fear, there is a tendency to take extreme action, which in the long run might precisely make the fear become real.”

Dr Maynard claims Prevent is a “terrible bill” that would have been “an unthinkable law to put before government 10 years ago.”

“It will not be effective in countering radicalisation and completely misunderstands how radicalisation occurs. Putting that priority on monitoring people's views and on supposedly on counter extremism even at the expense of free speech, could create a bad relationship between students and universities.”

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Some university staff are concerned that the 'Prevent' duty will damage relationships with students


The Home Office declined to comment on these views when asked by The Huffington Post UK. A spokesman would not address questions over whether the department considered its approach to radicalism to be intolerant, or whether tolerance is something it considers important when making policy.

But Security Minister John Hayes said the new measure was “about protecting people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism.”

“Protecting those who are vulnerable and at risk of radicalisation is a job for all of us,” he said. “The new duty will make sure key bodies across the country play their part and work in partnership, as part of our one nation approach to bring the country together to tackle extremism.”

The government’s approach to engaging with Muslim groups has clearly shifted. The Muslim Council of Britain, which worked with politicians in the wake of 7/7, claimed in June the government has hampered the fight against extremism by shunning key Muslim groups and refusing to engage with non-violent extremists to understand why young people are travelling to join the so called Islamic State. Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said “It is important government does not talk just to those who agree with it.”

The EUMC report’s advice was that “Positive public gestures regarding Islam, and opening a dialogue with Muslim community representatives – based on the respect for human rights - must not be seen to happen only in a time of heightened tension.”

But Dr Maynard notes that the government has made positive steps towards disassociating Islam with terrorism in some respects, by now using the terms ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ rather than ‘islamic fundamentalism’.

Gill Hicks, who survived the bombings, says that the word ‘tolerance’ itself is another term that could be dropped. “I can’t stand the word tolerance – especially now I’m a minority part of society as a disabled person. If someone says ‘Oh, we’re very tolerant of disabled people’, to me that says ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to look at that person in a wheelchair, but I know they are there, I know they have a right to be there, so we’ll just get on with our lives.’”

“I would like tolerance to be moved into an idea of absolute, seamless acceptance, that it is one society and we don’t have to say we tolerate these different groups.”

How was Britain impacted by the 7/7 bombings? Join the @HuffPostUK conversation on Twitter with #BeyondTheBombings

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