What happened in France just days ago will leave scars and bruises long after the actual wounds have healed. The slaughter of the innocents was particularly poignant for me as our eldest daughter lives in Paris, so close to the kosher supermarket where the second massacre took place that she could hear the sirens and shouts. That, I suppose, it what terrorism does: terrifies not just its direct victims but also those who feel only the ripples, the dark vibrations. As a European I also felt the whole gruesome episode at a deeper level, particularly as I come from a part of London that has seen more than its share of Islamist activism.
Nostalgia, of course, tends to be viewed through a defiantly rose-tinted lens. My memory of childhood and youth is one of security, happiness, and a glorious ordinariness. In a town in the south of England called Walthamstow. It’s in the county of Essex but has long been an annex of East London. Working-class, earthy, bland, safe. I remember the local park where we played soccer until it was too dark to see the sweaters we’d thrown down on the grass to act as goalposts.
I write this now because the image is so painful for me. Walthamstow-raised 28-year-old Abdulla Ahmed Ali would meet with his gang in this same park to plan what would have been the largest terrorist bombing in British history, one that would have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, children, and babies. Ali and two others, Tanvir Hussain and Assad Sarwar, were convicted just a few years ago of conspiracy to commit mass-murder. A fourth man was convicted of conspiracy to murder.
The group promised that “martyrdom operations upon martyrdom operations will keep on raining on these kuffars [non-believers]” and “ripping amongst your people and scattering the people and your body parts.” When asked if they had been brain-washed, their leader replied, “Yes my brain has been washed in the clean and cleansing waters of Islam and the Koran and the Sunnah [the path of the Prophet].”
It would be comforting, particularly for those of us who as Christians would prefer to turn the other cheek, to smugly assume that these men were aberrations, mere manifestations of angry and dysfunctional youth. There are two answers to such complacent and dangerous relativism. First, angry and dysfunctional youth fight and steal, they do not spend months planning slaughter. Second, these young Muslims are far from unique in a community that is deeply troubled and replicated throughout Europe.
Walthamstow itself is worth study. It was home to one of the men who helped kidnap American journalist Daniel Pearl, he who was told to “admit” he was a Jew before having his head cut off in front of a video camera. His kidnapper attended the expensive local private school in Walthamstow. I and my friends came from families that could never have afforded such luxury. Pearl’s father, by the way, tours the world preaching reconciliation and forgiveness. The town and surrounding areas have also seen an unparalleled increase in violent anti-Semitic incidents. In virtually every case the culprits are Muslim.
British media has revealed that the intelligence services have prevented dozens of terror attacks from Muslim extremists and there have been many major exposés of English mosques where violence and intense hatred are regularly preached. There also exist several recordings of Taliban fighters speaking in strong regional accents only used by people born and raised in England.
There are 1.6 million Muslims living in Britain and, according to the most extensive survey so far conducted, 45 percent of them believe that 9/11 was an American or Israeli conspiracy. Almost 25 percent argue that the 7/7 attacks in London were justified because of the British government’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same number, around a quarter, believe Britain is not their country, and 30 percent would rather live under Sharia law. Twenty-eight percent hope that Britain will eventually become a Muslim fundamentalist nation and a massive 78 percent advocate punishment for anybody who displays cartoons offensive to Islam, such as those of Mohammad published in Denmark or—naturally—those that led to the massacre of journalists in Paris.
Similar numbers are reflected in other surveys and what is particularly obvious and repeated is how little support there is within the Muslim community for notions of free speech when Islam is allegedly mocked or even critiqued. There were convictions, for example, of demonstrators in London publicly calling for Pope Benedict and leading Catholics to be slaughtered after the Pontiff dared make reference to a question asked about Islam by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor.
It’s difficult to see how a civilized country with free education and health care, a reliable and fair police service, judiciary, and bureaucracy, and a tolerant culture and tradition of decency and moderation can have produced so many such people. Certainly not because they have been oppressed or denied the privileges of every other British citizen.
Nor is race an issue. Hindus and Sikhs came to Britain at exactly the same time as Muslims and the latter, because of their distinctive headgear, probably faced the most acute racism. These communities certainly encountered problems but also enjoyed legal support and the backing of intelligent British society, which is the vast majority of people. Both groups have produced extensive middle classes and are part of the greater British fabric. As for foreign wars, British Muslims are overwhelmingly South Asian and most authorities view their alleged fraternity with Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan as mere posturing.
The problems are deep, profound, and disturbing. If we’re sufficiently brave and original we have to intellectualize the instinctive and ask what many know to be an obvious question. Is this about Britain and the West or—however complex the issues and whether we like it or not—is it all about Islam?
Catholics in Britain faced their own struggles, just as they did in North America and others parts of what was often an Irish diaspora. But at the height of, for example, the IRA campaign against the British, there were far more men of Irish Catholic heritage fighting in the ranks of the British Army than there were in the IRA. Today, there are more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than are in the British Army. Catholics have faced genuine discrimination in adopted homelands historically, yet never reacted with such anti-human terrorism and sheer disregard for life.
For individual Catholics and for the Church, the challenge is to react with love, empathy, and moderation but also with determination, courage, and the defence of truth. Hatred is not only far from being the answer but is also vehemently anti-Catholic; indifference or pretending there is not an international war of values and virtues, though, is just as bad.