July 7 2005 will be remembered for the terrible bombings which killed more than 50 people on the London transport system. The date was not random. For while innocent people going to work were blown to pieces by four separate bombs, 400 miles away in Gleneagles the G8 leaders, led by Bush and Blair, were surrounded and protected by the highest levels of security, including 1,300 Metropolitan police.
The day before, on 6 July, around 10,000 of us assembled in the small Scottish town of Auchterarder to demonstrate against war, poverty and globalisation. Buses were prevented from entering the town, a huge fence surrounded the luxury hotel and golf course where the G8 leaders were holed up, and when there was a breach in the fence riot police were brought in by helicopter. It took our car over three hours to reach the town from Edinburgh, and while en route we were told the march had been cancelled, then put back on.
The war on Iraq and the disastrous occupation were not even on the agenda for the G8 talks. The bombs appear to have been designed to make the maximum impact while Bush was in Britain.
The response to such bombings must be horror. Londoners travel on public transport more than people in other parts of Britain. The people killed had nothing to do with the G8 policies, or with the war or occupation. Some of them will have opposed these policies. People going to work on a summer morning cannot be legitimate targets in any sense. They are innocent victims just as those in Fallujah were innocent victims.
It was obvious to many people that this was about the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Much has been made of people in London being calm or stoical, ‘defying the terrorists’ by carrying on as usual. The fact is that most people have no choice but to carry on, despite the real fear that people feel – a fear exacerbated after the second attempted bombings on 21 July and by the news that the first attacks were done by suicide bombers. It is also true that many people expected an attack – and the tacit understanding had always been that such a threat had arisen because of the war.
The mood in London was very different from that in New York after 9/11. The tragedy was not of such great proportions, and it was anticipated. But also the sense of revenge was not of the same magnitude. Indeed, there was a widespread feeling that revenge was not the answer to the attacks, and there were no demands from the government for new attacks (perhaps because it had already attacked and occupied two countries since 9/11 and had only exacerbated the threat of terror). However, two areas were apparent where life was going to be much more difficult: among the Muslim community which immediately came under attack from racists, some politicians and some sections of the media, and in the sphere of civil liberties where there were immediately calls for new laws to prevent terrorism.
Bush declared from his first press statement from Gleneagles that morning of 7 July that these attacks vindicated his war on terror, his invasions and occupation. The rest of us were told that we should not make political capital out of the disaster. The Washington hawks could barely contain their satisfaction that they could seize on an event which, they thought, would vindicate their actions. The US politicians and the media in particular tried to turn it into another 9/11. The implication, which in the days following rapidly became explicit, was that London had been too soft on terrorism, too tolerant, too willing to put up with extremists, and was now paying the political price.
A right wing US columnist in the Financial Times, Amity Shlaes, put it like this, evoking, as so many US right wingers do, Churchill and the Second World War: ‘How does George Bush feel after the July terrorist attacks on London? Perhaps the way Winston Churchill felt after Pearl Harbor. Relief is the wrong word – you cannot feel relief after a bloody attack on a friend. But there is some sense of relief that a friend will be joining you in a struggle’ [Financial Times, 1 August 2005].
Desperate to enlist people from Britain in their new crusades, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld belittled the major political concerns which dominate the Arab world and beyond. He talked of Arab grievances as stemming from ‘real and imagined affronts going back centuries, including, but not limited to: US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia…; the founding of Israel in 1948; the break-up of the Ottoman Empire some 80 years ago; the reconquest of Spain from the Moors in 1492; and the Crusades, the first of which was in 1095’ [Financial Times]. It would be interesting to know which of these Rumsfeld believed was imagined. The subtext was clear: these people will never be satisfied because they care what happened to them hundreds of years ago – part of their irrational hatred of the west.
The sense that current wrongs might be a greater motivation for opposing the west than 1,000 years of history was strenuously denied by the British government which, from the beginning, went out of its way to say this has nothing to do with Iraq. Foreign secretary Jack Straw, even joined at one point by London mayor Ken Livingstone, stressed the point time and again. Unfortunately for them, few people believed them.
It was obvious that the government was in denial about the role of the Iraq war in increasing the threat of a terror attack on London. At first only isolated voices made the connection. When George Galloway and Tony Benn attended a Stop the War press conference on 8 July, the hostility of the right wing press was tangible. But rapidly the government’s argument was demolished: by the Chatham House report which made the link with Iraq, with the government’s own intelligence committee – comprising MI5, MI6, the Metropolitan Police and 11 government departments – which, it was revealed, had warned only in June that the war had made terror attacks more likely.
War in Iraq
The government argument was up until then simple but flawed: 9/11 had happened before the war in Iraq. But that ignored the previous wars and grievances: the first Iraq war and the bombings and sanctions which killed so many Iraqi children; the occupation of Palestine; the siting of US troops on Arab soil. The war in Iraq, plus that in Afghanistan, compounded those grievances, spreading terrorism in Iraq itself, and spreading it abroad as well.
The deterioration of Iraqi society and the lives of ordinary people there continues. The lie that democracy and freedom are taking hold there, and that the situation is improving, only matches the lies we were told about this war before it started. Robert Fisk wrote recently on his return to Baghdad: ‘In “real” Baghdad – where the president and prime minister and the constitutional committee never set foot – they ask you about security, about electricity, about water, about when the occupation will end, when the murders will end, when the rapes will end. They talk, quite easily, about the “failed” Jaafari government, so blithely elected by Shias and Kurds last January. “Failed” because it cannot protect its own people. “Failed” because it cannot rebuild its own capital city… and because it cannot understand, let alone meet, the demands of the “street” [The Independent 15 August 2005].
The number of US soldiers killed in Iraq is reaching a rate comparable to the war in Vietnam, and August could be one of the bloodiest months yet. Cindy Sheehan, mother of the US soldier Casey Sheehan killed in Iraq, has received mass support for protesting at the war by camping outside George Bush’s ranch while he is on holiday.
If you want to deny that the terrorist attacks have anything to do with the war, as this government does, then you have to find something or someone else to blame. Here there is a great deal of unanimity from politicians and the press: blame it on Islam, on extreme and irrational religion. There has been a rapid increase in racial attacks, especially on Muslims, since 7 July. There has also been a sense of fear among many sections of Muslims, fearful that they will be isolated and physically attacked.
But there has also been increasing anger from sections of the Muslim community who feel that Muslims have absolutely nothing to apologise for. They hear Muslim leaders mouthing similar sentiments to those of Tony Blair and they ask, who exactly are these leaders? Who elected them and who do they claim to represent?
We have all been treated to a series of right wing diatribes about integration and multiculturalism. Some of these are no more than ill-disguised racist attitudes: that ‘foreigners’ should be like ‘us’; that we should all subscribe to some mythical notion of British values – which according to the Tory Party should include support for the monarchy. Yet there has always been a clash between so called British values – of empire and nationalism, for example – and the values of civil liberties and equality.
British Muslims could be forgiven for asking what British values they have been signed up to which include them having to suffer some of the worst housing, education, health and poverty of anyone in Britain – as well as the racism and Islamophobia which are endemic in British society.
Muslims have also been at the sharp end of the attacks on civil liberties which have followed in the wake of 7 July. Within the past weeks there have been serious calls to prosecute Muslim clerics under the treason laws; the government is going ahead with deporting people to countries which practise torture (from which many of them sought asylum here in the first place); it is considering banning non-violent groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir; and it is considering new catch-all offences on aiding or ‘glorifying’ terrorism. These laws are some of the most illiberal of modern times.
On top of these attacks came the brutal killing of the young Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police at Stockwell tube station. Following the killing not only did the Metropolitan Police resist calls for an investigation into what happened, but as leaked documents showed, the Brazilian had not fled from police as initially claimed, nor had he hurdled a ticket barrier at the tube station.
When major events take place they force people to take sides. While the pro-war left has become more rabidly hysterical since the bombings, most of those who opposed the war have held together.
It is a testing time. If the government and its supporters manage to use the terrorist attacks to regain support then the left will be weakened. If the Muslim community, out of a combination of fear and caution, feels that it has to turn upon itself rather than remain part of a wider political movement of protest, then we will all be weakened – not just for a couple of months but for years.
If, on the other hand, the movement can come together and strengthen itself, then it can send a strong message to the government: we are against terrorism, but we are not prepared to back the policy on Iraq, or the attacks on civil liberties that we are being sold. The 24 September is a crucial date: the march for peace and liberty, called by the Stop the War Coalition, CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, is gaining very wide support. Huge meetings over the summer in Scotland, Merseyside and London testify to that. Local groups are being reactivated and new ones being born. Different groups, from local mosques to trade unions, are committed to mobilising on a bigger scale than anything we have seen for two years.
That march can be a turning point to organise against attacks on our liberty, against racism – and to bring the troops out of Iraq.
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