Tuesday, September 05, 2006

In Britain, the Jihadi Is Us

September 5, 2006

LONDON -- Two bearded young men in a lounge at Heathrow Airport overhear an American journalist on the phone, describing his forthcoming trip to earthquake-ravaged Pakistan. He hangs up and a conversation with the journalist begins. The pair is headed the same way, to do their part in the ongoing reconstruction effort, though not for any government or recognized humanitarian agency. They are religious students, Muslims, and although they speak in the broad accents of northern England, they dress in the large white skullcaps, long white shirts and short white trousers in vogue with their set.

It's a mostly one-sided discussion. The more assertive of the two derides the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, dictator and Bush puppet. And speaking of puppets, he adds, how about the U.K.'s Tony Blair? At this he launches into a tirade against Anglo-American foreign policy. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is his main point of reference, the authoritative document about American designs.

This anecdote of nine months ago comes to mind on a current visit to Britain, where headlines are dominated by the news that a secluded former convent in East Sussex may have recently served as a terrorist training camp, disguised as a secondary school for Muslim boys. Fourteen suspects are in custody, on top of the 25 arrested in connection with last month's plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic. Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorism Branch, tells the BBC, "the number of people who we have to be interested in are into the thousands."

It is somewhat fitting that Terror Prep (if that in fact is what it was) should have been headquartered on what used to be Christian: Maybe there is a parable here about the eclipse in Europe of a waning faith by a stronger one. Traditional Britons especially see it that way, and while a large majority dislike the Bush administration and opposes Middle East adventurism, they also tend to regard their country's estimated 1.6 million Muslims as alien corn, people whose stern values are dangerously at variance with Britain's tolerant ones. Thus a recent poll finds that 63% of Britons believe that immigration laws ought to be "much tougher."

Yet there is also something too easy about this emerging consensus, which, roughly, wants Britain out of the Middle East and the Middle East out of Britain. What it neglects is the extent to which the attitudes of British Muslims perfectly reflect the attitudes of Britons generally.

Consider the findings of a July YouGov poll on the British view of America and Americans. Sixty-five percent of respondents consider Americans "vulgar"; 72% think American society is unequal; 52% take a negative view of American culture; and 58% believe the U.S. is "an essentially imperial power, one that wants to dominate the world by one means or another." Only 12% of Britons have confidence in U.S. leadership.

The figures would surely have been even more lopsided had the poll been conducted exclusively among British Muslims. But the significant fact here is that on the not-trivial question of attitudes toward the U.S., the Muslim minority population is well in tune with the British majority. Ditto for British views about Israel. On Saturday, the Times reported that anti-Semitic attacks in Britain were near a modern-day high, which the paper attributed to Israel's war with Hezbollah.

It's a fair bet that an overwhelming majority of Britons deplore these attacks, the perpetrators of which are often Muslim. But leave aside the act and examine the attitude. By a 3-1 margin, Britons blamed Israel for using "disproportionate" force in Lebanon, and more Britons are in sympathy with Palestinians than with Israelis. The view is even more skewed among the British intelligentsia: The British teachers' union recently voted a boycott of Israel, following a similar boycott (since rescinded) by British university professors of two Israeli universities.

Such views aren't just waterborne; they spring from the data set from which almost all Britons judge Israeli actions. Trevor Asserson, a solicitor, has compiled lengthy reports of BBC coverage of Israel: He finds that of 19 documentaries on Israel or the Palestinians aired by the BBC from 2000 to 2004 (as compared to only five about the earlier, nearer and far deadlier conflict in the Balkans), almost all were savagely critical of Israel. "The Accused" indicts Ariel Sharon as a war criminal; "Dead in the Water" alleges that Israel bombed an American ship in 1967 to disguise Israeli atrocities in the Sinai and to provoke an American nuclear strike on Cairo; and so on.

Compound this with the similar slant and tenor of nightly BBC coverage of Israel, the U.S., Iraq, Lebanon and Guantanamo Bay and it isn't hard to understand the sense of rage, easily descending to radicalism and violence, which typifies the political sensibilities of so many British Muslims.

True, other factors are at play. The unemployment rate of British Muslims is three times that of the overall population, according to a 2004 survey, and the country's Muslims tend not to participate in civic life. These details get lumped together in the catch-all of "social exclusion," and it's something that rightly concerns British policy makers.

Yet what really ought to terrify Britain's leaders aren't the conclusions that divide mainstream and Muslim Britain, but the premises that unite them. From the credence given to people like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, to the simplistic derision of the U.S. and the frenzied hatred of Israel, the two camps attend the same church and sing from the same hymnal. Until that changes, on one side or the other, Britain will have no respite from the encroaching terror. Or, to paraphrase Pogo: We have met the jihadi, and he is us.

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