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Sunday 24 July 2005

Pluck giving way to panic as fingers point north

MY PROBLEM as a Londoner is not how to flee from the dangerous city, but how to get into it, for I live seven miles from the centre: 30 minutes by tube. On 7/7, as we are learning to call it, I had to cancel a lunch in Chelsea, owing to there not being time to walk there and back.

On 21/7, as I hope we won't be calling it, I had to get to my dinner date by mini-cab, owing to some drivers on the Piccadilly line refusing to work I was seriously rattled when the police at my tube station broke that news to me. What had happened to the plucky Londoner?

However, I was reassured when I concluded from a statement of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union that the drivers are claiming to be frightened in order to force their employers to hire more staff. Greedy Londoners I can cope with. Scaredy-cat Londoners worry me.

The silver lining was an illuminating conversation with my driver, Tariq, a Muslim of Pakistani origin whom I've known for 20 years. We've always got on, although I felt less friendly shortly after 7/11 - no, sorry, that's a shop, I mean 9/11 - when he assured me that all Jews had stayed away from the Twin Towers that day.

("Of course that's true," observed a Jewish friend when I reported that insight. "We have special Jewish wireless transmitters in our heads.")

Fortunately, Tariq is too intelligent to stay in denial for long, so he didn't tell me - as some of his co-religionists would - that Tony Blair had organised the tube bombings to turn the country against Muslims. He was seriously worried. The problem was not London Muslims, it was, he said with a wave upwards, those Northerners. (Now where have I heard that before?) It was no surprise the bombers came from Leeds.

"The Pakistanis who went there in the Sixties and Seventies were illiterate," he said. "They'd never even seen a train, then suddenly they're on a plane to a new continent, where they live 23 or 24 to a house, working seven days a week in factories. Thirty years on, having married illiterate, non-English-speaking women from home and imported ignorant imams, they still try to pretend they're living in a village back in Pakistan. So they don't value education and they know nothing about the country they live in. And they give no proper advice or guidance to their children."

'The only good news was that Muslims seem more sane about informers than are the Irish: 70 per cent thought people who saw something suspicious should tell the police'

Tariq has three children, all of whom went to university. One daughter works at the heart of government and the other, who is in local government, has a part-time job in adult education. She despairs of the Pakistani women in her classes - there only because very recently it became a prerequisite for citizenship that you take English classes. "They simply don't want to learn," she told Tariq. "Completely inward-looking." Tariq's son will take his degree next year: the only barrier between him and his non-Muslim mates is that as a teetotaller, he finds socialising in the pub wearisome.

My other mini-cab Muslim driver friend has sent his son to Harrow, where he's a sporting and academic star, so not much problem there either. But like Tariq, he will be deeply worried about the potential backlash against Asians. Tariq described how a friend of his, an accountant, was badly beaten up with a white friend a few days ago by white youths who used his skin colour as the excuse: the BNP are mounting a recruitment drive.

Tariq's view is that of most thinking British: the government should kick out the radical foreign imams and young Muslims must be recruited to spread the version of Islam that thinks you should respect your neighbour rather than blow him up.

Unfortunately, while that may all be fine and dandy in the long term, people are wondering what the hell to do now about what Private Eye calls "the bombing community". Some of the media have got bored with spreading the image of defiant carry-on-as-usual Londoners and have switched to panic mode. BBC news on Friday seemed to have deliberately singled out for interview people who were saying they were terrified and would never go by tube again.

The London Independent had the helpful headline: 'City of fear' and the Daily Mirror rather negated the message it carries daily - 'We will hold firm' - by showing alarming pictures of frightened survivors alongside police in chemical suits and carrying guns with the headline: 'Is this how we must now live?'. It was a relief to see the Daily Sport's chirpy instruction that 'We cannot let these bastards change our way of life.'

By Saturday, solutions were in order and varied from meaningless urgings to the public to be vigilant, the Independent's insouciant leader recommending bag searches on the tube that would add maybe 30 minutes to journeys and the Guardian's Polly Toynbee calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England and the closing down of all religious schools.

The Daily Telegraph, however, made the best and the scariest contribution with a poll showing that 6 per cent of British Muslims thought the bombing attacks justified, 11 per cent had a lot of sympathy with the bombers and 32 per cent thought Western society decadent and immoral and believed Muslims should seek to bring it to an end.

The only good news was that Muslims seem more sane about informers than are the Irish: 70 per cent thought people who saw something suspicious should tell the police. The Telegraph's thoughtful leader recommended 10 urgent steps: confidently assert British values, exclude foreign undesirables, repeal the human rights act, crack down on Islamist propaganda, make intercept-evidence admissible in court, increase visible police presence, make policing sensible rather than sensitive, get Muslim leaders to encourage their followers to join the army and police, create effective border controls and increase detention facilities for would-be migrants.

The Irish as well as the British government would do well to study that list. Us decadent Westerners are all in thistogether.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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