by Melanie Phillips
Encounter. 213 pp. $25.95
When Americans express anger or frustration at Europe’s response to the global threat of Islamism, they generally make an exception for one country: Great Britain. The strong British presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s staunch support of President Bush, the legacy of a common history, culture, and language—these have reassured Americans that the United States has at least one ally across the Atlantic on which it can depend.
If the new book by the British journalist Melanie Phillips is right, however, this is an illusion, and a dangerous one at that. A highly successful columnist and broadcaster, and at one time the news editor of the left-wing Guardian, Phillips reveals a very different Britain from the heroic nation that defied Hitler. In fact, she compares the mood today with that of the 1930’s, the era of appeasement. As she shows, senior officials and their cultural cheerleaders still refuse to accept that they are confronted by a murderous, expansionist Islamic ideology, or that their own capital city has been transformed (in a term coined by the Western intelligence community during the 1990’s) into “Londonistan.” For Phillips, Britain is a nation in denial—about Islam, about terrorism, about Israel, and above all about itself.
Londonistan is, first and foremost, about the identity crisis provoked by the terrorist attack on London’s transportation system in July 2005. As the British people learned to their horror, the suicide bombers were not foreigners radicalized by suffering or oppression but true-born Englishmen, with good families and good prospects. They differed from most of their contemporaries in only one respect: they were young Muslims who, as Phillips puts it, had “repudiated not just British values but the elementary codes of humanity.” The leader of the bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, left behind a surreal video in which, speaking in a Yorkshire accent, he blamed his act of mass murder on British “atrocities” against “my people,” meaning the Muslim ummah. He owed allegiance not to Britain but to Islam.
The British Muslim community numbers more than 2 million, which is less than 3 percent of the country’s total population, but it is growing rapidly through natural increase, immigration, and conversion. How many others might there be like Mohammed Sidique Khan, biding their time before turning on their fellow citizens? Officials estimate that some 16,000 British Muslims actively engage in or support terrorism (not counting unknown numbers of foreigners resident in the country). Of these, some 3,000 have been trained at al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
No less terrifying is the fact that even the supposedly mainstream elements in the British Muslim community have become more radical in their political theology. As Phillips shows in a pitiless unmasking, many of the “moderate Muslims” to whom the British authorities regularly pay obeisance are themselves hard-line Islamists, differing only by degree from more notorious recruiting sergeants for jihad.
Of particular interest to Phillips is Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Sacranie was knighted at the same time as Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, evidently for reasons of multicultural balance—though there is no intellectual or moral comparison between Sacks, one of Britain’s most respected religious leaders, and Sacranie, who rose to prominence by supporting Ayatollah Khomenei’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Though he is the government’s chief Muslim interlocutor, Sacranie has an avowedly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic agenda: he justifies Hamas suicide bombings, boycotts Holocaust commemorations, and harasses pro-Israel politicians. When his equivocal attitude to terrorism was exposed by a BBC documentary last year, Sacranie accused his critics of being part of a Zionist conspiracy.
The real wonder, according to Phillips, is not so much that Sacranie and his followers have aired their detestable views, but that their propaganda has been granted legitimacy, even embraced, by British officialdom. Shortly before last year’s bombings, Sir Ian Blair, London’s police commissioner, declared: “There is nothing wrong with being an Islamic fundamentalist. . . . Bridges will be built.” Even after the attack—the worst terrorist episode in London’s history—an assistant police commissioner could tell the nation, “ ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorists’ are two words that do not go together.” Shortly afterward, the police—for fear of raising tensions—persuaded the government to abandon its request for new powers to close down extremist mosques, as well as its plans to outlaw one of the most dangerous Islamist organizations, Hizb ut-Tahrir.
British security agencies do not understand Islamic jihad, Phillips argues, because they instinctively recoil from the idea of a war of religion. Having grown up in the shadow of Irish terrorism, they believe that, like the Irish Republican Army, the Islamists can eventually be induced, with the right package of concessions, to end their “armed struggle.” To Phillips, this is nonsense: there is no deal to be made with those who want to turn Britain into an Islamic republic.
Phillips’s deeper concern is to show how her country reached this pass in its attitudes toward Islamic extremism. The culprit, she believes, is the ideological constellation consisting of multiculturalism, moral and epistemological relativism, and a perverted notion of human rights—all of which have served to “hollow out” traditional British culture. By encouraging Muslims to see themselves as victims, and by failing to instill respect for the majority culture, the British state, Phillips suggests, has connived in the creation of a minority whose instinctive response to terror is moral inversion. Thus, rather than accept responsibility for the jihadists in their midst, British Muslims have demanded that the government redress their own grievances, whether about Israel and Iraq or about the status in Britain of shari’a law. As Sacranie declared after the attacks on London, “the real victim of these bombings is the Muslim community of the UK.”
Still more discouraging for Phillips has been the readiness of her former political allies to make common cause with the Islamofascists. “The Islamic jihad,” she writes, “has turned into the armed wing of the British Left.” What she calls the “red-black alliance” is especially united in its hatred of Israel. Ignorant of history and theology, the leading lights of the universities, the press, and the Church of England have failed (or refused) to grasp the connection between attacks on Israel and the threat to Britain. Instead of seeing Israel as the victim of the Islamists’ “theological animosity” toward Jews and the West, they blame Israel (and its principal ally, the United States) for provoking terrorist attacks, and turn a blind eye to the prevalence of blatant anti-Semitism among their Muslim compatriots.
Londonistan is very much a cri de coeur. But it is not a cry of despair. Phillips advocates an ambitious program to reverse the process that has left Britain uniquely vulnerable to its enemies and uniquely dangerous to its allies. Abolition of wrongheaded human-rights legislation, tougher immigration controls, prosecution of Islamist radicals in special courts, bans on organizations and individual clerics who advocate extremism, close monitoring of mosques as well as of Muslim charities and schools—all of this and more would go far to remove the immediate threat. More problematic, though no less desirable, is Phillips’s call for a restoration of the primacy of indigenous British culture and Judeo-Christian values.
Some consider Phillips an alarmist. My own view is that she has, if anything, understated the peril that the “Londonistan” phenomenon poses to the U.S. and to Europe, both of which owe a profound debt to the British culture that is now in such disarray. When I worked for the London Daily Telegraph, Iqbal Sacranie and Inayat Bunglawala—the latter, another of Phillips’s subjects, is the media spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain—came to see us several times. They strongly objected to our use of the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” and demanded that Osama bin Laden be described not as an “Islamic” or even an “Islamist” terrorist but as an “international” one. To mention Islam in connection with terrorism, these lobbyists insisted, was “Islamophobic.” Their demands were rejected despite hints that Muslim readers might boycott the Telegraph; but the state has been more responsive. Editors must now tread carefully because the law now punishes Islamophobia as a “hate crime.”
Phillips has written a superb indictment of this frame of mind—an indictment, moreover, that no mainstream British publisher would touch—but will any of her recommendations be heeded? As she admits, “there is very little chance” of it. In fact, the problems she identifies are likely to grow. When the world turns its eyes to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, what it will see right next to the Olympic Stadium is one of the largest mosques in the world, with a capacity of 70,000 worshippers. The funds for this massive project have come from Tablighi Jamaat, an avowedly Islamist global organization that the FBI says is used by al-Qaeda to recruit terrorists.
It is hard to imagine a more potent symbol of the transformation of London into Londonistan. And it is hard to imagine a greater prize for the Islamists than the infiltration of the land that gave birth to liberty. Anyone who cares about Britain, or indeed about the survival of Judeo-Christian civilization, should read Melanie Phillips’s brave and disturbing book.