ARRIVING IN BRITAIN by air the day after two men crashed a gasoline-laden Jeep Cherokee into the main terminal at Glasgow’s international airport, and a couple of days after two car bombs were discovered in the heart of London, I was surprised by how calm everybody was.
Apart from the prohibition of passenger drop-off and pickup next to the terminal building at Birmingham Airport, everything was as usual. Men and women in Muslim garb mingled in the crowd with perfect tranquillity, expecting neither violence nor even verbal reproach.
Was this a sign of the admirable tolerance of British society, or of its bovine complacency born of an inability, or unwillingness, to make the effort to defend itself? Was it decency, cowardice or stupidity?
I really don’t know anymore, which is an indication of the problem: Only time will tell, and by then it might be too late.A friend who met me at the airport said something that must by now be true of many ordinary British people. Just as we used to wonder, on meeting Germans of a certain age, what they had done during World War II, so she wondered, when she found herself next to a young Muslim on a bus or a train, what he thought of the various bombings perpetrated by his co-religionists and whether he might be a bomber. She found herself looking for the nearest exit, as we are all enjoined to do by flight attendants before the plane takes off, in case of the need for swift exit. There are reasonable grounds for suspicion, of course. Surveys — for whatever they are worth — show a surprising, and horrifying, degree of sympathy, if not outright support, for the bombers on the part of the young Muslim population of Britain. They show that a large number of Muslims in Britain want the implementation of Sharia law and think that murdering British Jews is justified simply because they are Jews. And when an atrocity is perpetrated by a Muslim, they evince no passion remotely comparable to that aroused by, say, the work of Salman Rushdie.
On the other hand, day-to-day relations with Muslims are often polite and friendly, and large numbers of Muslim small businessmen depend upon such relations with their non-Muslim customers for a living. This could change.
One of the most sinister effects of the efforts of the bombers and would-be bombers is that they have undermined trust completely. This is because those under investigation turn out not to be cranks or marginals but people who are either well-integrated into society, superficially at least, or who have good career prospects. They are not the ignorant and uneducated; quite the reverse. Seven people detained in the latest plot worked in the medical profession.
The perpetrators do not bomb because of personal grievance but because they have allowed themselves to be gripped by a stupid, though apparently quite popular, ideology: radical Islam. Nor are they of one ethnic or national group only: We have had Somali, Pakistani, Arab, Jamaican, Algerian and British Muslim terrorists. This means, unfortunately, that no one can ever be quite sure whether a Muslim who appears polite and accommodating is not simultaneously contemplating mass murder. Deceit, after all, is one of the terrorists’ deadliest weapons.
Mistrust of Muslims in Britain has developed quite quickly and could develop much further. In my youth, I traveled extensively in the Muslim world and lived for a time in Africa with a Muslim family without being aware of any hostility or antagonism on my part toward the religion or culture (had I been a woman, it might have been different, of course). Contrary to what the late Edward Said, author of the anti-Western “Orientalism,” might have thought, I had inherited no anti-Muslim prejudice.
Now, despite friendly and long-lasting relations with many Muslims, my first reaction on seeing Muslims in the street is mistrust; my prejudice, far from having been inherited or inculcated early in life, developed late in response to events.
The fundamental problem is this: There is an asymmetry between the good that many moderate Muslims can do for Britain and the harm that a few fanatics can do to it. The 1-in-1,000 chance that a man is a murderous fanatic is more important to me than the 999-in-1,000 chance that he is not a murderous fanatic: If, that is, he is not especially valuable or indispensable to me in some way.And the plain fact of the matter is that British society could get by perfectly well without the contribution even of moderate Muslims. The only thing we really want from Muslims is their oil money for bank deposits, to prop up London property prices and to sustain the luxury market; their cheap labor that we imported in the 1960s in a vain effort to bolster the dying textile industry, which could not find local labor, is now redundant.
In other words, one of the achievements of the bombers and would-be bombers is to make discrimination against most Muslims who wish to enter Britain a perfectly rational policy. This is not to say that the government would espouse it, other than surreptitiously by giving secret directions to visa offices around the world. But why should a country take an unnecessary risk without a compensatory benefit?
The problem causes deep philosophical discomfort to everyone who believes in a tolerant society. On the one hand we believe that every individual should be judged on his merits, while, on the other, we know it would be absurd and dangerous to pretend that the threat of terrorism comes from sections of the population equally.
History is full of the most terrible examples of what happens when governments and peoples ascribe undesirable traits to minorities, and no decent person would wish to participate in the crimes to which this ascription can give rise; yet it would also be folly to ignore sociological reality.
All that is needed, then, to deal with the present situation is the wisdom of Solomon.