Today marks a focal turning point of a chilling combination of skewered identities and sorrowful memories. Ten years ago today I distinctly remember exactly where I was, a luxury I am not too often acquainted with: the afternoon I discovered 52 unnamed civilians were killed in the morning rush hour, and 700 injured after three bombs went off in succession in the London Undergrounds across our city. I was at an Islamic school, it was in a geography class – I remember this vividly because the sound of the screech that followed the news of my friend’s family being allocated in the area of the attacks still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. We were told to physically move away from the windows from those who may attack us as a result of what had just happened. Yet we were mostly worried that loved ones had been caught up in the chaotic cataclysm – we didn’t know much about anything right away, but somehow we heard ‘bombings’ and the free word association began, the second nature reflex that Muslims should be synonymous with suicide bombing.
I couldn’t understand why we felt our own sense of security wiped from beneath our feet whilst we were sitting in the heart of our school, protected by the cold, indestructible tough red brick. Why weren’t we allowed to only feel an unadulterated worry about members of our humankind that had been threatened like everyone else? It’s a foreboding truth to be faced with at the tender age of 13, but little did we know it would become a reoccurring theme growing up throughout our adolescence. Teachers were surrounding us with panic stricken faces pretending to be calm, channelling us in a single file from the back of the school mid-day. We were made to walk briskly through the streets to avoid being seen, an impossible task with a uniform that requires a dazzling white head scarf.
And then there were the ongoing news loops of the unspeakable scenes, captured on bad quality phones by trembling hands that seemed like an assembled cast of the Blair Witch Project, excuse the pun. Perhaps it was the erroneous 24 hour reports by deep voices of baseless news reporters who would shove the reality down our throats in spoonfuls throughout the day, as if to char the senses quickly in a bid to speed up the loss and denial process via de-sensitisation. Every television set was on, and I could feel the radio waves reaching my face from down the street of my neighbour’s house. We didn’t know that from then on as young Muslim girls we wouldn’t have to face bullies in school – we had to face name calling on public transport from people double our age. To the dismay of the masses, no public enquiry took place about the event that took the lives of 52 people; then-Prime Minister Tony Blair blocked all attempts to have this enquiry.
But even more sinister than this narrative, a new scheme was introduced to enforce this feeling of otherness: demonising, excluding and isolating the ‘other.’ As a result of the 7/7 bombings, the Prevent Strategy was first implemented. It is a programme aimed at individuals to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. PREVENT (preventing dissent) and extremism in institutions incorrectly conflates defeating an ideology (described as Islamism) with defeating terrorism. PREVENT includes policemen who have been given the Orwellian role of “thought police,” stopping crimes before they happen. Putting “the home offices channel programme on a national legal footing.” Methods used to implement this policy, however, have become counterproductive and threatening to many in the Muslim community. It is a strategy that targets individuals, spying on them through their colleagues in the NHS, Social Services, teachers and even friends. Private conversations are monitored and surveilled in cars and on phones, a truly threatening and harrowing reality of a Big Brother state. There is no clear strategy of PREVENT officers in their investigations. With little to no accountability for charges made operating outside of a legal process, nothing is made available for challenging the highly discriminatory assumptions made and the data collected about the presumed culprits. Not to mention, there is a very fine line between various religious affiliations. I wonder how well trained these ‘thought police’ officers are in their ability to discriminate between various philosophies in Islam that Muslim scholars of the 21st century have dedicated their lives to examining. To answer such questions, what constitutes as harbouring ‘extreme views’? Extensive knowledge is required before implying that a person who practices their religion in a way that is perceived to be an unacceptable version to one person should automatically fit their scrutiny for being ‘extreme.’ Racial and religious profiling serves to undermine, demean and divide communities not strengthen and unite them.
But this post is to serve as a reminder as to how innocent bystanders can get caught up in the firing line of the mistakes made by governments or even troubled individuals. Make no mistake about this, the affects of these programmes put into play are in fact monumental on a community as a whole, and a threat to the psychological and physical well being of its inhabitants as a result. It is also a direct strike to the very vibrations of our identities – we are forced to, although refuse to, live as victims. Those who choose to make an honest living or ride the train to work – from any religion or creed – have suffered, but we still stand by each other in humanity and choose to rise above the black-and-white causal fallacy that seeks to bring animosity and mistrust between us. For the victims of 7/7.
Written by Hanan Abdel-Khalek.