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Terror in the UK: PM Assassination Plot Highlights Differences Between UK and US Muslim Minority

Britain's homegrown terror crisis has taken on a new dimension in previous days.  Five men have been arrested in central England over a terrorist-plot to assassinate Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former PM Tony Blair.  The organization, al-Qaeda in Britain, made the threats on a popular jihadist website in January and has been under surveillance since that time.  Unique to this case, and further complicating Britain's anti-terror strategy, is that at least one of these individuals is a Caucasian convert to Islam.  While initially frightening from a law-enforcement standpoint, this can be seen as a great development towards developing a more cohesive and inclusive counter-terror policy.

Homegrown terror is nothing new to the United Kingdom, yet something the overall political establishment seems to purposely ignore.  The problem came to the forefront with "shoe-bomber' Richard Reid of South London.  The gravity of the situation was not fully understood until the July 7 London attacks, entirely perpetrated by British born suicide bombers.  Shockingly, several British polls found that 25% of the country's Muslim population refused to denounce the attacks. 

Having lived in America's major terrorist targets ,New York City and Washington, D.C. , and Britain's major terrorist targets ,London and Edinburgh-, there is a strikingly different attitude toward each country's respective Muslim populations.  In the UK, "there is a palpable sense of fear [] of these terrorists – perhaps more so because they walk among us and share our welfare systems and transport networks whilst harbouring plans to destroy it all,' says an English colleague of mine. 

Why the discrepancy in attitude? It is naïve to claim that a significant number of Americans do not fear their Muslim neighbors, yet the facts speak for themselves.  America does not seem to be struggling, at least on as large a scale, with homegrown Muslim extremists.  This occurs because of three fundamental differences between our two very similar nations:  1) the number of Muslims 2) the integration of Muslims and 3) the identity of Muslims.

1) Numbers.  In the United States Muslims account for less than 1% of the total population, and about 3% in the United Kingdom.  This might seem like a similar number, yet in terms of density they are greatly different.  America's Islamic minority predominately lives in suburban neighborhoods or on the outskirts of major cities.  With several exceptions, such as various places in Michigan, the diaspora is vast and members commonly live in multi-ethnic communities with Persians, Pakistanis, Indians, Jews, and Asians.  In Britain, a large proportion of Muslims live in lower-class, socio-ethnic ghettos largely composed of homogeneous, isolated communities.  This isolation is essential for radicalized extremists to attract new members, meet, and plan attacks.  It is also far more difficult for law enforcement to monitor and infiltrate these communities.

2) Integration.  Integration of Muslims in to American society is far easier than in the UK.  It is rooted in the "new-world' principles of religious tolerance and political activism.  As a result, Muslim organizations and political movements can be involved in the American process without being forced to forfeit their religious identities.  Minority-rights organizations are nothing new or feared in America, and have been an integral part of the political landscape for centuries.  The American economic model greatly facilitates integration as well.  Like other immigrants, Muslims are in America for political freedom and the chance to get rich; the "American Dream'.  There is no widespread welfare safety-net.  If you fail in America, you go home.  As a result, America enjoys a middle-class and professional Muslim minority. A more affluent Muslim population leads to better financed political organizations and community development.  They can go to better schools, visit better doctors, and eat at nicer restaurants. 

In the United Kingdom, a stagnant economy and a lack of economic motivation has left the Muslim minority disconnected and alienated from the political establishment.  A welfare-society, coupled with extremely liberal immigration policies from the former Empire, has led to a significant population of people living there by default, not because they want to become "British', but because life at home is simply too terrible to tolerate. 

3) Identity.  When it comes to terrorist ideology, there is nothing more important than identity.  Historically, the US has been extremely successful in forging a multicultural identity uniquely known as "American'.  When identity differences do arise, the debate is more concerned with locality than religion:  i.e. Mexican-Americans and Chinese-Americans.  The debate is rarely focused on Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims.  The Muslim population within the United States has no conflict in identifying themselves as Muslim and American.  In the United Kingdom, and indeed Europe at large, there is a perceived incompatibility with being Muslim and being European; epitomized by the French head-scarf ban.  This has led a large number of disenfranchised youth to view themselves not as "British', but something "other'.  Identity confusion of this sort is something Islamic fundamentalists readily exploit, particularly al-Qaeda.  Bin Laden promotes a transnational, global, Muslim identity that views the political "state' as illegitimate.  These British citizens are highly valuable for al-Qaeda linked or inspired organizations, and are subjected to extensive recruitment initiatives.

The United Kingdom must somehow engage its Muslim minority in a fair and mutually beneficial relationship.  Crackdowns on these communities, without proper explanation or local support, will further alienate these people from the political process and the "British' identity.  They must be given a ladder to economic advancement and take part in the UK experience.  They must view an attack on British society as an attack on their own society, as they are intrinsically paired.  Numbers are hard to change, but integration and identity are fluid concepts, both of which must be addressed should this homegrown terror crisis be averted.  Ironically, al-Qaeda in Britain's use of a white Muslim convert can be a positive development for British society in that it blurs the lines between who is suspect and who is not.   The majority must see that it is not dark-skinned individuals from Pakistan that are the enemy, but a radical ideology.  It took a long time for the British establishment to realize this, but now that the genie is out of the bottle, let's move forward together.



Josh Hammer

Josh Hammer is an International Relations theorist, with expertise in terrorist ideology, American foreign policy, and war / conflict resolution. He currently holds a Master's of Science degree in International Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the George Washington University. Josh's most recent work, his M.Sc. thesis, is a comparative analysis between Marxist / Leninist ideology and Osama bin Laden's global jihadi movement. He currently resides in New York.

Areas of Focus:
Terrorist Idealogy; American Foreign Policy; Conflict Resolution;


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