UK bombings left their mark

2006-07-06 14:46
<b>A general view of the Big Ben clock tower in London, a year after the suicide attacks.
(Sang Tan, AP)</b>

A general view of the Big Ben clock tower in London, a year after the suicide attacks. (Sang Tan, AP)

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London - One year on, the London bombings have left an indelible mark on British society, ranging from tougher anti-terrorist laws to a complex debate about "Britishness".

In particular, the fact that the four suicide bombers were themselves British has created a seemingly lasting suspicion about the nation's 1.6 million Muslims.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government reacted to the July 7 attacks on three London Underground trains and a bus, in which 56 people died including the bombers, by intensifying contacts with Muslim community leaders.

New terrorism law

But at the same time, it also beefed up laws dealing with terrorism, with Blair arguing that legislation set out in the 19th century could no longer deal with security threats in the 21st century.

The Terrorism Act 2006, which came into effect in April, notably makes "glorification" of terrorism a crime - a measure intended to discourage those whose praise of violent acts might encourage others to kill and maim as well.

Critics say the concept is too vague, and liable to restrain free speech.

Preparing a terrorist act and spreading terrorist publications also became crimes, while police won the power to detain security suspects without charge for up to 28 days - double the earlier allowable period.

Setbacks

Pushing the legislation through parliament was not easy, however, and Blair suffered his first defeat in the lower House of Commons when it rejected his preference for 90 days of police detention without trial.

In another setback for the government, the High Court in London recently cancelled the house arrests of six Iraqis suspected of terrorist connections, declaring that the detentions violated their human rights.

So-called control orders issued by the home secretary were deemed to be "incompatible" with the European convention on human rights which prohibits indefinite detention without a conviction.

In all, 14 people, including five British citizens, are currently under control orders, which were issued by the home office and are regularly submitted to the courts for ratification.

Embracing 'British values'

Meanwhile, the fact that the perpetrators of the London bombers were "homegrown" added extra vigour to a debate that was already underway about what it means to be British, especially for recent immigrants and their descendents.

Since July 7, there have been growing calls for newcomers to embrace "British values" and a programme to explain those values in schools is to be introduced later this year.

"For decades, incidents and violence involving minority groups have been analysed as a failure of the country to overcome inequalities," said scholar Christophe Bertossi of the University of Warwick and the French Institute of International Relations.

Race riots

Race riots in the rustbelt northern English town of Bradford in the summer of 2001 was a turning point that was amplified by the September 11 attacks in the United States later that year and, to a greater degree, the London bombings.

"It's now considered that it is the identity of minority groups which poses a problem," Bertossi told AFP. "And this identity is no longer ethnic, but religious."

Bertossi disputes this analysis, which he believes is based on confusion between international crises putting Islam and the West into conflict and the problem of integrating immigrants in Britain.

Discrimination, inequality

Discrimination and economic inequality persist, he said, adding: "Muslims remain among the poorest in the country, and they feel more and more the victims of ostracism."

Several elements point to a gap in understanding between Britain's Muslims, most of whom trace their heritage to Pakistan and Bangladesh - once vital parts of the British Empire - and the rest of British society.

For some observers, however, the situation is not much different than that seen in the 1970s when Irish people living in Britain felt the chill created by an Irish Republican Army bombing campaign on English soil to challenge British rule in Northern Ireland.

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