Notes from the Underground

Playwright Vanessa Walters remembers the culture-shock of moving from the suburbs into inner-city London:

Muslim preachers reached out to young people on the street. Most days they would set their trestle tables up in front of Walthamstow tube station. From them they sold incense, books, tapes and mobile-phone accessories. They also did a bit of amateur converting. Young, cool and of all races, they were in tune with the lost youth – male and female. I often debated with them about everything from short skirts to female circumcision. They criticised my loose social mores, but they understood my pain too – what it was like to be from a broken home and to be on the outside looking in. They gave me a free Qur’an and offered contact with Muslim Sisters, who would set me straight and find me a husband. They offered concrete solutions.

Much has been made of the “middle-class” (if you really don’t like that phrase try replacing it with “comfortable”) origins of the 7/7 bombers, but it is surely only a matter of time before British suicide bombers start fitting the profile of Richard Reid much more than Shehzad Tanweer. In a city such as London there are whole battalions of potential terrorists looking for simplistic narratives which seem to explain the confusing and hostile world which they find themselves in. What is perhaps even more worrying is that few high-up British officials, products of grammar school, university and a straightforward promotion path, seem to have the slightest insight into the minds of the lost and alienated peoples of the modern city.

In a rather sweeping statement psychiatrist Michael Welner says that “Converts are the terrorists of the future because they ‘re impressionable, because they’re intense, because they have to prove the sincerity of their faith.”

Most converts to religions or ideologies are of course very unlikely to become violent psychopaths, but how many does it take to cause an outrage? I suspect that we all understand what Welner is getting at even if we don’t agree with his generalization. My question is this: If we want to keep the Reid’s of the future away from the Tanweer’s of the future should we not be co-operating with mainstream Islam , and if so how should this be achieved? It is unrealistic to think that society can prevent young people from seeking explanations for the world around them. Even speaking as a confirmed atheist I would suggest that you can no more keep young people away from the pull of religion than you can stop them from becoming Marxists.

Walters realizes that she was lucky enough to escape the fate reserved for others:

At the time I was lucky enough to receive one of those now-obsolete government scholarships to a private girls’ school in the centre of London, which gave me a horizon beyond my own circumstances. But on the streets Islam offered answers to the feelings of worthlessness experienced by young men and women, a support network guiding them away from single motherhood, a life of crime or a mainstream culture from which they felt excluded.

Just how many of those who remain “excluded” do you think are ripe to become terrorists?