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Pakistani is a bad word in Britain

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July 25, 2005 15:00 IST

It has been thirty years since I first set foot in London, and I can't help musing over the changes that have been wrought in those decades. You can no longer ask your taxi driver to take you past Downing Street, the men at the immigration counter peruse you much more intently (though they are still as polite), and there is a definite chill in the air which has nothing to do with London's famously gloomy skies and everything to do with how one looks. Until they are reassured that I am a (Hindu) Indian and not a (Muslim) Pakistani, there is a wariness everywhere.

'Paki' has long been a term of abuse in Britain (though not in the United States). It goes back at least twenty years to the days of the infamous race riots. But where it was once mere tinged with contempt there is now more than a little loathing and hatred too.

"Don't be fooled by the apparent normalcy," was the grim warning delivered by a senior figure in the police services, "London has changed after the blasts, and so has Europe." And it all has to do with the apparent role of the 'Pakistanis' in the London blasts. The quotation marks are deliberate since the criminals who carried out the explosions were not really Pakistanis, but British citizens of Pakistani origin. That is a significant difference.

In the past, so the wry quip goes, they were born in Pakistan and would come to Britain for higher studies; today they are born in the United Kingdom but make the trip to Pakistan to finish off their education. My interlocutor may have been speaking tongue in cheek, but I cannot imagine such a comment being made three decades ago.

The old illusion that the terrorists are simply a misguided minority is fast giving way to the new conventional wisdom, namely that the terrorists are simply the most visible face of militant Islam. The second point being hammered away by the security forces into the heads of their political masters is that the most advanced colleges of terrorism, their Oxford and Cambridge as it were, are all in Pakistan. Hasib Hussain, Mohammed Sidique Khan, and Shahzad Tanweer -- three of the four suspects in the London blasts -- were either of Pakistani origin or attended some institution in that country. Other British citizens of Pakistani origin are being questioned in connection with the case.

The three men named above died in the July 7 blasts they are suspected of having set off, and cannot speak for themselves. In the popular imagination, however, the voice of Islamic fundamentalism was heard loud and clear across the Channel in The Netherlands. Muhammad Bouyeri is on trial for murdering Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh (a distant relative of the famous painter) because the director had been critical of some Islamic customs in one of his films. (Never having seen the film, I am not sure what the fuss was about.) Confronted with the victim's mother, Bouyeri contemptuously told her that he could feel no pity for an 'infidel.' He followed this with the defiant proclamation, 'If I'm ever released, I'd do the same again. Exactly the same!'

This level of fanaticism is something that the West has not confronted for a long time. Once, the West was content to believe that terrorism was simply a by-product of poverty. That illusion was shattered along with the World Trade Center disaster, and any lingering remnants have been pounded by the London blasts. The terrorists are coming not from the impoverished masses but from the relatively well-off and educated middle class. If you remove poverty from the equation, what is left but religion?

The onus is now on the larger Muslim community to prove that the terrorists are a minority who don't represent the views of Muslims at large. But hard questions are being asked. Will any Muslim cleric condemn the rule that apostasy -- changing one's ancestral religion -- is to be punished with death if the man changing his faith was originally a Muslim? Nobody would have asked any such thing five years ago.

And when Blair -- not the prime minister, but the man in charge of the investigation -- said sniffer dogs would not be sent into mosques, he was widely criticised. That too is a sign of how much attitudes in London have hardened towards Muslims. The attitude is summed up in the words: 'You live in my house, you live by my rules!'

I have no idea if children in 'secular' Britain read the Bible any longer. They do, however, read Harry Potter, and a line from the latest book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will resonate in British ears: 'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we really are, far more than our abilities.' The Muslims of Europe have hard choices to make today.

T V R Shenoy