Londonistan, irate French officials used to call the city I live in and sometimes love. It’s a good name. Flying into Heathrow from South Asia, you pass through the looking glass into a wonderland where everything that existed in the world you left nine hours ago reappears jumbled up.
It’s only in Londonistan that you could even imagine that there might be a jihadist called Gurukanth Desai.
Mr Desai is one of nine men held just before Christmas for their alleged role in a plot to stage attacks in London. For those of you who aren’t South Asian, his name likely has no more special resonance than the other eight.
But Gurukanth Desai is upper-caste Hindu name, suggesting ethnic origins in western India. Mr Desai, though, is ethnic Bengali and Muslim, whose parents came from the opposite end of the subcontinent. Mr Desai is reported to have earlier used the Bengali Muslim name Abdul Mannan Miah. That Mr Desai’s brother is called Abdul Malik Miah lends this credence.
There’s more: Gurukanth Desai was the name of the lead character in a 2007 hit movie. Guru was loosely built around the life of Dhirubhai Ambani, a petrol pump attendant who built a industrial empire which had an annual turnover of close to £10 billion at the time of his death.
Now, there are some perfectly good reasons why an ethnic Bengali Muslim once called Mr Miah might have decided to rename himself after the lead character in a Bollywood movie. Perhaps Mr Desai, the father of three young children, fell in love with someone who was Hindu and had hoped to win her family’s approval. Perhaps he feared Islamophobia would cost him a chance to build his own £10 billion dream. Perhaps he just really, really liked the movie.
It is also possible, though, that Mr Desai’s motives were less innocent. In 2006, a Pakistani-origin United States national called Dawood Geelani took the name David Coleman Headley. Dawood Geelani’s new name allowed him to acquire a multiple-entry visa, which someone of Pakistani origin would likely have been denied. Mr Headley went on, US and Indian prosecutors say, to conduct the reconnaissance that allowed ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists to attack Mumbai in November, 2008.
The truth will doubtless out as the trial proceeds, but if it is revealed that Mr Desai did indeed have something of the kind in mind, no one ought to be surprised. Britain’s home-grown terrorists have long played a key role in the global jihad. Dhiren Barot – who, in a mirror-image of Mr Desai’s actions, changed his ethnic-Gujarati, Hindu name to Abu Issa al-Hindi – fought with the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir before participating in an al-Qaeda plot to target the US.
Then there was Omar Saeed Sheikh, whose life led him from a British public school to death row in Pakistan.
From the little public-domain information available so far, the nine arrested men seem to have been linked to the London-headquartered al-Muhajiroun. The organisation was proscribed in January this year, but continues to function underground. Last year, The Telegraph reported that a US diplomat had said the UK had “the greatest concentration of active al-Qaeda supporters of any Western country.”
In a superb monograph, Jytte Klausen has shown that al-Muhajiroun and its successor networks were implicated in 19 of 56 jihadist plots linked to the UK between December, 1998, and February, 2010. The bombing of the Indian Army’s XV corps headquarters in Srinagar in December, 2000; the attack on a Tel Aviv bar in April 2003; or last year’s 9/11 anniversary plot: all these involved elements of al-Muhajiroun’s British networks. The International Crisis Group has documented the flow of funds from these networks to the al-Qaeda linked Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen in Bangladesh.
There’s an important lesson here, which is this: policing, though critical, isn’t going to win this war. Leah Farrall, who is among the most perceptive experts on Islamist terrorism, recently observed “that disrupting a network is equated with weakening it, which I don’t think is necessarily the case.” She’s right: hundreds have been held since the tragic events of 2005, but the threat hasn’t receded. That is because while the UK’s police and intelligence services have shown skill and determination, there is no credible political challenge to Islamism itself.
Islamists wish, as all totalitarian ideologues do, to reinvent the world in their image. For years, Britain’s response was a profoundly flawed multiculturalism that in essence sought to buy off Muslim neo-fundamentalists. That misguided enterprise is now dead – but there’s little debate, and even less agreement, on just how to the collective weight of Britain’s cultural and political institutions can best engage the challenge of Islamism.
“This”, wrote Salman Rushdie, “is the question of our time: how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere, and how can it insist on those values even when they clash with some citizens’ traditions and beliefs?”
Now is probably a good time to start debating answers.