Few Western Prime Ministers have seen a more dramatic start to their time in office than Gordon Brown. Within days of taking over from Tony Blair, he was forcibly reminded that the terrorist challenge that so preoccupied the previous Labour government has not gone away but is as dangerous and unpredictable as ever. Two car bombs in London that could have killed hundreds had they exploded were followed a day later by an extraordinary suicide attempt to crash a Jeep full of explosives into the heart of Glasgow airport.
For most Britons, the immediate reaction on seeing pictures of the first booby-trapped Mercedes outside a London nightclub was: “Oh God, here we go again”. That was swiftly followed by a huge collective sigh of relief that, miraculously, the bomb had not gone off. Vigilance by an ambulance crew who spotted the suspicious car had saved the nightclub, and commentators underlined the continued importance of vigilance by ordinary people and private security guards. But events then moved very fast. The police found mobile phones that gave them leads to the terrorist network. Then they made the discovery that shocked everyone: almost all the men involved in the plot were doctors who were working in Britain’s National Health Service.
People were incredulous. How could doctors, newspapers asked, who are pledged to save life plot to kill and maim so many people? How had al-Qaeda succeeded in recruiting so many people who were “clean skins” – unknown to Britain’s police and intelligence services? Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims were even more shocked. The news was a double blow – first, that Muslims were again being blamed for terrorist actions aimed at killing innocent men and women, and secondly that it was doctors involved. For Muslims, the pioneering discoveries of the early Muslim physicians in the tenth and eleventh centuries are a source of pride. Medicine probably owes more to Islam than to any other religion or philosophy, and most of the discoveries and advances of the past nine centuries have built on the writings and textbooks produced in the golden age of Islam. The doctors’ plot in Britain seems deliberately designed to besmirch that heritage.
The news was also deeply unsettling to the very many foreign doctors in Britain. Of Britain’s 277,000 registered doctors, 128,000 were trained abroad. There are thousands from the Middle East – and some 1,985 have come from Iraq alone. Many more have arrived from India: some 27,000 Indians doctors are currently working in Britain, including many Muslims. The Government immediately announced that it would scrutinize all applications to work in medicine, and in other high-profile professions such as engineering, much more carefully in future.
But public trust is an early casualty of the plot. Indian and foreign doctors all say that they are worried that ordinary Britons may now regard them with suspicion, and this will increase racial tensions. Various associations of foreign doctors have put out strong statements condemning terrorism. And Muslim organizations in Britain, fearful that they will be denounced for not doing enough to stop extremism, have also called on all Muslims to co-operate with the police and report any suspicions of militant jihadists in their midst.
All this is a huge challenge for Brown. He wants to mark a clean break from the Blair era, and especially he wants to distance his government from the Iraq fiasco. But he cannot avoid the legacy. And he knows he has to show himself as strong as Blair in confronting terrorism. So he has emphasized in his early television statements that Britain will not be intimidated.
Nevertheless, there already clear differences to be seen in the Blair and Brown responses. After the 7/7 attacks on the London Underground, Blair immediately announced a series of measures to crack down on foreign imams, control radical mosques, give the police further powers to detain suspects and prosecute those who glorify terrorism. Many British Muslims felt threatened by this approach, which they thought would increase suspicion of all Muslims. Brown, by contrast, has been more subtle. He has deliberately not spoken about “Muslim” extremism, but has talked about “al-Qaeda” extremism. He has not proposed any new laws or emergency measures. He has underlined the need for dialogue with Muslim leaders. And he has left it to religious leaders – of all faiths – and to ordinary Muslims in Britain to voice the disgust which people feel at the doctors’ plot.
The result is that many Muslims have been pleased and relieved by the new approach. This has been reinforced by other measures which Brown announced, unrelated to terrorism, which are intended to reduce the perception that the Government is trying to control people’s lives. He announced a series of constitutional changes that include giving Parliament the right to decide on whether to go to war (a clear result of the anger over Iraq), a new ministerial code on standards of behavior, the handing over of powers to the Church of England to appoint its bishops (intended to underline Britain’s multi-faith make-up) and the call for public hearings on important appointments.
The aim is to show Britons that Brown is not a “control freak”, as Blair was accused of being. The fact that this comes at a time when the Government has to redouble its efforts to combat terrorism will do much to reduce public worries on the erosion of civil liberties in Britain. That, too, is an attempt to get away from the negative image Blair had created.
Most Britons have taken the events fairly calmly. After all, no one was killed. Comedians, students and newspapers in Glasgow started circulating black humor jokes to show that the city was ready to mock the terrorists and demonstrate a resilient response. And London is, by now, used to terrorist scares. This is perhaps the best response, many commentators say. Terrorists cannot succeed if a nation refuses to allow itself to be terrorized.