We were once the 'maniacs'
Very real terrorist threats should not lead us to take our eyes off the ball
Terror suspects, caught by police surveillance, boast of the blood-curdling havoc they hope to wreak. “The corpse of an enemy smells nice”, they hiss. In messages addressed to the British public, they say the deaths they plan are “retribution you have so justly earned.” After all, insist the killers, “For many years we have suffered humiliation.”
These angry, dangerous young men are part of an international network, linked to some of the most unstable countries in the world. Police struggle to keep tabs on them because they are embedded in a close-knit immigrant community, deeply religious and closed to outsiders. They are ideologically committed and seem to revel in death and destruction. What on earth can be done to stop these maniacs?
That question is pressing in September 2009, following not only the eighth anniversary of 9/11 but the conviction of the men behind the 2006 plot to blow passenger jets out of the sky. Surely we are living through an unprecedented age of terror, facing an enemy unlike any seen before.
Not so fast. All of the quotations above — though uncannily contemporary — did not come from today’s Islamist militants. Those words are, instead, lifted straight from the mouths of an earlier generation of extremists: anarchists who plotted violent mayhem on the streets of London at the turn of the last century. Many, if not most, were Jews.
Jews and Muslims have more in common than we might like to admit
The point is strikingly dramatised in a film due to air on Channel 4 next month. Joseph Bullman’s The Enemy Within has present-day Muslim activists (not actors) speaking the words of those Jewish anarchist forebears, whether drawn from a speech delivered in the dock during an 1892 trial or from pamphlets of the time.
The look is wholly current. The Muslim men are shown through the wobbling zoom lens of what the viewer presumes is a hand-held surveillance camera; occasionally the visual grammar is that of a present-day “martyrdom” video. And yet the words are more than a century old.
The point is clear: we have been here before. Then, as now, Britain’s police, intelligence agencies and press convinced themselves they faced a mortal peril that would destroy the nation. But the threat passed. The implicit message: this too will pass.
For a Jewish viewer, though, the impact goes deeper. The Enemy Within is a reminder that we were once the Muslims of Britain — deemed alien, our loyalties suspected, tainted by association with a few violent fanatics.
In one of the most powerful sequences of the film, 21st-century talk-radio motormouths Nick Ferrari, Garry Bushell and Vanessa Feltz denounce “the despicable crew of aliens who eat our bread and have the audacity to preach the overthrow of a society that protects them with its laws.” It could be any of today’s tabloid ranters taking yet another swipe at Britain’s Muslims. But that sentence was lifted from an 1891 Evening News editorial: Jews as Anarchists. The Daily Express and Daily Mail were not to be outdone, the Mail speaking of the “scum of Europe” turning the East End into a “great foreign city,” concluding “It’s time to exclude [them]; we don’t want them here.”
That forced Anglo-Jewry on to the defensive. In 1901, the Jewish Chronicle felt it had to insist that, “Ours is a religion of love and peace, not hatred and war,” a statement which no doubt brought the same snorts of derision that greet similar Muslim protestations of innocence today.
Yet Jews, once deemed an alien menace, are now successfully woven into Britain’s national life. The film does not spell it out, but the hint is obvious: the same could happen with Muslims.
It might be wise for us remember this chapter in our history. Next time we’re tempted to join the chorus demonising Muslims, we should recall that not so long ago it was us being demonised. Jews and Muslims have more in common with each other than we might like to admit.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian