In the days immediately following the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, the American press described the city as a hub of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist cells. With headlines like “For a Decade London Thrived as a Busy Crossroads of Terror” (New York Times) and “Continent’s Issues Include Geography and Open Borders–Bombers Travel Freely, Police Cannot” (Wall Street Journal), the city was characterized as a “breeding ground for hate” and a “crossroads for would-be terrorists” where Muslims exploit civil liberties and “openly preached violence.” Like Kandahar, only with bowler hats.
This was a shock to most Londoners, including myself. True, London does have its fair share of radical Islamist clerics. There is Abu Hamza at the Finsbury Park Mosque, recently convicted of incitement to murder and racial hatred for his anti-Semitic rants; and there was the Brixton Mosque, spiritual nurturing ground of would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid. But nothing on the apocalyptic scale described by American journalists. Indeed, before the week was out it would transpire that none of the bombers actually came from London.
Nonetheless, so entrenched was the notion that the British capital had become a mutinous outpost of the Islamist diaspora that American reporters were determined to rename the capital Londonistan. The word, which I had never heard used in England before, was employed at least nine times in different American papers in the six days following the attacks.
In a bid to give it legitimacy each writer would strain to explain its provenance. And with each contradictory explanation it became increasingly clear that the source lay in the ethnic and religious template they themselves had designed for the city. In the New York Times Peter Bergen claimed: “Arab militants living in London sometimes jokingly refer to their hometown as Londonistan.” The San Jose Mercury News argued that “for years, those in diplomatic and security circles have referred to England’s capital as Londonistan.” According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review the French were responsible: “Frustration over extradition delays has led some to dub their neighbor Londonistan.”
Quite who these “some” referred to was conveniently unreported, but such claims have since found their echo in Londonistan, a shrill broadside against multiculturalism by right-wing British columnist Melanie Phillips. Phillips claims Britain “is currently locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation.” Such views were given succor–but little substance–in August when British security services uncovered an alleged plot to blow up planes bound for America. This time a large number of those believed to be involved did come from London’s East End borough of Walthamstow. Whatever else ushered the most recent terror suspects into the trade, it was clearly not a desire to self-segregate. These were young men who played soccer, delivered pizzas and supported Liverpool. At least two were white converts. One waits for the first appearance of “Walthamstan” in the American media lexicon.
With the release of Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani, the term is now ready for public consumption in a manner far less contrived and far more in keeping with the context of Britain’s particular racial and ethnic reality–a post-colonial hub to which the four corners of the globe descended after World War II and the collapse of the British Empire. Immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have made more than a quarter of the city nonwhite.