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Dispatch From London

Instead of waking up to the hangover of too much Olympic partying, London woke to a daisy chain of bomb blasts and a question: will the attacks scar the image of Muslims in Britain?
 
 
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It was only last night that I watched Kofi Annan as he stood framed against the magnificent stained glass of St. Paul's Cathedral speaking about global poverty.

"If it is bliss at such times to be alive, to be here in St. Paul's tonight is very heavenly," the U.N. Secretary General told the packed audience filling the pews, many of them wearing the white band that was the emblem of the Make Poverty History campaign. London had just won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Heaven was indeed in the air.

"You are here at a historic time," said my friend Pratap. He was more prophetic than he knew.

Instead of waking up to the hangover of too much Olympic partying, London woke to a daisy chain of bomb blasts. Today, everyone is talking about the Blitz. The geographic spread of attacks means everyone is somehow touched by them. My uncle passed through King's Cross Station moments before the blasts there. A friend says his university classes are near Russell Square, where another attack took place. I passed through Liverpool Street station, a third target, last night myself.

The little Internet cafe I am writing from is in the heart of Brick Lane. This is where much of England's Bangladeshi community, mostly Muslim, lives. Shops sell burkhas and prayer mats. The supermarket sells stacks of gleaming silvery rui and boal fish flown in from Bangladesh. Restaurants have names like Monsoon and Nazrul and Naz Café. After Sept. 11, 2001, police were posted outside the Jamie Masjid here to keep the peace. This time they are not there.

"Perhaps we don't really need them," says Zahid, a law student from Bangladesh who has lived here since 2002. "After all, we are the majority here now."

The areas around Brick Lane are 70 percent Muslim. Indeed, Brick Lane seems open for business, though the Sonali Bank, which sends remittances home to Bangladesh, has closed early. Restaurants are open, and Bollywood songs mix in the air with Islamic prayers -- though the owner of a sweets shop worries business will plummet in the next few days if people stay at home. The only jarring reminder of the events of the day is the constant shriek of ambulances and the whirr of helicopters and the police tape at the end of the street.

Only a few blocks from Brick Lane, along Whitechapel Avenue is Aldgate Tube station, where two people were killed in one of the first attacks. Throngs of policemen in fluorescent yellow emergency jackets turn around cars and pedestrians.

Palash, a young visitor from Bangladesh, is standing at the barricade looking at the chaos. "It's all about creating panic," he says knowledgably. "We are used to this in Bangladesh. I remember when they would set off bombs in a whole series of movie theaters at once."

But here, far from Central London, the panic is muted. A few puzzled tourists stand around, scouring their London A to Z 's for alternative routes to their destinations. London is a city ruled by the Tube. With the Underground shut, it's as if blood is not flowing in London's arteries.

"When will the tube reopen?" everyone keeps asking the policeman, as if that would be the first real step toward normalcy.

But despite the outward air of business as usual, people are worried. The Islamic Human Rights Commission has condemned the bombings and asked Muslims to be vigilant and stay indoors.

"After the Twin Towers, some women had their hijab ripped off. We are hoping nothing like this will happen this time. But the community leaders always talk to the police when something like this happens," says Ansar Ahmed, an office bearer with the Shadhinata Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving Bangla culture. His little daughter let off from school early is sucking on a candy that is making her tongue blue. "Her mother will scold her, but today I can't do anything," Ahmed says.

Ahmed isn't worried about the safety of his daughter. In a London that has become increasingly multicultural, being Asian is no longer quite the threat it used to be. Ten years ago, he says, he would worry about going into a pub filled mostly with white people. Not far from here, Aftab Ali, a textile worker, was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Three people were killed and 110 injured in nail-bomb blasts in Soho, Brixton and Brick Lane in 1999, attacks that targeted gay pubs and Asian businesses.

Now Asians are everywhere, as newscasters, entertainers, stockbrokers and restaurant workers. Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets, the host borough for the 2012 Olympics, has the most Asian councilors in the country. Now with so many Asians, mostly Muslims, around, Ahmed doesn't see attitudes toward them changing radically, as they did in the United States after 9/11.

There, South Asians and Arabs were largely hidden from the mainstream. The image of Osama bin Laden in his turban spawned vicious hate crimes against anyone who looked like him. While hate crimes cannot be ruled out in many parts of England, especially some of the blighted old factory towns, here in Brick Lane, Asians like Ahmed, who has lived here for over 30 years, are the mainstream.

But will the attacks scar the image of Muslims in Britain? Zahid, the law student, sighs. "The people who did this can't be genuine Muslims. How can genuine Muslims kill so many innocent people going to work?"

Outside the shuttered Aldgate tube station a forlorn poster is getting soaked in the drizzle. It advertises an exhibition and seminar organized by a Sufi school. "Non-Violence: A Choice -- 4th to 10th July, Goldsmiths College," it reads.

Sandip Roy ( sandip@pacificnews.org) is host of "Upfront," the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.