November 2006 
Year 13    No.120


Pressure and prejudice

Politicians and media have turned a debate about integration into an ugly drumbeat of hysteria against British Muslims


I’ve been trying to imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in Britain. I guess there’s a sense of dread
about switching on the radio or television, even about walking into a newsagent’s. What will they be saying about us today? Will we be under assault for the way we dress? Or the schools we go to, or the mosques we build? Who will be on the front page: a terror suspect, a woman in a veil or, the best of both worlds, a veiled terror suspect?

Don’t laugh. Last week the Times splashed on "Suspect in terror hunt used veil to evade arrest". That sat alongside yesterday’s lead in the Daily Express: "Veil should be banned say 98%". Nearly all those who rang the Express agreed that "a restriction would help to safeguard racial harmony and improve communication". At the weekend The Sunday Telegraph led on "Tories accuse Muslims of ‘creating apartheid by shutting themselves off’ ".

That’s how it’s been almost every day since Jack Straw raised the matter of the veil nearly two weeks ago. Even before, Muslims could barely open a paper without seeing themselves on the front of it. (Conservative leader) David Cameron’s speech to the Tories a week earlier was trailed in advance as an appeal for Muslims to open up their single-faith schools: "Ban Muslim ghettos" was one headline.

Taken alone, each one of these topics could be the topic of a thoughtful, nuanced debate. The veil, for example, has found feminists among both its champions and critics, proving that it’s no straightforward matter. There should be nothing automatically anti-Muslim about raising the subject, not least since many Muslim women question the niqab themselves.

Similarly, Ruth Kelly (communities secretary) was hardly out of line in suggesting, as she did last week, that the government needs to be careful about which Muslim groups it funds and with whom it engages, ensuring it leans towards those who are actively "tackling extremism". Other things being equal, that was a perfectly sensible thing to say.

Except other things are not equal. Each one of these perfectly rational subjects, taken together, has created a perfectly irrational mood: a kind of drumbeat of hysteria in which both politicians and media have turned again and again on a single, small minority, first prodding them, then pounding them as if they represented the single biggest problem in national life.

The result is turning ugly and has, predictably, spilled onto the streets. Muslim organisations report a surge in physical and verbal attacks on Muslims; women have had their head coverings removed by force. A mosque in Falkirk was firebombed while another in Preston was attacked by a gang throwing bricks and concrete blocks.

Of course, such violence would be condemned by any politician asked about it. But a climate is developing here and every time a politician raises a question that would, on its own and in the quiet of the seminar room, be legitimate for debate, they are adding to it. They should feel shame for their reckless spraying of petrol on a growing blaze. Instead they applaud themselves and are applauded in the press for their bravery in daring to say what needs to be said.

In fact, the courageous politician would refuse to join this open season on Muslims and seek to cool things down – beginning with an explanation of how we got here. The elements include many of those that feature in any build-up of hostility to a single, derided group, here or across the world.

The foundation is fear. Many Britons have since 9/11, and especially since July 7, come to fear their Muslim neighbours: they worry that the young man next to them on the train might have more than an extra sweater in his backpack. Next comes ignorance, a simple lack of knowledge about Muslim life which leaves non-Muslims open to all kinds of misconceptions. That feeds into a simple discomfort, personified, in its most extreme form, by a woman whose face we cannot see.

What’s more, the set of issues that Islam raises for Britain are ones that do not break down on the usual ideological lines, allowing liberals and traditional anti-racists reflexively to line up alongside Muslims. The veil, and the queasiness it stirs in many feminists, is one example. Faith schools are another, prompting the ardent secularist to feel a sympathy for the government position that ordinarily would come more slowly. The result is that the Muslim community finds itself suddenly friendless. When it came to opposing the war in Iraq, British Muslims had no shortage of allies but they face the latest bombardment virtually alone.

Muslims are not entirely passive in this drama. For one thing, the tiny handful of Islamist groups such as al-Ghurabaa or the Saviour Sect tend to confirm the wildest prejudices of those who fear Islam: they glorify those who kill civilians, they show contempt for democracy and declare that, yes, they are indeed determined to transform Britain into an Islamic state. Every time they open their mouths, life for Muslims in Britain gets harder. (Which is why the Today programme had no business giving over the prestigious 8.10 a.m. slot to the radical Omar Brooks, whose sole qualification was his heckling of (home secretary) John Reid the previous day.)

The majority of British Muslims could have done themselves a favour if they had found a way to show just how unrepresentative Brooks and his ilk are. How powerful it would have been if, after 7/7, hundreds of thousands of British Muslims had taken to the streets to repudiate utterly the four bombers who had killed in the name of Islam. The model might have been the 2000 Basque march in Bilbao in protest against ETA violence. Or perhaps the 1992 funeral of an assassinated anti-Mafia judge in Palermo, which turned into a rally of Sicilians against the crime organisation. The slogan for the British Muslim equivalent would have been obvious: Not in our name.

But Muslims would be right to reply that they should be under no more obligation to distance themselves from the 7/7 bombers than Britain’s Irish community were expected to denounce the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s. And this, too, is a prime task for politicians and media alike – to distinguish between radical, violent Islamism and mainstream British Islam. Too often the line between the two gets blurred, lazily and casually. Helpfully, the 1990 Trust yesterday published a survey which deserves wide dissemination. They found that the number of Muslims who believed acts of terrorism against civilians in the UK were justified was between one per cent and two per cent. Not good, but less than the 20 per cent or higher found by some newspaper polls. The trust reckons those earlier polls asked a loaded question – and got a highly charged answer.

Politicians and media need to be similarly careful when discussing multiculturalism, refusing to play to those who believe it means a licence to secession and Balkanisation. It doesn’t. Multiculturalism means allowing every group its own distinct identity and, at the same time, seeking an integrated Britishness we all share. Tony Blair was correct yesterday (October 17) to say that the goal, never easy, is "getting the balance right".

Right now, we’re getting it badly wrong – bombarding Muslims with pressure and prejudice, laying one social problem after another at their door. I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word "Jew" for "Muslim": Jews creating apartheid, Jews whose strange customs and costume should be banned. I wouldn’t just feel frightened. I would be looking for my passport.

(Jonathan Freedland is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He writes a weekly column in The Guardian, as well as a monthly piece for The Jewish Chronicle.)

(Courtesy The Guardian; [email protected].),,1924677,00.html


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