Thursday, July 14, 2005


Muslim communities must be treated as allies, not enemies

It is an agonising moment to be a British Muslim. This has been their worst nightmare come true: British-born young men from families that were well established in UK carrying out a suicide bomb attacks. From what we know of their lives, one was at university, another might have had a small child, another's father had a fish and chip business; they didn't live in ghettos but in ethnically mixed suburbs - the like of which surround many UK towns. In other words, they were unexceptional; until July 7, they seemed to illustrate, with thousands of other Muslims, Britain's pragmatic multiculturalism.

But the actions of these men have thrown British Muslims into the biggest crisis of their community's history. It makes of the 7/7 atrocities a completely different narrative to those of Madrid or New York: the British enemy is in their midst. It puts the British model of multiculturalism - until now the source of quiet admiration across Europe - under unprecedented scrutiny. Its hallmark - a kind of British indifference, often indistinguishable from tolerance, that leaves people to get on with things in their own way - will be questioned as never before.

It was always obvious that British multiculturalism had major inadequacies - particularly pertinent right now are facts such as 70% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children grow up in poverty. Already, one senses that the Muslim community is bracing itself for two long and painful processes. Firstly, it will be called to account for how its own children could have taken this path - and without anyone tipping off the police. People are asking each other: "Someone must have known, why didn't they tell anyone?" Another question follows: "Are there any more out there?"

The Muslim community is being charged with a near impossible task; If even the mother of one of these suicide bombers did not know what her son was doing, how can the rest of the community be expected to know? It's no longer enough that we condemn terrorists, the educated and aware Muslims are now expected to take the lead-- introspect, ponder overand help flush out the extremism.

The perception is that Muslims are being offered a deal: the price of being trusted again is to periodically deliver some scalps. Does that go as far as shopping co-religionists for any indication of heightened religiosity? The second painful process that the Muslim community has already embarked on is desperate soul-searching. Why has the Muslim community failed in reigning in its own youth and shaping their future? Why have the mosques failed to provide rigorous leadership? What is it about Islam that makes people suicidal? Plenty of people are really angry about Iraq, but they don't give up their life at 19. There's a missing link here - what makes a boy commit suicide? It can only be if he thinks that what lies in store for him is better than life - and that's got to be Islamic theology.

It will have to change. In particular, the references to violence in the Qur'an have to be contextualised; in a global village, this has to be reinterpreted and that has to be done by our Islamic scholars. New thinking is desperately needed.

But alongside the heartfelt self-criticism, another issue repeatedly cited is just as important; British foreign policy is a cancer in Islamic community, corroding trust in the British political system and poisoning Islamic youth. Honesty and new thinking is required by Muslims but it must be mirrored by the governments also; Iraq and Palestine cannot be irrelevant.

The anxiety among Muslims is that this crisis will ensnare a range of issues - some relevant, some not - that come under the rubric that "to avoid terrorism, the west must learn more about Muslim community". This "integration" agenda was summed up by a particularly intemperate commentator yesterday who urged the government to "tear into those Muslim ghettos. Force them to open up. Make the imams answer ... they must become more ordinary." This could expand into a shopping list of demands, from supervision of mosques, licensing of imams and restrictions on intercontinental marriage, to the state monitoring every aspect of Muslim life.

We - Muslim and non-Muslim - have to be much cleverer than that. There is no point alienating another generation of Muslim men with an intrusive, aggressive state; that will only push more of those poised on the margins into secretive extremism. We have to be very careful to pick the right targets - much of the talk about radical imams is misplaced; most Muslims by definition are moderate -- love their families, go to their work, pray and enjoy; most mosques are cautious and have lost touch with their younger populations, who look to the internet for inspiration, not the imam.

I reckon the best chance lies within the Muslim community itself - in its own capacity for reform and renewal. That's precisely why the Sun's front page on Tuesday demonising the Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan was so inexcusable. Here is a man who commands respect across the Muslim world. Here is one of those rare thinkers who can help us plot a way forward for a self-confident Islam securely established in Europe. He is a crucial figure in reaching audiences that non-Muslims cannot, yet the Sun wilfully twisted old quotes to depict him as a supporter of terrorism who should be banned from the UK, a call echoed by the Daily Telegraph yesterday. This is irresponsible journalism at its scaremongering worst.

One of the most extraordinary side-effects of 9/11 and of the Iraq war has been the energising of the Muslim community in England; thousands of groups and local initiatives have sprung up. Some have campaigned alongside non-Muslims against British foreign policy; some have built up dialogue in their communities. One of the most hopeful possibilities is that this crisis of 7/7 will have the same impact in mobilising people to make more effort to understand each other better and find common cause.

God bless us all

Sameer Bhat

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