Forget the heavy mob
By Madeleine Bunting
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 this country carrying out a suicide bomb attack. 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 chips business; they did not live in ghettos but in ethnically mixed suburbs — the like of which surround many British 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: our enemy is in our 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. It was always obvious that British multiculturalism had major inadequacies — particularly pertinent right now are facts such as 70 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children grow up in poverty — but never before have we had to ask ourselves if the model had a basic design fault.
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; as one Muslim said to me: “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?” As another Muslim added bitterly: “It’s no longer enough that we condemn terrorists, we’ve now got to flush them out.”
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? If your nephew grows a beard and visits the mosque more often, will you now be expected to let the police know?
The second painful process that the Muslim community has already embarked on is desperate soul-searching. As one imam put it to me: “Why has the Muslim community failed in reining in their own youth and shaping their future? Why have the mosques failed to provide rigorous leadership? We must acknowledge our failure.” Again and again in conversations, the subject which kept cropping up was what one described as “shoddy Islamic theology.”
As one anguished Muslim put it: “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 Quran 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 our community, corroding trust in the British political system and poisoning our youth: “You cannot ask us to contain the anger within our community caused by this country’s foreign policy.” The honesty and new thinking required by us, say Muslims, must be mirrored by the government; it cannot pretend Iraq and Palestine are 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, we must know more about our Muslim communities.” This “integration” agenda was summed up by a particularly intemperate commentator on Wednesday 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.
Pick the right targets
We — Muslims and non-Muslims — 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 British mosques are cautious and have lost touch with their younger populations, who look to the Internet for inspiration, not the imam.
And we have to shrewdly identify our allies. Our 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 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 Britain, a call echoed by the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday. This is irresponsible journalism at its scare-mongering 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 this country; 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 7/7 will have the same impact in mobilising people to make more effort to understand each other better and find common cause.
— © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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