Somewhere out there is the Muslim that the British government seeks. Like all religious people he (the government is more likely to talk about Muslim women than to them) supports gay rights, racial equality, women’s rights, tolerance and parliamentary democracy. He abhors the murder of innocent civilians without qualification – unless they are in Palestine, Afghanistan or Iraq. He wants to be treated as a regular British citizen – but not by the police, immigration or airport security. He wants the best for his children and if that means unemployment, racism and bad schools, then so be it.
He raises his daughters to be assertive: they can wear whatever they want so long as it’s not a headscarf. He believes in free speech and the right to cause offence but understands that he has neither the right to be offended nor to speak out. Whatever an extremist is, on any given day, he is not it.
He regards himself as British – first, foremost and for ever. But whenever a bomb goes off he will happily answer for Islam. Even as he defends Britain’s right to bomb and invade he will explain that Islam is a peaceful religion. Always prepared to condemn other Muslims and supportive of the government, he has credibility in his community not because he represents its interests to the government, but because he represents the government’s interests to Muslims. He uses that credibility to preach restraint and good behaviour. Whatever a moderate is, on any given day, he is it.
On his slender shoulders lies Britain’s domestic anti-terror campaign. And as soon as the government finds him things are going to start turning around. Until then we are resigned to the fact that we will be about as successful at fighting terrorism at home as we are abroad and for the same reason. Unburdened by any desire to forge consensus or engage in negotiation, the government seeks to craft new realities out of whole cloth and then wonders why no one wants to wear them. And so it is that the mythical Muslim will prove as elusive as weapons of mass destruction or the beacons of democracy that Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to become.
Last week’s launch of the government’s new counter-terror strategy, Contest 2, was preceded by Hazel Blears’ threat to deny funding to the Muslim Council of Britain because of comments its deputy secretary, Daud Abdullah, made about supporting Palestinians. It shows how these domestic tensions are intertwined with foreign policy.
If this changes anytime soon it won’t be because of anyone we’ve elected at home. Britain has no independent foreign policy. Apparently when America wants to start wars, so do we; and when America wants to end them, we do too. We vacillate, at the pleasure of the White House, with great moral conviction. So long as its foreign policy is uncritically tied to Israel’s then we should expect discontent from the Muslim community. That is not a reason to change our foreign policy – we should do that because it’s wrong – but it is a reason to stop pathologising Islam as though the source of Muslim discontent is completely unfathomable.
“There is a grievance,” explains Salma Yaqoob, a Respect councillor in Birmingham. “There’s no reason to deny that. All you need to know that there is a grievance is a TV. These young men who want a short cut to heaven see innocent people being killed and then retaliate by going out and killing innocent people. There’s a chilling logic to it. It’s wrong. But it is logical.”
But while the problem may start with foreign policy it does not end there. Lest we forget, there were riots involving Muslims in Britain’s northern towns during the summer of 2001. Back then the issues were poverty (of Muslims and non-Muslims), organised racism and segregated housing.
Those problems have not gone away. Two-thirds of Bangladeshis in Britain and over half of Pakistanis live in poverty. The unemployment rate for Pakistanis is four times higher than for whites; for Bangladeshis it is more than five times. Among the youth it is worse – and in the areas where Muslims are concentrated, white people aren’t doing that well either.
People generally don’t make a living out of being Muslim and those who do should not be on the government payroll. The most obvious response to news that Blears was threatening to cut funding to the MCB was to say: “We shouldn’t be funding the MCB anyway.” Governments should not be in the God business. The fact that it funds the Church of England creates inequality. But the proper response is to stop giving the C of E money, not fund other religions.
Instead the government continues to approach Muslims as though their religion defines them. It rarely speaks to them as tenants, parents, students or workers; it does not dwell on problems that they share with everyone else; it does not convene high profile task forces to look at how to improve their daily lives. It summons them as Muslims, talks to them as Muslims and refers to them as Muslims – as though they could not possibly be understood as anything else.
“The confusion between the plural identities of Muslims and their Islamic identity is not only a descriptive mistake, it has serious implications for policies for peace in the precarious world in which we live,” writes Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence. “The effect of this religion-centred political approach, and of the institutional policies it has generated … has been to bolster and strengthen the voice of religious authorities while downgrading the importance of non-religious institutions and movements.”
And when it does talk to them as Muslims, it demands they join a society that doesn’t exist, on terms that would not be set for any other religious group. The Home Office pledge to challenge those who “reject parliamentary democracy, dismiss the rule of law and promote intolerance and discrimination on the basis of race, faith, ethnicity, gender or sexuality,” is laudable. But, in a period that has seen the Catholic church stained with endemic child sex abuse and the Church of England rent asunder over homosexuality, the idea that Muslims should be singled out is laughable. Given the rise of the British National party in areas where Labour once dominated, you would think the ministers might launch such a challenge closer to home. And if these are “shared British values” then opposition to war and torture are no less so.
The trouble with those who rail against multiculturalism is that they invariably struggle to articulate the kind of monoculture they would like to replace it with, let alone how they would enforce it. And when they do, things rapidly start to fall apart.
I have yet to see a culture where truly shared values were proclaimed by fiat from above rather than forged by struggle and through consensus from below, let alone one where the primary responsibilty for tolerance rests with the most impoverished minority group that faces the most intolerance. But I dare say that it is in that place that we will find the mythological Muslim – patriotic, pious, peaceful and patient – waiting for reality to come to him and tell him it is ready.