It's paranoia, not Islamophobia
Britain has done much to help integrate Muslims. Now they must rise above their grievance culture
Friday July 15, 2005
Britain can take pride in how it has been trying to make a reality of political and legal equality for its 1.6 million Muslim citizens over recent years. Some Muslims still face forms of discrimination not faced by most other Britons, but many doors have swung open, especially since 1997.
Under Labour the first Muslims were elected to the House of Commons and appointed to the Lords. Muslim organisations lobbied for and won state funds for Muslim schools, a question in the census on religious faith, and criminalisation of religious hate crimes. The huge rise in public spending and focus on improving delivery in the poorest areas will have particularly benefited Muslims alongside other disadvantaged groups. And since 9/11 the government has sought out bright young Muslims for senior civil-service jobs and introduced innovations such as the hajj information unit for those making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
There will, regrettably, be some backlash after the London bombs. But to glorify this with the term Islamophobia is silly. The respected science writer Kenan Malik has elsewhere (see Prospect, February 2005) examined the claims made in the name of Islamophobia (over stop and search, racist attacks and so on) and found them wanting. As for inflammatory media reporting - after 9/11 and even more so after 7/7 - all politicians and mainstream media voices have stressed the unrepresentativeness of the terrorists, and increasingly it is Muslim voices making this point, such as the hijab-wearing Sun columnist Anila Baig.
An undifferentiated rhetoric of grievance contributes to alienation, lack of integration and even indirectly to extremism. If you are constantly being told by even moderate Muslim leaders that Britain is a cesspit of Islamophobia and is running a colonial anti-Muslim foreign policy, you might well conclude, like one young Muslim quoted after the bombs: "I would like to give blood but they probably won't want mine."
According to an ICM poll in the Guardian last year, 13% of British Muslims thought the 9/11 attacks were justified, and according to other polls as many as 25% do not identify with Britain in any way. It is part of the job of moderate Muslim leaders to help to reduce those numbers as much as possible. To do that requires a change in rhetoric in at least three areas.
First, the relatively poor socioeconomic position of most British Muslims has little to do with Islamophobia or racism and a great deal to do with the fact that nearly two-thirds of British Muslims come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, often from these countries' poor, rural areas. (Indian and Arab Muslims do better.) The starting point in terms of education, skills and traditional cultural attitudes is worse for most Muslims than it is for, say, the Hindu or Chinese minorities, both of which outperform white Britons. To expect Muslims to rise to the average level in terms of education and jobs within a generation or two is not realistic, although progress is being made.
Second, the economic and political failure of many Muslim states - and subsequent western interventions - poses a challenge to all Muslims living in the west. But the crude "war against Islam" rhetoric of many British Muslims is just a feelgood rallying cry. How often do Muslim leaders point out that Tony Blair favoured ground-troop intervention on behalf of European Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo? And as the Muslim peer Kishwer Falkner points out: "When Muslims are pressed to say what should have been done with a Taliban-run, al-Qaida-embracing Afghanistan, one is met with silence." Finally, how often is it pointed out that many of Britain's Shia Muslims welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, which has replaced secular dictatorship with Islamic democracy.
Third, the terrorist threat that Britain faces comes overwhelmingly from British or foreign Muslims; it does not come from Welsh hill farmers or US investment bankers. So it follows that most terror-related investigations will focus on Muslim communities. This isn't picking on Muslims; it is simply a fact of life.
A more open acknowledgment of these three points could help to move Muslim debate beyond the paranoia that often seems to characterise it and send an important signal to the rest of Britain that Muslims have risen above their grievance culture.
· David Goodhart is the editor of Prospect magazine
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