• Maybe the Burqa is a red herring?

    These remarks were prepared for a Policy Network debate in September at a Labour fringe event. A shortened version was subsequently published in print in EMEL Magazine.

    These were my remarks at the Policy Network debate which looked at the issue:

    The Left’s Trouble with the Burqa.

    When it comes to discussing the burqa, there is almost always one missing constant in the debate: that is the woman herself who wears the burqa.

    If, as the opponents of the burqa claim, it is a form of oppression, then it is doubly oppressing that the woman cannot represent herself, and put forward her own views.

    So the other possibility is that there are in fact, very few women who wear the burqa, and maybe there are just not enough to go around and speak at the numerous events and media interviews discussing their clothing choices. In fact, in Western Europe there are probably only a handful who wear the burqa – the Afghan style of covering. Those few who do cover their faces wear a niqab, a simple face veil. This might seem a small visual and semantic difference, but it highlights the point that it is the most extreme instance that is used to polarise this debate – a debate which is already about an extremely small group of people in the first place.

    Maybe the burqa is a red-herring? A red herring for those who want to return to a homogenised society by claiming that there is too much difference. And as usual it is the women – in this case the Muslim women – who are caught as the scapegoats, and are paying the price.

    When it comes to numbers, the Danish government thinks there are 100 – 200 such women who cover their faces. In France it’s somewhere between 367 (a very spookily specific number – what have the secret services been up to to be so exact?) and 2000.  In Sweden, the estimate is around 400, Holland around 100, and in Belgium a paltry 30.

    So, why is something so incredibly miniscule in number, size and shape, the source of so much angst?

    I think the last time such a small amount of cloth made such a huge social impact was the mini-skirt. Was that controversy also caused because it was another instance of self-determination by women?  And I wonder if that analogy is co-incidental in any way?

    That piece of cloth changed the way that women and society looked. And changes in women’s behaviour and clothing have always upset traditionalists.

    Perhaps the face-veil is today’s challenge to our vision of how society looks – the most far reaching challenge put forward by the whole enterprise of multiculturalism.

    When multiculturalism first set out, it couldn’t be envisaged at that time just how far it would change the way society interacts and the way society physically looks.

    By protecting the right of women to dress in the way they choose, under the freedom of religion, some say that multiculturalism has gone too far, because the face covering is a sign of visible difference. I think it is the opposite. Women’s clothing in the 20th century fundamentally signalled a change in social attitudes much deeper than the mini-skirt itself, and was opposed by social conservatives for all that it represented. Today the face-veil engenders the same vitriol because it antagonises the same veins of traditionalism and conformity which constrain people’s freedom. The vitriol is not present because multiculturalism has gone too far. It is present because it has not yet gone far enough.

    These are the squeams and squirms of those who do not want society to change in any way, but we just need to ride it out, and in time, society will adjust, just as happened with women’s liberation.

    When people say that the face-covering is anti-western, or does not stem from European heritage, I would remind them that women’s covering (we’ll leave men’s covering to a separate discussion) was common till 50 years ago. Even less than a few weeks ago, Cherie Blair was snapped with her hair covered with a black veil during the Pope’s visit. The mini skirt too wasn’t a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ piece of clothing inherited from any kind of European civilisational values. If anything, in earlier eras, Europeans were horrified with seemingly scantily clad heathen women that they found in their imperial travels across the world.

    Society adjusted, women determined how they would dress, and our society now accepts it as the status quo.

    Back to the face-veil, because everyone loves to talk about it. Well, what do they say?

    Covering the face, we are told, is a sign of separation. And yet the stories we hear of British women who do cover their faces are of those who go into Jack Straw’s surgery to engage in the political process with their MP; or the tale of the woman who despite wanting to be part of French society was denied citizenship in France.

    Covering the face, it is also said, makes other people feel uncomfortable because those women deliberately look different. Well, I thought we’d understood that it is our own attitudes we need to examine when others look different to us – goths, punks, hoodies, blacks, Asians… the list goes on and on.

    Or, the face covering is no good because such women are a security risk, it is said. Don’t know about the last time you were in a bank that was held up by a covered woman? Or mugged by one? Or had one destroy your pension by creating a banking crisis?

    The most popular argument from the left is that it is a symbol of oppression. We need to ‘liberate’ these Muslim women from their poor deluded ideals. If they claim to be free in their choice, we tell them that they are brainwashed. And, so we’re full circle back to the oppression of these women  – but this time from the people that claim to be ‘freeing’ them.  The best thing is to respect the agency of such women and the way they choose to dress.

    Under this analysis of the meaning behind the veil and multiculturalism’s support for Muslim women to dress as they choose, I am a failure of multiculturalism. This is because I wear a supposed marker of separation on my head. My choice of dress is a representation of how I have been supposedly ‘brainwashed’ into being oppressed, despite the fact that I have a strong education, and my professional opinion is respected in many areas.  I may have a bomb under my headscarf, which of course is a threat to security. Some people, and strangely that is men more often than not, feel uncomfortable with the absence of my hair and my curves from their gaze.  And some feminists in particular accuse me of betraying the sisterhood, and will say that my choice to wear it in this country is a betrayal of those women in countries where they are forced to cover, even whilst I oppose that force, and have actively chosen to cover.

    What can I say to you? I’m not a failure. And nor is multiculturalism. I am an active part of our society, working to make it a better place, bringing together different heritages and perspectives. What my presence, and those of these women offers us, is the knowledge that we can live in the kind of society that allows us to be proud of the heritage, cultures and backgrounds that have made each of us what we are on the inside and allows us to express ourselves with tolerance, freedom and mutual respect on the outside.

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  • Hopes for a post-veil society

    We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

    Earlier this year, the head of of Al-Azhar Islamic university found himself in agreement with Italy’s extreme right-wing Northern League, the BNP’s anti-immigration anti-Islam stance and Turkey’s rampantly secular constitution. The subject was the veiling of Muslim women, a topic that makes for unlikely bed-fellows.

    Al-Tantawi, the senior sheikh at al-Azhar, was visiting a girl’s school when he told an 8th grade student to remove her face-veil saying, “the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and it is only a mere custom”adding bluntly, “I understand the religion better than you and your parents.”

    At his insistence she removed the veil. He said shockingly: “You are actually like this (this ugly). What would you do if you were a little bit beautiful?”

    Whether you agree or disagree with his intervention, it surprises me that a scholar -and role model -feels that he can use public intimidation on a young woman, and that he has a right over a woman’s clothing, defining and commenting on her intelligence, her family and her looks.

    French president Sarkozy used the historic occasion of his first speech in the French parliament to pick out the veil as an issue of primary concern to the French public. It was subsequently reported that only 367 women in France’s population of over 62 million wear the face veil. This raises questions about why the veil is of greater concern than other issues relating to all women, across all social groups. For example, why not raise the serious topic of domestic violence, whose victims numbered a heart-rending 47,000 in France in 2007? Further, I found it spooky that French intelligence could offer such a specific number of niqab-wearers – were these women being monitored?

    Sarkozy’s speech follows a ban on the headscarf in French schools and universities since 2004, not unlike a similar ban in Turkey which labels the headscarf as contrary to the country’s secular principles. Turkey finds itself in the peculiar situation that the out-of-power secular party is advocating against freedom of religious expression, resulting in women who wish to veil being denied high school and university education as well as public sector jobs.
    Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi is a man who is not known for his dignified treatment of women. He too is advancing proposals with the anti’immigration Northern League to ban the veil in Italy, overturning a historic exemption in Italian law that allows the veil on grounds of freedom of religious expression.

    Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Proposals to wear, discard or ban it are put forward for political reasons that vary depending on the country. But this much is certain – Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue ‘problem’, and that issue is the veil. I’m not even going to elaborate on the many variations in veiling – headscarf, niqab, jilbab, burqa – because that is irrelevant to the discussion. This debate is centred around the interchangeability of ‘Muslim women’ with ‘veiling’, as though a Muslim woman and her veil are one and the same thing. To make matters worse, complex issues underlying the inflammatory political positions of people like Sarkozy and Berlusconi – issues like integration, unemployment and identity – are blamed on the veil. This is simplistic single issue politics at its worst – offering a bland and unintelligent analysis of the very real problems Muslim women, as well as society at large, are all facing, grouping them altogether as caused by ‘the veil’ and producing the wrong ignorant solution: ‘ban it.’

    This obsession with the veil as the source of contention is illustrated by the constant stream of news and opinion pieces with titles like “uncovering Islam” “behind the veil” “beneath the veil” and “under the veil”. We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

    If Obama believes that a nation torn apart by race issues can become a post-racial society, then there is legitimate hope for a post-veil society. It is a society where a Muslim woman can get on with the task of living her life – in education, employment, security and safety in the family, private and public spheres. It is a society where who she is, rather than what she wears is her definition and her contribution. In such a society, the veil is no longer her only definition, no longer even her primary definition. This is a society where a woman’s choice to veil or not to veil is her choice and hers alone.

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  • The Fall and Rise of Religion

    This was published in the June edition of EMEL Magazine (apologies for the delay in posting it up).

    Religion is not important; not in the daily life of almost three quarters of the British public. The French exhibit similar levels of irreligiosity. By contrast, the Muslim populations in both countries say that religion is important to almost 70% of them. Can this vast gulf in the belief of the importance of religion ever be overcome? Will Muslims along with other faith groups follow the wider public into religious oblivion? Or will the believers be able to persuade the public of the value of religion, and if so, how will they do it?

    In May 2009, Gallup published the Coexist Index, designed to measure global attitudes toward people from different faith traditions. Spanning 27 countries across 4 continents, the report gave special focus to attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the UK about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation.

    Religion is not important in the daily lives of the French and the British, and there is an indication that the general public’s view of religion is that religion itself is not of value. The UK, France and Norway, the three countries that came bottom of in rating the importance of religion in daily life, also showed lower ratings on two related issues: whether ‘religious faiths make a positive contribution to society’ and on the indicator of whether they had ‘learned something positive from a person of another faith’ in the last year. It seems they are becoming less and less respectful and impressed by religion.

    There was a time in the near past when it was enough to point to something as condoned or recommended by religion to gain approval and understanding. Now, adding the label ‘religious’ seems a hindrance rather than a positive attribute. No wonder then that Muslims have gained little sympathy when they have stated that they have found certain books, cartoons and other incidences to be offensive. Religion itself no longer carries inherent respect. In fact, there is a palpable fear of religion, particularly visible in the UK where 26% of the public felt that people of different religious practices threatened their way of life.

    Muslims, like others to whom religion is important, need to think carefully about how to express their religious values to the wider public, and how to convey how dear those values are to them. At the moment, the methods and language used do not seem to be working, and Muslims see themselves quite differently to how the wider public see them. 82% of British Muslims thought that Muslims were loyal to the UK. That figure fell to 36% amongst the British public.

    Of course the fear-mongering whipped up in the media and by the far right must take a great deal of blame for this mistrust. They must be held accountable for the constant and lie-laden coverage of Muslims and for whipping up a frenzy of phobia and hatred. What the data also doesn’t indicate is whether this level of mistrust applies to other faith groups too, although my suspicion is it would be at significantly reduced levels, if at all.

    Working with the mainstream media, politicians and policy-makers is essential in changing widespread opinion, and reducing this chasm of misunderstanding. However, there are other clues in the research as to how Muslims can make proactive change.

    One of them is getting involved in civic society. Muslims polled significantly lower than the general public in France, Germany and the UK on whether volunteering in organisations serving the public was important. Shockingly, in the UK only 24% of Muslims versus 64% of the public felt this was important, the lowest across all three countries. If Muslims don’t invest in the public sphere then on a purely selfish level they will not weave themselves into the fabric of society. But this is not about being selfish: alongside belief in the Creator, a Muslim’s purpose is to serve other human beings and work towards social justice. Showing disregard for involvement in public organisations ought to be anathema to Muslims.

    Muslims need to step up fully to the civic engagement and responsibility that are part of their faith heritage. They need to be engaged more in these activities – not just as much as their public counterparts, but more so. This is because they are people to whom religion is a part of daily life; and religion is about making a positive contribution not only to your own daily life, but to the lives of those around you.

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  • Muslims: beyond the caricature

    This article was just posted at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

    The Muslim attitudes survey reveals a loyal community, keen on integration – far from the usual stereotypes

    My British glass is half empty. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, only half of the UK population identifies itself as very strongly British. And in Germany only 32% of the general public feels that way about being German. Who then identifies most strongly with their nation, reaching a whopping 77% in the UK? Muslims.

    This refreshing piece of information is part of a wider picture that Gallup paints of a European Muslim population that is more tolerant and integrated, as well as more strongly identified with Europe’s nations than other communities. It is an excellent and much-needed study, capable of informing the ongoing debate about the situation and place of Muslims in Europe.

    The report investigates the usual allegations levelled at Muslims. It establishes that religiosity is no indicator of support for violence against civilians and that in the UK and Germany Muslims are more likely to state that violence is not justified for a noble cause than the general public.

    This vital information needs to be channelled immediately into policy, where Muslims are only ever seen through the prism of violent extremism and are falsely considered to be predisposed to violence when in fact the opposite is the case.

    The idea that Muslims want to live in isolated “ghettos” is also untrue. Muslims are in fact more likely to want to live in a neighbourhood that has a mix of ethnic and religious people: 67% of Muslims vs 58% of the general public in the UK, 83% vs 68% in France.

    Muslims also believe that it is nonreligious actions that will lead to integration – language, jobs, education. For example, over 80% of Muslims in the UK, France and Germany believe that mastering the local language is critical.
    Whilst both the general and the Muslim populations believe these things are essential for integration, these are the areas where Muslims are found to be disproportionately struggling. They have lower levels of employment and lower standards of living. For our public discourse and for government, this is where the focus needs to be and funding need to be applied.

    The really worry is the gulf between how Muslims see their integration into society and how the wider population sees them. Some 82% of British Muslims say they are loyal to Britain. Only 36% of the general population believe British Muslims are loyal to the country.

    This has its roots in misinformation and miscommunication across society and means we all need to work hard to dissipate the dark cloud of fear that hangs above our heads. The Gallup report points to other countries like Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa which have a very high level of tolerance and integration across society and suggests that this may be a result of governments that actively promote religious tolerance, recognise multiple religious traditions in official holidays and national celebrations and enshrine religious freedoms in the constitution.

    As a British Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, I was particularly proud to see that in Britain the headscarf is seen positively. When asked what qualities it was associated with, a third said confidence and courage, and 41% said freedom. Some 37% said it enriched European culture.

    Instead of building on the platform for understanding and communication that this report brings, the mainstream media coverage has sensationalised the report by reducing it to one thing: Muslim opinions about sexual relationships.

    To be sure, Muslims are indeed more conservative than the general population, but this is perhaps a trait shared with other religious communities. In fact, the areas which concern Muslims are in some cases those that we find socially contentious anyway: pornography, abortion, suicide, homosexuality and extra-marital relations.

    French Muslims appear to be more “liberal” with regards to sexual mores than German or British Muslims. This is a red herring. It does not necessarily mean that they have “more integrated” sexual attitudes. All it seems to reflect are broader views on sexuality in those countries. For example, the French public considers married men and women having an affair far more morally acceptable than Brits or Germans, and this difference is reflected in the Muslim population across all three countries.

    The danger in focusing on sexuality as a litmus test of integration is that in turns this into a one-issue debate. The point here is that it is that it is completely irrelevant to a discussion of integration and a happily functioning society, where mutual respect and understanding for each others moral codes – whether we agree or not – ought to be the foundations for a shared vision of a shared society. We see this in the statistics about homosexuality: it’s true that no Muslims in the UK found this to be morally acceptable (though there is a 5% margin of error for Muslims across all the statistics in the report). However, this needs to be seen in context of the fact that Muslims are more respectful of those different to themselves than the general British public. The important point here is not that we should have homogeneous social and moral attitudes, but that we can respect and live with those who hold opinions at different ends of that spectrum.

    The message is this: we should use this report to silence those who spread hate once and for all. We need to move on from the monochromatic discussions of loyalty being either to the state or to religion, discussions that force a choice between “my way or the highway”.

    Our glass is actually more than half full. There is much hard work to be done, and many aspects of economic and social policy that need to be addressed, but the status quo offers all of us much hope for an integrated future. It is a future that can be built on the evidence before us of ample scope for dialogue and understanding.

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  • The Global Ummah Needs to Start Local

    Muslims are rightly proud of the diverse global ummah, but we should be more willing to embrace the diversity of the British Muslim communities, and channel it to drive forward new ideas

    Outside of the period of hajj in Makkah, the UK is home to the most diverse Muslim community in the world. The extraordinary mix of ethnic origins and opinions from across the theological spectrum make it a unique moment in the history of the Muslim world, representing a microcosm of the diversity that Islam has always aspired to.

    Islam and Muslims have travelled fluidly through history – across the Arabian Peninsula on horseback, by boat along the Eastern coasts of Africa and across to India and into the South Indian seas. It was often trade, by sea, or across the Silk Road, that flung Muslims eastward to China and Indonesia and west towards Morocco and Spain. In fact, records of the slave trade to the Americas suggested that Muslims had made it across the Atlantic long ago.

    The re-drawing of national boundaries, wars, post-colonialism and the ease of travel and communication which have been the driving forces of the twentieth century, have once again shuffled Muslims around the world. Their movement has been mostly into Europe and North America, and nowhere has this redistribution and melting pot of Muslims been more apparent than in the UK.

    In 2001, the British census estimated that there were 1.6 million Muslims in the UK, a number which is now forecast to be close to 2 million. This makes Muslims the second largest faith group in the country, and Muslims make up more than half of the non-Christian faith community. Almost three quarters of Muslims in the UK are from an Asian ethnic background. Those from Pakistan make up 43 per cent, from Bangladesh 16 per cent and Indians and other Asians make up 14 per cent. We probably could have guessed that. But did you know that 17 per cent consider themselves to be from a ‘white’ background, whether that is White British, Turkish, Cypriot, Arab or Eastern European? And did you know that 6 per cent of Muslims are of Black African origin, from North and West Africa, particularly Somalia.

    We also know that all these figures are out of date, and show little of those of Middle Eastern origin who have joined us on this green and pleasant land in the last few years. If you haven’t spotted your country on the list, then you make up that great overlooked fact of British Muslims – that they come from all the blessed corners of this God’s great earth.

    But so what?

    First, it is important to take note of these astounding facts. We live in an historic time and place for Muslims. We have more ideas, cultures and perspectives in a concentrated space than ever before, to inspire, motivate and produce more than ever before. If ever we were to create something overwhelming, tumultuous and inspirational, then the time has never been more ripe. The great age of Muslim learning flowered because minds were open to new ideas, perspectives and cultures. Thinkers would wait eagerly for new books and learnings to travel across the ethnicities and languages of the Muslim world.

    Islam is also about appreciating different people and knowing them. The Qur’an is quite clear about this, and Muslims love to quote that Allah created people into “tribes and nations” so that we may “know each other”. We take positive pride in the diversity across the global Ummah. We claim that we love all our brothers and sisters, and that we feel their pain, wherever and whoever they are! Of course, this statement of bravado only lasts as long as we don’t have to go to a mosque that ‘belongs’ to those of a different ethnicity. As long as we don’t have to marry them. As long as we don’t have to have children with them. As long as we don’t have to work in communities together. There are exceptions, but they are relatively few.

    We will protest vehemently for the Palestinian cause, and we may deplore the terrible situation in Iraq, but do we know any Palestinians or Iraqis here in the UK? It is easier to care for those thousands of miles away, then to look after those on our doorstep.

    Nowhere in the world do we have more opportunity than in the UK, to put into action the ethos that the Prophet taught us – to treat all human beings as equal in worth, and to appreciate our variations and differences. At no time in history have we had the opportunity to infuse so much culture, so many ideas and so much vivacity into the future of Muslims.

    History will judge us harshly if we remain enclosed in our ethnic and ideological bunkers. Our future generations will be even less forgiving if we fail to create the magic of cultural fusion and intellectual development that history has shown is in the DNA of the Muslim spirit.

    This article was published in The Muslim News
    Statistics quoted can be found in greater detail at the National Office of Statistics

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  • Spirit21 reveals The Magic Muslims…

    Spirit21 is proud to reveal The Magic Muslims – Ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary Powers. Fun-loving, quirky and joyful in life, once you’ve met them, you’ll want to keep coming back for more. Any Muslim you meet could be a MagicMuslim – a quiet superhero trying to bring happiness, humour and compassion to the world.

    I’m really excited to bring you these characters – created and commissioned as original Superheroes by Spirit21 for everyone to enjoy and interact with. Every month or so a new cartoon with the characters will be published, so you can check out their antics in the world. I hope you enjoy them, as much as I enjoyed creating them. Please share your comments and thoughts, but do remember the copyright!

    Make sure you get to know The Magic Muslims better here

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  • Observations on my high street – things that made me cross

    Part of my local high street is being dug up. The half height barriers have been erected where the pavement and tarmac are being pulled up and then resurfaced, and the pedestrian walkway is temporarily re-directed around these areas. I was walking through these areas behind two young lads today. There was nothing out of the ordinary until one of them put his arm through the barriers and pulled out a large shovel, and his compatriot did the same and pulled up a large long piece of concrete. They then carried on walking with their new implements. They were cool. They didn’t even bother to see if anyone had noticed, just carried on walking, carrying a shovel and a piece of concrete. They must have been around 15 years old, walking around about 2pm on a weekday afternoon.

    It didn’t look like they had picked them up to help an old granny with her gardening. It just smacked of stocking them up for violence. I was infuriated. They had committed theft in open daylight, and there appeared to be a violent intent. My high street is extremely busy, and since it is in central London is a well-used part of town. There was no policeman or member of the law anywhere to be seen. Despite worries about my own safety (i’m only little) I said “Hey, put that back”. They turned to look at me, and I repeated that they should return what they had taken. Even though they had looked at me, they ignored me.

    Twenty yards along was another set of roadworks with two workers. I stepped over to one and pointed at the two kids. They’ve taken a shovel and a large piece of concrete, I told him. Who, he asked. He didn’t look very bothered. The two kids over there, I pointed. I can’t see them, he mumbled. I think they are going to hurt someone, I told him. Where are they? He bobbed up and down trying to see them. Well they are probably half way up the street by now, I snapped at him. I turned pointedly to him and said – they stole your goods, and they will probably hurt someone, aren’t you going to do something? He pulled out his phone and started whispering into it, whilst the kids walked off.

    I was surprised at myself for telling the two lads off – they could easily have swung the shovel at me. But I was proud of myself in a small way for having a bit of courage – surely we all need to have a bit more of that? Didn’t make a blind bit of difference though. But why did nobody else notice. And importantly why was there no police or anyone of authority around in such a busy area?

    Finally, a question to you -what else, if anything should I have done? With hindsight I wondered if I should have shouted out and caused a commotion. But what would I have said? “shovel thief, shovel thief!!” I also wondered if I should have pulled out my phone and taken a picture of them (and maybe had it stolen, or got a smack), but would the police have done anything with the picture? I doubt it.

    Dear blogosphere – what should you do in such a situation?

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  • The False Markers of Integration

    Even the most hard-hearted of us must have felt a modicum of emotion during Tony Blair’s speech announcing the date of his resignation. The man has a way with words and is a talented orator. For a brief interlude I felt a spark of national pride, a sense of unity. Blair claimed that Britain was the “greatest nation on earth.” My British-ness which insists that I understate everything (“how are you now that you’ve won ten million pounds in the lottery” “can’t complain”) and which writhes in pain at self-promotion squirmed painfully when I heard this. It was more reminiscent of Bush and America. Paradoxically, his words did create a momentary flicker which did make me feel proud to be British (not because of Tony’s activities!). Just for a nano-second I felt part of a nation.

    As a country we experience relatively few of these moments of nationhood. Princess Diana’s death was perhaps one, the fall of Margaret Thatcher another. The sore thumb in this list might be the day London won the bid for the Olympics. It was a day of positive achievement.

    That to me appears to be where one of our key problems as a nation lies. As a British people we are like a gaggle of gossiping old ladies. We wheedle out the negatives, look for the problems and divisions, ignore the facts and then dispense unmerciful small-village justice to all and sundry. No wonder it’s all doom and gloom. And misery and negativity causes a downward spiral of poor analysis and shoddy judgements. We all know what happened with the scare-mongering about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If you go out with a pre-conceived theory looking for trouble, you will be sure to find it.

    The BBC’s Panorama programme is very guilty of this approach. They aired a show recently about Britain’s “growing ethnic division”. They focused their analysis primarily on Blackburn but also on some other big cities and then analysed the behaviour of its ‘white’ and ‘Muslim Asian’ inhabitants looking for the signs of division and apartheid. This uncomfortable labelling was the programme’s own. Each little experiment they ran was designed to see how the paths of these two groups ran separately, how they embodied today’s buzzword: “parallel lives”.

    For example, the programme makers went out on a Saturday night in a big city centre to see whether ‘whites’ were out with ‘Muslim Asians’. The predominantly Muslim Asians were playing snooker in smoke-free clubs. It was a comparatively quiet night out. The ‘whites’ were out in pubs and clubs getting plastered on their night off. They certainly seemed more animated and lively. Instead of us worrying about this growing phenomenon of binge drinking that brings so many desperate complications with it, we’re being told that the fact Muslim Asians aren’t doing it too is a cause for concern.

    The programme failed to note the obvious – Muslims, by and large, don’t necessarily want to go out, get horribly drunk and go partying. Does integration demand that they do? Clothing seems to be an issue as well. Does integration demand that Muslim women should swap their long black cloaks, for short black dresses? What about love and relationships. Does the victory of multiculturalism require inter-marriage? Politically motivated choices about life-partners will only be a hollow meaningless victory. Policymakers want ethnic communities which include Muslims to speak only English to their children at home, instead of teaching them literacy at school.

    These are the wrong questions, and inevitably they lead to the wrong answers, the wrong decisions and therefore they bring into being the very issues they describe. The same fingers are not pointed at other communities. These are false indicators of integration and cohesiveness and are designed simply to pick out these ‘problems’ with Muslims. Find a city and watch the interactions and paths of different classes and you will find the same conclusions. You won’t see someone from Chelsea shopping with the kids from the block in Brixton. The students at Oxford University don’t hang with their peers from down the road.

    These attitudes are particularly grating because they fail to acknowledge the positives that are happening. Studies that challenge the assumptions are swiftly ignored. Where is our sense of looking for the positive? We should look through optimistic spectacles, not bang on with our own gossip-mongering prejudices.

    A Lancaster University study, commissioned by the Home Office, examined the attitudes of 435 fifteen-year-olds on race, religion and integration. The students surveyed were at a predominantly white school in Burnley, a predominantly Asian Muslim school in Blackburn, and a mixed school in Blackburn. The study concluded that: “It might be reasonable… to suggest that it is the Asian-Muslim students in both the mixed and monocultural schools of Burnley and Blackburn who are in fact the most tolerant of all.”

    Gallup commissioned a poll of Muslims in London. It found that Muslims’ loyalty to Britain is greater than the general public: 74 per cent as opposed to 45 per cent. Of the Muslims polled, 57 per cent said they identified strongly with their country, compared with 48 per cent of the British public.

    A recent Populus poll agreed with this survey where it was found that only 33 per cent of the general population said they had Muslims as close personal friends. And yet almost 90 per cent of Muslims said they had close non-Muslim friends.

    The poll indicates that Muslims are just as worried about the daily essentials and local issues as everyone else. These include issues such as the rise of gun crime, the increase in gang-related crime, poor education amongst the youth, high unemployment and poor health.

    The great surprise then is no surprise. If we stop creating negative self-fulfilling prophecies, we find that most people share a sense of national identity, they want the basics to be taken care of, and they just want to live happy pleasant lives.

    This article was recently published in The Muslim News

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