Sunday, 31 of August of 2014

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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.


The Art of Conversation – Britons, Britain, Muslims and Islam

Readers of a sensitive disposition should be advised that this article contains words of a difficult nature. What you are about to read may cause a temporary shut down in common sense and a brief outburst of hysteria.

Shariah.

Are you still there? I have smelling salts if you need them. Beware, here are a few more: fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women.

We can take a short breather now, and collect ourselves. Phew. I apologise if my outburst has reduced some readers to gibbering ranting Alf Garnett type creatures.

When the Archbishop mentioned the scary S-word, all rational debate – even if it be to score a resounding knock-out in the first three minutes for the secular corner – was suspended. What on earth have we just experienced in the last few days? Rowan Williams barely mentioned the word ’shariah’ and the country was in an Armageddon-style-end-of-the-world frenzy. It wasn’t even possible to get a word in edgeways to say that he was not in fact advocating shariah law. Instead, the media was awash with images of floggings from Somalia to the rings of Saturn and all the way in between.

Now that we are in the post-MTV, post-spin sound-bite century, we have lost the ability for discussion and debate. Sophistication and subtlety are a thing of the past. What I rue most is the lost art of conversation. Mention a word, and its caricature will be whipped up in front of you. Muslim woman in hijab? Poor, oppressed woman, one of four wives forced into marriage to her cousin, barely speaks English, wishes she could wear a mini-skirt… Muslim Imam? Mad ranting mullah burning a flag… Fatwa? Sentence to death for parking on a double yellow line.

It is completely impossible to have any kind of conversation about these issues without tantrums and hysteria. If British culture, values and laws are robust, then they will stand the test of discussion about these concepts, and vanquish anything that turns out to be barbaric or medaeival, or simply just not suited to the stiff upper lip and rugged British constitution. The knee-jerk ranting that surrounds us belies a lack of confidence and an unfounded sense of mistrust in the historic institutions that have made this country great.

We must ditch the cartoon (pun entirely intended) responses to any Muslim-sounding word that decorate our front pages week in week out. If we could get away from the unhelpful and misleading stereotypes that have lodged themselves into the public psyche, then maybe we could work our way through these minefields that seem to explode every few weeks. We might find our national debate engaging in that elusive thing – progress. Instead, the conversations that we need to have are being de-railed by the inability to communicate on the same wavelength. How can Muslims be part of the national conversation, if their terminology is at best unheard and misunderstood, or worse is misrepresented and the object of scaremongering?

P.S. To reduce the burden on some ‘opinionated’ readers, I have prepared some comments in advance that you might like to make. If you still feel het up, you can register your vote for your preferred tantrum. (1) What on earth is this Muslim complaining about? If she doesn’t like it here she can go home (2) Stop blowing us up if you don’t want us to react with hysteria every time you mention a foreign word (3) All Muslim women are oppressed. This is a fact. Thus Muslims are wrong on every possible count and we are right about everything (4) The sooner Muslims get it into their thick heads that this is Britain and we do things the British way, the happier we will all be


Refusing to shake hands – the latest crime?

Whilst the delightful squeaky clean tabloids are busy throwing stones in Jade Goody’s glass house, they are also running a story about a female Muslim police officer who has refused to shake hands with Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. It is, once again, the end of the known world.

She has completed her training, engaging with both men and women as required in a professional capacity of being a police officer. However, according to this story she states: “There is a standard between personal and professional life. A passing-out parade is a personal event. You are not fulfilling a professional duty there.”

Once again, it seems that the media wishes to blow the tiniest most insignificant incident into a full scale national security issue. I can’t currently find any information to cross reference this against, but even in the story itself, the woman in question comes across as quite balanced. She shows that full engagement in her role as on officer is what is required, but once outside that domain, why should she have to do something that she doesn’t want to? Last time I checked, it wasn’t a crime to not shake hands with someone. Think of shaking hands for a Muslim woman like a full face snog with your boss might feel like for someone else. It’s a case of re-calibrating the sensitivity scale.

“It’s ridiculous!” you may cry. “We should all be identical! And I am the person who should determine how people should feel and what they should do!”