Special reports | How to face up to perceptions – and frame the right questions

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | How to face up to perceptions – and frame the right questions

How to face up to perceptions – and frame the right questions

Five guests who addressed the gathering take issue with the queries put to participants

Audrey Gillan
Tuesday November 30, 2004
The Guardian

The British Muslim community is ahead of any other Muslim community in Europe and has a far more sophisticated understanding of its place in society, but it should stop being so defensive, according to Tariq Ramadan, a Geneva-based author and academic who is one of the most revered Muslim scholars in the world.

The answers found by Muslims in Britain and their counterparts in France to current problems would provide solutions for other Muslims elsewhere in the world, he believes.

Mr Ramadan, who is listed as one of Time magazine’s Top 100 thinkers because of his desire to shape an independent European Islam – and who recently had his working visa revoked by the US – was the main focus of attention in a panel of five invited guests who addressed the gathering of young Muslims.

He told them to “get rid of the defensive attitude, it is important that, as Muslims we are not put on the defensive”.

There was a problem of perception they had to tackle head on when being asked questions which they considered uncomfortable or offensive, such as “Do you want to integrate?” or “How would you describe your identity?” “The point is that even though you are saying you are asking us as Muslims, why are you not asking the same question of others?

“Just because they are not asking others does not mean that the question is not legitimate. You cannot get rid of perceptions by saying that your question is wrong. It’s like saying to someone who says to you, ‘I am scared, I feel that you are a threat to this society,’ and you say, ‘No, it’s not good to be scared.’

“If I am scared, I am scared. Now try to help me to put it in another way; we need to go beyond this perception.”

The way forward was to be more precise in dealing with such questions, to begin to frame the questions themselves. To do so, Muslims had to master the terminology and have a methodology.

“I really think that this is our contribution to our discussion in this society when we think about multiculturalism, identity, integration. A better discourse coming from Muslims requires mastering the terminology.”

Muslims had to deal not only with angry feelings about their religion, but make points about their social problems, economic problems and political involvement, and should work towards the recognition that “to be critical towards the British government does not mean that you are not loyal to the government. In fact it is the opposite, constructive criticism means that I am really British.”

Humera Khan, a founder of the Muslim women’s An-Nisa Society, disagreed, saying she had been disappointed by the questions: “These are Guardian journalists’ and readers’ idiosyncrasies we are trying to come to terms with.”

Trevor Phillips, who chairs the Commission for Racial Equality, said such questions should not be seen as attacks but as “opportunities”. Every other minority community in the UK could learn lessons from Muslims, he added, because of how it had managed to unite and develop a strong lobby in the MCB.

Tim Winter, fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge and imam of Cambridge mosque, said the majority of the British public had no idea such questions were even being raised and argued over, nor that on most of the key issues there was nothing resembling a consensus among Muslims.

“We are sympathetic-to-leftwing perceptions in terms of foreign policy but our instincts tend to be with the right in domestic politics,” Dr Winter said.

“Naturally, we are horrified by what’s happening in Iraq and the West Bank in the same way that it horrifies the secular left, but on domestic policy we recoil when we are told about new abortion legislation or same-sex marriages and the other domestic issues of the day.

“That makes it really difficult for us to see wholeheartedly where Muslims belong in the established political spectrum in this country.

“It is not something I have a solution to and it’s not going to be resolved by being in a Liberal Democrat grey area. It probably means that people of passionate, religious conviction are going to be at one remove from the established language and logic of political discussion.

“We are always going to be coming at this from a slightly eccentric angle.”

Not surprisingly, the greatest anger was directed at the government. Panelist Fiona Mactaggart a minister at the Home Office, was roundly booed when she declared that Muslims were not victims of foreign policy or of the government’s anti-terror laws, introduced in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which have led to detentions of Muslims without charge and trial.

“We have leading Muslims on the stop and search action team that we have established to try to make sure that, if there is disproportionality in the way this legislation works, which there might be, then it is justified by evidence,” she said. “And if it isn’t justified by evidence, we will end it.”

But the audience greeted her comments with derision and refused to accept that the government had promoted the interests of Muslims on issues such as new legislation on incitment to religious hatred.