… And why we urgently need new answers
Tuesday November 30, 2004
The walls of the university hall were plastered with signs that read “Being Muslim and British” with an arrow pointing forwards. The arrows directed us to a large hall where for the next three hours we heard young British Muslims discuss among themselves the compatibilities and contradictions of being British and Muslim.
By the end of the evening I left less certain which direction the signs were pointing.
The event was an intriguing blend of speed dating and dinner party; eight tables of impassioned conversation between strangers, with me floating from table to table, eavesdropping in when the discussions threatened to get interesting. It was impossible not to feel energised to see so many people all talking eloquently and fluently; what was disappointing was what so many of them were saying.
A study published on the same night as the gathering, by the Open Society Institute, revealed the depth of estrangement between British Muslims and their country. A third of those surveyed said they had been discriminated against at British airports because of their religion; the number of Asians stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act rose 302% between 2001 and 2003, and 80% said they had experienced Islamophobia.
It has become a commonplace to note that British Muslims, like Muslims everywhere, have felt victimised since September 11 2001. To actually hear some of the experiences made for grim listening, and perhaps it is not surprising that when a community feels embattled it becomes defensive.
If there was one overpowering sensation on the night it was awareness of that defensiveness; the sound of a community hardened by its experience. “You can never be 100% British,” argued one woman, who looked as though she might be in a girl band. Hearing such comments (one man said “I wouldn’t want my daughter to go through what I went through”) made it seem to many in the hall as though there had been precious little progress since the experiences their parents went through in the 60s and 70s.
The purpose of the gathering was to address some specific questions, but what came through loudly for me was the reluctance of many to actually address them. Rather than grapple with some of the genuine concerns the rest of the country has about Islam, it was easier to argue semantics than substance. What do you mean by integration? What do you mean by identity? What do you mean by British? It seemed easier to squabble over definitions.
Most of the opinions felt rehearsed; what was surprising was that it was impossible to gauge from appearance what viewpoint was about to be expressed. And for every young man who argued that being British was a territorial identity there were others who said it was about accepting cultural values.
In the end, however, the settled conclusions of the groups were less nuanced. There were the usual complaints against the portrayal of Muslims in the media and the British government’s foreign policy, and a general grumble that anyone even dared to ask about the loyalty and commitment of British Muslims to their country. This reluctance to be self-critical may be partly a result of feeling embattled and not wanting to wash dirty laundry in front of others, but I think it is also owing to a failure of creative thinking from British Muslims. Put simply, there is a tendency to want to have the cultural cake and eat it too: to say yes we are different and no we are not different at the same time.
The fact is that many people in the UK and elsewhere have concerns about British Muslims, and to just argue that they are misguided will neither reassure them nor provide a route towards conciliation.
Too many of the self-proclaimed leaders among British Muslims seem more keen on furthering other agendas of politics, self-interest and self-promotion than in chiselling away at the tough questions. That requires a more rigorous degree of thinking and, thankfully, there were some signs of it in the hall. The woman who said: “There is racism and sexism in our community, we do it to ourselves”; the man who added that “Islam does not have a monopoly on morality”; and the many participants who said people are entitled to more than one identity.
The parents of the group who gathered in that hall could never have attended such a meeting; that such a forum can now take place is a sign of progress. These young men and women are eloquent and not short of confidence. The challenge they, and all British Muslims, face is to not withdraw into defensiveness or a predictable reheating of old complaints, but instead to think deeper and harder about some of the issues that were discussed and to have the courage to offer some new answers.