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Tuesday, 7, December, 2004 (24, Shawwal, 1425)

 
The Unfolding Drama of British Islam
Neil Berry, Arab News
 

Commonly ignored by the media and general public, racial violence has long been a shaming feature of British life. In Britain's inner cities there are monitoring units that devote their energies to recording examples of racially motivated attacks. At any given moment, their files bulge with horror stories well calculated to suggest that Britain has no more than a token claim to being a civilized society.

The violence in question takes many forms - some of it nowadays, it must be said, springing from tensions between different ethnic minorities. That much of it is visited on Muslims by embittered, ill-educated whites is, however, certain. Nor can it be doubted that the scale of such attacks has increased sharply since 11 Sept. 11, 2001. Against the background of the "war on terror" and deepening public alarm about Islamic fanaticism, Muslims are being demonized in Britain and other Western countries as perhaps never before.

The dark consequences of the perception that Muslims are loathsome aliens, the new &#34enemy within", are becoming all too manifest. No longer confined to the white British adult population, the more pathological forms of Islamophobia are finding hideous expression among children and teenagers as well. Last week, the trial ended in London of a 14-year-old British white boy who subjected a 22-year-old Muslim man to a merciless beating with a heavy broom - for no better reason, it seems, than that he was wearing cotton robes. An engineering graduate of Edinburgh's Napier University, Moroccan-born Yasir Abdelmouttalib has been left paralyzed, brain-damaged and partially sighted. He told the Guardian that he still hopes to pursue postgraduate research but accepts that his fate is now "in the hands of Allah". Displaying barely credible forbearance, his mother - who traveled from her home in Saudi Arabia to attend the trial - said she felt sorry for her son's assailant, since he clearly did not know any better, and for the society that spawned him.

As if all this were not monstrous enough, Yasir Abdelmouttalib also appears to have suffered outrageous indignities at the hands of the British police. It is alleged that they were anxious to establish if he had links with Islamic terrorism. Moreover, according to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, health officials have queried his entitlement to long-term National Health Serviced treatment - on the grounds that he has not yet secured permanent residency in Britain.

In all manner of ways, the message is being communicated that Muslims are not welcome in Britain. At times, it can seem as if the British Muslim settlement is shaping up as a historic disaster. Yet, on the same day it reported Abdelmouttalib's terrible story, the Guardian also carried a copious report that conveyed an altogether different impression of the situation of Muslims in Britain - one not of passive victimhood but of extraordinary collective energy and purposefulness. Based on a Guardian debate involving 100 young British Muslims and on an ICM poll of a further 500 Muslims, the report provided a snapshot of a faith-community that - despite the growth of Islamaphobia - is nothing like so segregated and embattled as is generally supposed. Some 60 percent of those polled said that they numbered &#34a lot" or "quite a few" non-Muslims among their closest friends, with 40 percent expressing confidence that their position in British life was going to improve.

One young Muslim interviewed by the Guardian stood out for being so dismayed by the erosion of the civil rights of Muslims in Britain and the US that he is moving to Dubai. But he was outnumbered by other interviewees who professed a commitment both to their own community and to the wider society of Britain. A young student from the East End of London seemed to be articulating a general attitude among young British Muslims when he said that Islam was the overriding factor in his life, that it gave him the sense of being alive and that it encouraged him to try to make a difference in every aspect of his life. What seems clear is that there are many Muslims for whom it is precisely the injustice and victimization - to say nothing of the poverty - faced by large swaths of British Muslims that inspires them to spurn defeatism and fight for a better future. They stand in sharp contrast to much of the rest of contemporary Britain, with its rampant individualism and self-indulgence.

What also emerged from the Guardian debate was the sheer contentiousness for all British Muslims of the issues of national identity and integration. Here there were signs of division among Muslims themselves as to whether enough of an effort at integration was being made and whether they are always prepared to acknowledge their own shortcomings. One witness to the proceedings wondered if Muslims were sufficiently self-critical: Were they not too inclined to ignore the racism in their own midst and to portray themselves as being both different and not different at the same time? Yet some of the most cogent contributors to the debate insisted on the palpable fact that there are many ways of being British; they also argued that there now seems to be a burden on Muslims to try harder than most to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain and British values - as though their fundamental allegiances are forever in doubt. Other religious/ethnic minorities are not perpetually obliged to prove their bonafides as exemplary British citizens.

Perhaps the predominant feeling left by the debate was that Islam in Britain is a rapidly unfolding drama - and that in wrestling with the questions of who they are and how they fit in Muslims are centrally involved in a much larger crisis of British national identity, one which embraces the multitude of different communities and ethnic minorities that now make up the British Isles. There was talk of a chapter that has yet to be written, of potentially interesting blank pages. And - amid all the agonizing - there was the sense that being a young British Muslim is an adventure.

If one thing is certain it is that the Muslim community in Britain will continue to evolve, with the likelihood that more and more Muslims will ultimately break through into British public life. As it happens, a young Muslim boxer from the north of England, Amir Khan, is currently in the process of making just such a breakthrough. Cheerful, likeable and impressively single-minded, Khan already enjoys a level of popularity in Britain that far transcends his own community. His success could yet help to dispel the prejudice that it is not possible to be at once a Muslim and an unimpeachable British patriot.