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From Rushdie to 7/7, by Anthony McRoy

Extremely wrong about British Muslims

What motivated the young Muslim bombers of 7 July 2005? For a viable answer, argues Anthony McRoy, we must look towards the idea of the ummah, the global Muslim community. It is the primary community to which Muslims in Britain belong; and the principal loyalty of their second and third generations. They distinguish themselves from the rest of the population by their "scriptural" membership of a religious community on whose behalf they are ready to fight and die.

This is McRoy's basic thesis. It is the concept of the ummah, he argues, that led young British Muslims to be concerned about Palestine, Bosnia the Gulf War and Iraq. They see the ummah as an oppressed community, and its suffering as their own. It is this idea of oppression and suffering that led a bunch of British-born Muslims to turn against their compatriots.

This is partly true, but nevertheless a simplistic thesis. Not just the radicals, but all Muslims see themselves as part of the ummah. So to give his assertion some bite, McRoy, an evangelical Christian, takes an inductive leap.

All Muslims, he suggests, have now become radicalised - "Islamic radicalism has become mainstream". The obvious example is how Muslims are trying to influence British politics. Just look at the emergence of tactical alliances with the left over Iraq and vocal interventions by organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain, he screams. A more sensible suggestion would be that Muslims have become politically savvy. Active participation is a sign of good citizenship, not of radicalism!

McRoy is on more solid ground in suggesting that racism and lack of sympathy has fuelled the alienation of Muslim youth. The patronising suggestion that Muslims should integrate often comes out as a tabloid headline to "Behave British, or don't live here". But occasionally he draws bizarre conclusions from the plethora of material he quotes. For example, he suggests I labelled Rushdie as a "brown sahib" because I feared that the new generation of Muslims would become "contaminated" with "infidel ideas". This is laughably absurd. The "brown sahib" is a recognisable sociological type on the Subcontinent: an uncritical Anglophile. My point was that Muslims should not be surprised by what Rushdie had done. A brown sahib, somewhere, sometime, was bound to do just that.

McRoy's suggestion that the time for "offensive jihad" has now passed is equally absurd. Jihad is never offensive; it is undertaken to defend Muslims from aggression. So we are presented with a construction that is totally imaginary, then told that Muslims have realised that "offensive jihad" is irrelevant in the 21st century because the West is just too strong! There's a clear case of distorted imagination at work here, with one fantasy feeding into another.

The author's evangelical zeal, masquerading as objectivity, is only half of the problem. The other is that this is a half-baked PhD dissertation and does not work as a book. It comes complete with ludicrously extensive footnotes, designed to show the student has read the literature. Unfortunately, McRoy's reading is limited to extremist literature, so we end up with a rather skewed picture of British Islam. He needs to read much more widely, and learn to write a book.

Ziauddin Sardar's 'What Do Muslims Believe?' is published by Granta

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