Learning to pray and have fun

Gestures like the bobby socks and head coverings the Queen wore last year amounted to dishwater
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The Independent Culture
ONE AND a half million British Muslims, once more, had to sit tight lipped and furious as yet another establishment figure was (allegedly) shown to be phobic about our very presence in this country. This time it is the Queen herself.

In Penny Junor's account of the Royals, we are informed that Her Majesty, Head of the Commonwealth, asked for increased security after Diana's tragic death because she was worried that some Muslim would try and bump her off.

So, the gestures like the bobby socks and head coverings she wore in mosques when she visited the subcontinent last year and all the glowing speeches about how valued we are, amounted to dishwater. Like so many people who should know better, she thinks we are, in truth, the home guard of the bin Laden army. To be watched, kept at a distance and never trusted.

Most people in this country don't begin to understand how hard it is to be a Muslim today. People feel free to say what they want about us in ways which would be unthinkable now for Jews or Blacks or gays. The list of respectable, influential folk who spew forth rubbish grows daily. And by far the best example of this was Charles Moore confessing in The Spectator a few years ago that his nice Muslim neighbours filled him with fear and he would very much rather have some escaped (Christian) ballerina from a totalitarian state instead. Those on the centre and left are just as careless. They saw a book burn one day 10 years ago. They will not forget or forgive. I am talking here of big people like Connor Cruise O'Brien, Bernard Levin, Fay Weldon and lots more. These voices have an impact.

Yes, we have our criminals, terrorists, barbarians. But to damn us all is depraved. Yet ordinary white Britons have been encouraged to treat us as the enemy within and we, in turn, become frantic, intolerant ourselves, convinced that unless we go into defensive postures, we will go the way of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovan Muslims. This means we live with little ease; that we are edgy and always afraid of being judged harshly by white Britain and by other Muslims. This is exhausting.

Take this fortnight. I have had long painful conversations with Muslim intellectuals about how the media and politicians use the term "ethnic Albanians" so that the West does not have to confront the horror that there is a massive genocidal project against Muslims by Serbs which began in Bosnia.

I have had many friends phoning up to say how delighted they are that a Muslim, albeit a weird and flawed one, has finally got a newspaper column (this is the first time ever that a Muslim has had a regular spot on a national paper, which says something about our influence) but that I really should avoid talking about knickers and sex. I have had others writing to me asking me why I call myself a Muslim - they demand to know what gave me the right to use the description, and white people want to know why on earth I should want the burden. One or two were cross that I had written a horrifying account of what was happening to many young Muslim girls in northern cities.

Then came the real bombshell. Nigella Lawson attacked me in The Observer apparently implying that I was a dope user who had no right to pronounce on the moral values of the young. The truth is that I would not know a joint if it came with beginner's instructions in plain English so this was an appalling accusation.

But what made it worse is that I had to answer phone calls from Muslims, including one Imam who is a good friend, about whether I did or had ever done drugs or whether this was just a "Jewish conspiracy" to destroy me. I had to reassure them that I had not taken drugs, and it was not a Jewish conspiracy.

This cannot go on. I don't wish to live under siege for the rest of my life on these shores. I was born a Muslim, and for years that was an unremarkable fact of life which needed no serious attention. I went to mosque every Friday and it was something we all looked forward to. We were allowed fun and frolic. My favourite film actresses were Nargis and Waheeda Rehman, lovely Muslim women who triggered wild desire with just a look or a song. My surrogate grandmother was a formidable Sunni Muslim woman who prayed five times a day, had been through four quivering husbands and who smoked a packet of fags every day. Being a Muslim meant belonging and pleasure, not relentless anger and pain.

Surely it should not be beyond the vast intelligence of our leaders and commentators to realise that many of them are treating us so unjustly that they are at present inventing the problems. Some of our young, especially the brightest and most educated ones - are beginning being tempted into extremist politics because they feel so maligned and excluded. We cannot deal with the very serious problems within our own communities because this war mentality creates conditions which demand absolute loyalty - a foolish thing even during a war.

Some people in the establishment are doing their bit, against the odds. A couple of weeks ago I heard the gentle Lib Dem Lord Avebury speaking at a conference on Islam organised by British and German institutions. Listening to him speaking of the great Islamic civilizations and of the enormous contributions Muslims are making to the world, I thought I had gone to heaven.

People like LSE Professor Fred Halliday are similarly enlightened and enlightening because they do not fall into the lap of anti-Muslim hysteria. I disagree with him when he says that there is no generic loathing of Muslims, because there palpably is. But he is absolutely right when he writes in his excellent book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, that whilst historical memories of the Crusades do linger, it will not do to fall for theories of simple confrontations of the sort put forward by the American academic Samuel Huntingdon, author of The Clash of Civilizations. Prince Charles too speaks about the positive aspects of our faith. And unlike his mum, I think he means it. Most of all Diana, in her own, more dangerous way, challenged the received view of Muslims, which is why we still miss her so.

A number of high-profile Muslims too are arguing for change within. They want to find a way of dealing with injustice without becoming apologists or perpetually frustrated and paranoid. We must become more confident and easy; much more humane too. Being oppressed is not a licence to behave badly or be permanently sad or to deny people individuality and joy. We will only find ourselves if we give up the idealized view of what we might have been or should be and look at what we are. This will require serious self appraisal.

Too many Muslims are unhappy in this country not because Richard Littlejohn insulted them but because their families and communities and mosques make their lives a misery. We cannot plead for fairness here and refuse to condemn the appalling treatment of Christians in Pakistan and the Sudan.

Such self-cleansing will bring fresh optimism which will enable us to claim, with greater conviction, our place in this our country. In the meantime remind me to speak to the wonderful Nazir Ahmed, the 80-year- old war hero who told me recently that he loved the Queen so much he would still die for her. Don't bother, I need to tell him. She thinks you are out to get her.