Witness Muslims In Britain: Exploding the stereotype

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THE VERY night that the nail bomb went off in Brick Lane, the film Executive Decision was shown on television. If the coincidence does not mean much to you, it was not lost upon the bomb's targets among the Bengali community of the East End of London. And it certainly registered with members of the wider Muslim community.

Executive Decision was a Hollywood blockbuster. You could be forgiven for not knowing that, since the Kurt Russell movie wasn't quite the success its makers hoped for. But it certainly made its mark among Britain's Muslims. The action movie about the hijacking of a 747 was a tale of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism versus American heroism (no prizes for guessing who wins). The screening last Saturday night served, in effect, to remind the nation, according to Dr Imruh Bakari, that "Muslims are supposed to be the bombers not the bombed".

Dr Bakari is not indulging in conspiracy theory here. He is talking about culture. "Hollywood is the most ideological of cinema," says Dr Bakari, who lectures on Islam and cinema at King Alfred's College, in Winchester. "It is US national cinema and, in effect, part of American foreign policy."

It is culture rather than policy, or even the wild acts of deranged individuals, which he believes is the real culprit for the nail bombs in Brick Lane and Brixton. "Bombs will continue to go off," he said, "because a climate is long established - by Mosley, by Powell and by Thatcher - a climate that gives respectability and licence to those people who perpetrate these acts."

There are some targets that are so fragile that bombs can damage them more easily than they can shatter flesh and bone. The sense of ease of a whole community is one such. Another is the painstaking process of nurturing a conversation of trust between minorities and the majority among which they exist.

"It is as if everything has leapt back 10 years," said Professor Jorgen Nielsen, the director of the Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak in Birmingham, taking time out from a British Council conference entitled Mutualities: Britain and Islam. "After years in which the Muslim community has grown in self-confidence and begun to feel they are being listened to, it's thrown everything back to the kind of discourse they were used to before the Rushdie affair."

The green-and-gold grandiloquence of the Cafe Royale, in London's Regent Street, and the imperial splendour of the Foreign Office's gilded Locarno room must have seemed a world away from the shabby streets of Brick Lane and Brixton when the conference participants received their invitations. But by this week the space had shrunk to nothing as the reality of racism intruded into the conversations in these temples to Victorian self-assurance.

Academic conference postulations denying that there is such a thing as a British Muslim community - too heterogeneous, too unable to find a common identity - evaporated there. "If the people who plant bombs decide that I'm a Paki," said one Muslim of Mauritian origin, "then I'm a Paki." The talk over the Foreign Office's flower-sprigged non-alcoholic cocktails was of how even the mosques of the Arab communities were now on full alert for a third bomb.

It is hard to say how much damage has been done to the complex process of disentangling the issues of race and religion and the persecution and paranoia that infest them. To the untutored British eye, the Muslim world is difficult enough to read at the best of times.

Had anyone walked in from the street and overheard the exchanges at the conference, they might have seemed unremarkable common sense. One of Europe's leading young Muslim intellectuals, Dr Tariq Ramadan, who lectures at the University of Geneva, had warned that Islamic education in Europe could not follow the lines set in North Africa or the Indian subcontinent.

Learning rules by rote had to be replaced by building personalities imbued with Islamic values of spirituality, love and a sense of dignity. Islamic schools must not be ghettos where pupils were taught to reject all things Western; instead they needed to learn how to select the 95 per cent of European culture that was good. Much of what goes on in many Muslim countries is not Islamic. Mosques in the West, he went on, needed to be independent of foreign funding and influence. And Muslims need to start by considering their responsibilities to European society instead of talking always about their rights.

But as he spoke, Philip Lewis, who is the Bishop of Bradford's adviser on Islam, turned to Professor Nielsen and whispered: "I've never heard a Muslim say so much in public before."

"I'm being more and more convinced that there's a change taking place in the Islamic intellectual circles," Nielsen said afterwards. "They are growing immensely in self-confidence," said Lewis. "They feel they're being listened to. The old defensiveness is receding."

The confidence is evident when you talk to Muslim leaders. Over dinner at the Cafe Royale, Dr Manazir Ahsan, the director of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, reeled off the developments that have built that confidence: Prince Charles's speech at Oxford, the granting of the first state funding for Muslim schools, the regular meetings he now has with the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett, the moves to have religion recorded on the next national census, more Muslims in the House of Lords, Tony Blair's letter to Muslims to mark the Id festival at the end of the Haj pilgrimage - and much more.

Now you saw most British Muslims applauding - only two walked out - when Princess Sarvath, the sister-in-law of the King of Jordan, told the conference that Islam unequivocally supports equal education for women and insists that girls entering into marriage must do so without coercion. Many first- generation Muslim immigrants, she said, don't know the difference between the culture of their homeland and what the Koran really says.

There was hearty applause, too, when Dr Zaki Badawi, the principal of the Muslim College in Ealing, said that British Muslims needed to be rid of the uneducated imams imported to the UK from rural villages in Pakistan and Bangladesh. And British mosques also needed no more sectarian mullahs imposed with foreign funding by states with a narrow, sectarian view of Islam. Britain needed to educate its own religious leaders.

Compared with what we have heard at such forums in the past, this is all bold stuff. "What we don't need is to have all this progress jeopardised by old-style racism," said Nielsen. "The muddling of race and religion has been one of the serious problems of the past," said Lewis. "Many of the continuing problems stem from the fact that most of the decision- and policy-makers are theologically illiterate."

Transcontinental marriages are a case in point. More than half of Bradford's Muslim girls marry ill-educated rural cousins from Pakistan. Which is perhaps why the city's police are now dealing with 400 cases of runaway girls every year.

"Yet if you confuse forced marriages with arranged ones you only make the community defensive," said Lewis. "By understanding that, as the princess said, Islam can be an emancipatory influence here, you can make progress. It is a mark of the growing theological literacy among the Bradford authorities that three-quarters of those cases now end with reconciliation between the women and their families."

Such a growth in understanding may be beyond the wit of the character in the baseball cap sought as chief suspect for the bombings. But, with application, perhaps the rest of us can make good the damage.