Distorted attitudes towards Britain's Muslims, particularly in the media, are to be challenged by the first-ever investigation into "Islamophobia".
A Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, to be launched on Monday by the Runnymede Trust, the independent think-tank on race relations, is the first comprehensive attempt to address the concerns of the 1 million-plus Muslims living in Britain.
The initiative will also examine religious education, which the commission members believe could play a part in ensuring a better understanding of Islam, and the issue of state funding for Islamic schools.
The commission, which will report next summer, follows a study by the Runnymede Trust into anti-Semitism. It recommended a similar body be set up toexamine prejudice against Muslims.
The move coincides with growing concerns among senior Muslims that they are viewed as extremist, because of events in other countries and antagonistic media coverage.
The new commission will be chaired by Professor Gordon Conway, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, who said yesterday that prejudice against Muslims was widespread. "When you start to look at the issues, particularly the attitude of the media, at what is said, particularly in newspapers, you begin to see the extent to which there is considerable anti-Muslim sentiment. In the tabloids it is vicious and rabid. In other papers it is often more subtle.
"If you look carefully, you see the ways, often insidious, in which British Muslims are being betrayed."
Citing the Oklahoma bombing, which some tabloid newspapers swiftly, and wrongly, attributed to Muslims, Prof Conway said the press reinforced a simplistic view of Islam. But this revulsion against religious fundamentalism failed to acknowledge Islam's diversity.
"Fundamental Christianity is also pretty extreme," he added. "The violence in Northern Ireland could be viewed as being between two branches of Christianity."
Prof Conway said that in some instances abuse appeared to be religious in motivation, such as the recent spate of incidents in Birmingham, where pigs' heads were thrown into Muslim families' front gardens.
The other strand of prejudice seemed to be clearly racial, as evidenced by the abuse suffered by south Asians and the use of the description "Pakistani", regardless of a person's origins.
"We want to know the extent to which violence is racial, or against a religion," Prof Conway said.
The 14 other members of the commission include Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College, the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Ian Hargreaves, editor of the New Statesman, Rabbi Julia Neuberger and the trust chairman and broadcaster Trevor Phillips.
Next year's report will make recommendations to the media and the political parties. "There are no Muslims in the House of Commons or House of Lords, and while older Muslims are active in local government younger Muslims are becoming disenchanted," Prof Conway said. The aim is to enable Muslims to participate fully in the economic, social and public life of the country.
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