Review of the year: Muslims

Provocations remind us that we're interlopers who will never belong
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The Independent Online

It's the custom, at Christmas, for petty nationalists to pick fights with those of us who are forever interlopers. Stories (mostly fabricated) appear about "multicultural" assaults on school Nativity productions; PC censors working overtime to cut out the Madonna from Christmas cards; and blasphemous restrictions on illuminated snowmen. The provocations remind us that we never were wanted and will never belong. Immigrants of colour, and our children and theirs, are the uninvited, the mistrusted bringers of bad and dangerous gifts to the precious manger where lies a pink-cheeked baby, representing this Christian kingdom as it sees itself. Since the rise of militant Islamicism, this seasonal evocation of wrath is now directed mostly at Muslims.

Muslims do not object to Christmas rituals - we revere Mary and Jesus. We despise the stupid drunkenness and consumerism, and with that, millions of Christians would agree. I wish my children had been picked to be Mary and Joseph, not goats and sheep, but I love the Nativity plays. We can give all the presents and good wishes this country demands, but we are forever wicked infidels.

This year, the Prime Minister has added his holy denunciations with the passion of a demented, fanatical priest rooting out unbelievers. Muslims have a "duty to integrate - that's what being British means", pronounces the preacher. When did old Brits ever willingly integrate with anyone, here or abroad? He proclaims the virtues of "democracy" without suffocating on the word, this autocrat who took us into an illegal war ignoring the democratic wishes of his people. True to form, Blair intervenes to disastrous effect. What a bloody miserable end to the year, which until now, had a slight lift, a breeze carrying hope not felt since 11 September 2001.

There are many reasons still to be cheerful. One is the level of de facto integration between us and them, real and indisputable. Government and media hawks like to pretend that the resistance to the war on Iraq comes largely from Muslim ghettos and a few habitually disgruntled white objectors. In truth, the Iraq disaster has brought together people of every race, religion, colour and class, and today there is growing shared abhorrence of our subservient "special relationship" with the United States. Even the most disengaged British Muslim recognises that we have never been alone in this "unpatriotic" struggle against the actions of our state. Blair and his henchmen issue dark warnings to Muslim dissidents - our rights now are conditional upon total acquiescence to their policies and versions of history. In response, Liberty rushes to defend us, the Lib Dems and members of the Tory party, too - Michael Ancram, for heaven's sake - and other unexpected allies emerge, including peers and Jewish figures of considerable influence.

Ostensibly to protect British citizens from Islamicist crusaders, the police, intelligence services and Government conspire to irreversibly weaken fundamental civil rights. They demand immunity from accountability as they monitor the population; they plan to erode habeas corpus and use interrogation techniques that should be anathema in any free society. Big guns such as the journalist Henry Porter and Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC (no Muslims they) hold back these raiders with forceful determination. Most Britons were revolted when Mohammed Abul Kaher, an innocent young man in Forest Gate, was shot in his home by police who believed that he and his brother were terrorists. Britons of conscience, of all backgrounds, keep vigil over the tortured Guantanamo Bay inmates; they condemn Israel's deadly, racist actions against Palestinian people; they keep Iraq on the agenda to unsettle the weakened Blair/Bush axis.

Recent figures published by the Crown Prosecution Service show there has been no significant increase in anti-Muslim abuse or assaults, bad news for those Muslims who need us to believe in escalating Islamophobia, and reassuring for the rest of us who hope that things can, must get better. Where politicians create fissures, artists create shared spaces. The ongoing Festival of Muslim Cultures, and the commitment of arts and heritage institutions to nurture Muslim art have been oases in hours of darkness.

Other glad tidings this year: the key brokering Muslim agencies, the Muslim Council of Britain and its affiliates, lost control. Exposed for what these bodies really are - polite, nay unctuous fronts for dark-age Islam - these "leaders" no longer have automatic access to ministers, access that gave them kudos, influence over policy, authority based on untested claims of representation. Fast-multiplying newer Muslim groupings are now competing in a marketplace of ideas about the past, present and future. The Sufi Muslim Council , The City Circle, Progressive British Muslims, Muslims for Secular Democracy ( with which I am involved), and many others have arrived. One hopes that the media, too, will stop featuring false prophets of unitary "representation" and perpetual Muslim alienation.

We are finally having national conversations about taboo "Muslim" subjects. The veil debate was an example of this vital freeing-up of tongues and legitimate critical discourse. Racial or religious attachments were no predictors of positions. Some white liberals, committed to free choice, defended veiled women, while others expressed their objections. Muslims were similarly divided and articulated their views with integrity.

Now for the bad news, which, at times in 2006, brought on overwhelming hopelessness. For me, the worst events were the brazen persecution by Israel of Gaza and the Lebanon, and the tragedies of Iraq and Darfur, where Muslims kill Muslims with indiscriminate savagery. Western Muslims are vocally condemnatory about outside enemies, but remain criminally silent about Muslim killers of Muslims. We are as guilty as the Western powers of double standards. It also breaks my heart to see how many women are joining the hard men to reject modernity. Their mothers and grandmothers struggled for freedoms; millions of Muslim women around the world yearn for liberty. And these women throw themselves into subjugation.

Finally, to the most terrifying developments this year. Hundreds of British Muslim men are being consigned to a secret world of arrests and hidden trials here in Britain. The media go into overdrive when the police swoop, then the arrested disappear. We have no evidence yet to prove whether all those arrested over the last airport alert are guilty or innocent. I have never before heard so many successful Muslims ruefully planning to leave their adopted land. They are frightened the knock on the door will take their sons next. Perhaps that is the plan - to scare us away.

Most Muslims are not likely to give in or give up. This is our country, too, for better and worse. Times are hard but have been harder. Next year could be better, unless bombers blast away that fragile possibility.

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