Muslims: Constantly exposed in the glare of spotlights

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The Independent Online

I am often asked now what Muslims feel like in Britain since the 11 September attacks. How can I possibly answer that question in the way it implies? There are millions of us and we are not monolithic. I am not a representative of British Muslims, nor am I interested in ever being seen as someone whose single voice presumptuously claims to be speaking for all those Muslims who have never given their consent that I should lead their pack.

I am often asked now what Muslims feel like in Britain since the 11 September attacks. How can I possibly answer that question in the way it implies? There are millions of us and we are not monolithic. I am not a representative of British Muslims, nor am I interested in ever being seen as someone whose single voice presumptuously claims to be speaking for all those Muslims who have never given their consent that I should lead their pack.

Through the thousands of letters and e-mails I have received from various British Muslims, I think it is possible to detect common experiences that cut through the enormous diversity of views that are expressed. To be a British Muslim today is to find oneself constantly in the glare of disconcerting spotlights. You are exposed, observed, unprotected by anonymity, painfully self-conscious of every part of your body, face, thoughts and fears. You feel judged by non-Muslims, as well as the faith police who seem to have proliferated since the war. There are various tests, which most of us are subjected to, of what a "true Muslim" must be seen to do these days, and nothing is ever good enough.

Muslims who are easily identified – such as women in hijab, and bearded men – tell me they are pushed off pavements, spat at, abused. Some have been sacked from jobs they have done for years. Afia, a young pharmacist, was told she was no longer wanted by her employer, an independent chemist who insisted she wear Western clothes. Schoolchildren have had a terrible time in some schools. Azad's mother wrote to me from a Northern town, describing how her 14-year-old son had had his face pushed into a toilet bowl by a gang, who then wrote "Osama" on his forehead and pushed a sausage into his mouth to force him to break his Ramadan fast.

Young Muslims seem to have become more proactive when confronted by Islamophobia in the media – they will not take it any more. Some of us are getting intensely worried about the cowboy politicians in the United States who have lost the caution they displayed earlier. There is relief that the Taliban are gone but fear of the future and anxiety about how much carnage there was in Afghanistan that we will never be fully told about. Others are so enraged by the behaviour of Israel that they are letting their attitudes slide toward a generalised anti-Semitism. The sight of Sharon provokes a level of hatred in me that I never thought I could feel, but that cannot excuse anti-Jewish sentiments.

But I am optimistic. Increasing numbers of Muslims are rejecting both Western hubris and the Islamic fanatics who feed on their own sense of injustice. They know now that the future of the world may depend on people such as themselves who abhor this latest clash of two bloodthirsty "civilisations" and see themselves instead as the complex products of both at their best.

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