It was a bad Friday. The attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France shocked and scared British Muslims, as much if not more than those outside the faith. The murderers eliminated Western tourists on a beach, worshippers in a mosque, beheaded a Frenchman, and sent a grim Ramadan message that more such mayhem and slaughter would follow.
There have been so many acts of Islamicist violence, the faith itself is now seen as toxic. “There is no such thing as peaceful Islam,” according to Edward R, who sent a hastily written letter to me this week. “You are the enemy. You want to destroy us, democracy, breed like rabbits and take over.”
I am grateful to him for putting down on paper what many fellow citizens feel and think. The accusations are unfair and unwarranted, but after every such attack, it becomes harder to answer them. It is very hard to be a Muslim these days.
Western powers have caused incalculable damage to various nations around the world. They still play hard, encourage reactionary ideas and dictatorships and impose their own rules across the East and South. So yes, there are good reasons to blame the UK, US and EU for the misery of millions. But look around. Countries such as South Africa, India and Brazil have managed to beat the odds, grow their economies, become assertive and ambitious; but most Muslim nations remain backward, oppressive, resentful and hopeless. More Muslims are killed by other Muslims than by Christian or Jewish baddies. In the West too, Muslims are among the poorest citizens, often ghettoised, the least well-educated and aspirational. This is changing, but too slowly. Shame about this makes many young Muslims turn to radicalism. Progressive, Western Muslims have to get smarter, to think deeply and seriously about the best ways to respond. Those old clichés about “peaceful Islam” and “the loyal Muslim community” sound hollow, asking Muslims to join in choruses of condemnation even more so. Banging on about imams and mosques has made no difference. None of that has any effect on wannabe terrorists or rising anti-Muslim prejudices.
One more thing: let’s have no more special pleading from white lefties and self-selected Muslim spokespeople. Other minorities face discrimination and racism. They don’t create havoc and mayhem. Anti-racism would be stronger today if Muslims hadn’t split off to start their own, self-referential movement. So let us rejoin the wider struggle against injustice, learn to fight with and for those unlike ourselves.
We need that broad alliance to oppose the new Bill on countering terrorism which flagrantly takes away basic human rights and liberties from Muslims. Since 9/11 too many Muslims have retreated into mental, cultural and political ghettos. Time to break down those walls. We are human first and last and have multiple identities.
We should also stop droning on about what the religious texts say and confront what our co-religionists do. All the Abrahamic texts contain injunctions to violence as well as entreaties for peace. The apartheid regime used the Bible to justify its inhumane policies. The Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis do the same. Holy books are like guns; they can be used for good and evil, so best not refer to them, in my humble view. It is time too, to break free from the politics of “community”, the pernicious idea that there is this blob of homogeneity. Baroness Warsi uses the word as if it is a magic spell to cure all ills, when she knows perfectly well that there is no such thing. We are individuals, each one of us unique and different.
Let us take four men called Mohamed (the name is spelled in various ways and pays homage to the Prophet). The first will return to haunt the nation on 7 July. Mohammad Sidique Khan was the gang-leader of the suicide bombers who killed and maimed Londoners across the capital, the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The second, Mo Farah, ran like the wind for Great Britain in the Olympics, wraps himself (literally) in the Union flag and is a hero to countless young Muslim males. Next, a wiry Eritrean in his twenties, who spoke at an event organised by Refugee Action. This Mohamad got on to one of those small, packed boats and made the perilous journey to Europe. He was joyous and so very grateful, he said, to be in a country where he is free to speak, to be himself. In Eritrea people are enslaved, silenced, tortured and killed. The final example is Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. He has issued a fatwa against suicide bombings and in an interview on Saturday in this paper, he lashed out against “[the] criminals” who kill in the name of Islam.
The four couldn’t be more different. The tragedy is that today, most Europeans believe all Muslims are hate-filled aliens who will never belong. Avowals and marches by Muslims will not shift that perception. What we need is a vast coalition of black, white, brown, religious, atheist, politically diverse, poor and rich, gay and straight people. As we did when Bush and Blair declared war on Iraq. We understood then what was right and what was terribly wrong. That same unequivocal, worldwide opposition needs to build up against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis. Imagine millions marching from Cairo to Cape Town, Perth to Helsinki, Lima to Karachi, all rejecting Islamicist ideologies and utopian fantasies, reclaiming their common humanity. It can be done.
Islamicist terrorism is a deadly mission. It hates the best of human achievements, equalities, freedoms, diversities within Islam and across the world, the fragile, precious, precarious bonds between civilisations and peoples. It seeks domination, is taking over lands and is likely to go on for a very long time. Its advances cannot, for now, be repelled but its evil messages can and must be repudiated.