We British go out of our way to avoid using the word ‘Muslim’

If reporters avoid using the word, we also risk missing out on the positive side of religious identity

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Have the Brits got a problem with “Muslims”?

Not the people, but the word. Maybe it’s because I live on the Muslim side of Beirut in a majority Muslim country in the Muslim Middle East – where no one in their right minds would worry about the use of the word as an adjective to distinguish them from Christians, Druze, Jews or folk like me whom, I suppose, we must categorise as a “Westerner”. But when I turned on British television news coverage during a brief visit to Europe last month, I was bemused by the lengths to which my colleagues, the reporters, went to in order to avoid using the word “Muslim”.

The problem, of course, was that repulsive story of the six young men sentenced for sexually grooming and raping underage girls in Oxford. We can all agree that this was an abominable crime of paedophilia and that the culprits deserve their total of 95 years in prison. But who were they exactly? One journalist said that they came from “a certain community”, which is about as coy as you can get. For anyone reading the identities of the six accused will have noticed at once that most, if not all, must be Muslims. Assad Hussain, for example, is not exactly a Protestant Anglo-Saxon name.

Now I can understand the self-censorship we employ on such occasions. If we categorise court defendants by their religion, we are saying – in effect – that their religion must have some relevance to their crime, or to their propensity to commit crime. We don’t routinely identify men or women charged with criminal offences as “Christian”, “Buddhist”, “Jewish” or, for that matter, atheist, because this, too, would suggest that our belief – or non-belief – in Jesus, Buddha or Yahweh has a connection to our criminal intent. We may be described as “British” in a court appearance – to distinguish us from French or Spanish citizens with whom we are accused of consorting in crime – but never as British Catholics.

But this was not the rubric followed in the Oxford case. For here – desperate to use the word “Muslim”, but clearly unable to do so for fear that those who safeguard our moral values (or who safeguard those values they find of use) will jump upon us for our presumed racism, fascism, Islamophobia and neo-Nazi tendencies – reporters plumped for a supposedly safer word. The criminals were members of an “Asian gang”.

Needless to say, I accept that Asia is a very big land mass and stretches from the region we regard, in our colonial way, as the Far East to the lands we call, in our equally colonial way, the Middle East and, south of the Mediterranean, to Morocco. And technically, Asia stretches all the way to the Bosphorus. This means that Lebanon – and Israel, for that matter – are in Asia, although that’s not really how we think of them. In our minds, the Lebanese, whose second language is French, are more “European” than some citizens of southern Russia, while Israel even participates (along with Jordan) in the Eurovision Song Contest. In our minds – certainly if we live in the place – we think of the Arab world as the Middle East and, along with its neighbouring countries further east, as “the Muslim world”. The rest is “Asia”.

Criminals of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, Muslims though they probably are, are technically of “Asian background”. The catch is that the word “Asian” – to me at school and certainly to my First World War-era Dad – meant Chinese. Or Japanese. That’s not a dated or a racist idea. If we visit an Asian restaurant in London, we don’t expect to eat Arab food. If acquaintances say they are bringing an Asian friend to dinner, I shall expect to see a Chinese or a Japanese or a Burmese or a Thai or a Malaysian. Or Indian (albeit they may be Muslims). Chinese, after all, constitute more than a quarter of Asia’s 4.3 billion population. But if they are bringing a Muslim friend, they would say just that, or Iranian or Pakistani or perhaps – if they were from the “Western” end of the Muslim world – Arabs.

And here we come to the point. To call a street gang “Asian” is deliberately misleading. Recent paedophilia cases in the UK have not involved Chinese. Or Japanese. With exceptions – Stuart Hall and Jeremy Forrest, for instance – most recent cases have indeed involved Muslims. Why else did 500 Muslim imams across the UK – immediately after the Oxford court hearings – deliver sermons on the evils of child grooming and rape? Protestant and Catholic clergymen – most speaking to empty churches, it’s true – did not feel the need to address this crime. It was not thought necessary, so far as I know, to speak about this scourge in British synagogues.

I can see the dangers here, of course. I recall how that nasty old anti-Muslim German pope – now mercifully put out to grass at Castel Gandolfo – hammered away at Muslim imams in his native Germany about the need to condemn crimes against humanity. Several Muslim divines bowed their heads in apparent shame – as if they personally had something to do with mass murders – but I do not remember the Holy Father or even a single bishop or priest or vicar expressing remorse for the acts of Christian Serbs or Christian Lebanese who massacred thousands of Muslims in ex-Yugoslavia or Lebanon.

The real subject to be confronted here, I fear, is whether the misogynistic, patriarchal world in which so many Muslims do indeed live – the treatment and equality of women within Islam is, I can assure you, a live subject in the Middle East – has somehow leached over into crime; whether – let us speak frankly – there actually is a connection between the Muslim identity of the men in Oxford and their crime; no, not their religion, but their background, call it “social”, cultural”, political or whatever. The 500 Imams obviously thought there was a connection. That’s why they all preached the same sermon at the same time.

We also – as a country of more than one “faith” – miss out on the positive side of religious identity. I remember my sorrow when the brave and compassionate response of a man to the killing of his son in the 2011 UK riots was reported without a single reference to the fact that the father was a Muslim. Surely this was, in crude journalistic terms, part of the “story”: a Muslim, from a community villified for decades in the West for violence – long before 9/11 – responded in precisely the way that we would wish any non-Muslim to behave. His “different” religion proved only that he was exactly the same as “us” and conformed precisely to what “we” might like to call “our values” (albeit that this is a word hijacked by the repulsive Blair).

The argument is far larger than this. The 9/11 attacks brought down a lot of the sensibilities about “Muslims”. The killers were Arab Muslims. And we said so. But what we were not allowed to discuss was that almost all were from Saudi Arabia – a close American ally whom we must not offend even though its kings, princes and citizens adhere to a particularly intolerant form of Islam – and that the identity of these men might suggest there were problems in the Middle East, which must not be the subject of conversation since it might involve America’s relations with Israel.

But I have yet to hear the hijackers of 9/11 referred to as an “Asian gang”. Which they were, were they not?

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