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


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?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick

I’ll support England’s women, but it’s not like men’s football – and that’s a good thing

Matthew Norman
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue