Humera Khan: The bad news: British Muslims have been let down, and extremism is the result

As a faith-based community, we fall outside the safety net
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The Independent Online

The fatwas, the demonstrations, the anger, the pain, the bewilderment, the bigotry, the senseless deaths. The fallout from the publication of the cartoons in a Danish newspaper creates a feeling of déjà vu. We have been here before - and each time, it seems, bigots dominate the public debate and the discourse heads not towards a sane middle way but towards radical polemics.

But while the arguments presented by the media in the recent saga remain the same, the talk on the streets is radically different. Many people - Muslims and non-Muslims - seem fed up with the ugly media circus that has surrounded this controversy. Since appearing on Newsnight last week, I have had dozens of strangers come up to me and express solidarity. Some question the sanity of those who published the cartoons; others shake their heads in disbelief at how the world has gone mad.

I have tried hard not to over-react to the calculated provocation caused by the cartoons' publication. Burning flags and embassies, and carrying offensive placards, is definitely not the Islamic way of responding. My overriding concern is how to move beyond the quagmire we find ourselves in. The starting point must be to hear what is behind angry Muslim voices, to try to understand what is making some Muslims so thin skinned and vitriolic.

The vast majority of those Muslims who migrated to Britain were peaceful people wishing not to get in trouble with the establishment. They came, brought their families, and worked hard to improve their conditions.

Within one and a half generations the situation has changed completely, with an alarming number of children and grandchildren of these early settlers feeling alienated and marginalised and ready to jump to any cause that lifts their self-esteem. Added to these people are more recent arrivals of those who have fled their countries because of wars and conflicts often rooted in Western foreign policies.

The cause of the shift from model citizens to angry and frustrated troublemakers is rooted in the limitations of legislation to ensure equality. To recognise discrimination based on race but to ignore that based on religion - and the fact that many suffered both - was to plant the seeds of Muslim discontent.

Muslims, as a faith-based community, fell outside the safety net, thereby losing the opportunity to benefit effectively from what society had to offer and from protection under the law. This experience was not helped by the fact that the champions of equal opportunities were often vehemently anti-religious and refused to concede that not all social needs are race based.

Conditions were created for Muslims to become a reactionary community. Muslim children going to school realised that being a Muslim was the worst thing you could be. Islam continued to be presented in the curricula and in the media as a bloodthirsty, violent religion where women were voiceless chattels caged in harems. It was possible to get away with this because in the minds of our ruling élites religion was a "bad thing", with Islam at the top of the list of unreconstructed ideologies.

Wishing to integrate but being denied the opportunity to do so as equals, the community slowly began to implode. International politics reminded British Muslims of their grievances at home. Finding it easier to connect with international Muslim causes than to engage constructively in their adopted country, some British Muslims - mainly men - found themselves not just discontented but pushed over the edge.

What we see played out is - from the Muslim point of view - simply cause and effect. Claims by Muslims that the British government is hypocritical in its sense of justice are legitimised by the recent acquittal of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, on charges of incitement to racial hatred, and the jailing of Abu Hamza for seven years on a similar charge. All this is occurring at a time when Hamas legitimately gains power in Palestine and as the fiasco of Iraqi democracy continues to kill innocent victims on all sides.

Western double standards in the eyes of Muslims cannot be underestimated - but not all of us go round burning symbols and shouting offensive slogans. Those who do are a tiny minority. The vast majority hold to their principles, but with a growing disenchantment with governments here and abroad that don't do justice to Muslim causes.

Recognising the Muslim experience for what it is would go a long way towards releasing some of the Muslim anger. Acting in a just manner and without double standards will further boost people's confidence. If this were to be achieved, genuine negotiation would be a possibility. If it is not achieved, this depressing cycle will continue.

Humera Khan is co-founder of the An-Nisa Society, which works for the well-being of Muslim families. She was a member of the Home Office's Engaging Muslim Communities group set up after last year's London bombings