Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: European Muslims value western freedoms

British leaders must prove that, even under provocation, the state does not surrender justice
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The Independent Online

About five years ago I went up north to make a television programme about second generation Muslims. It was a tough assignment. Mistrust of the media was high, understandably. These Muslims have been studied more than laboratory rats and demonised ceaselessly since The Satanic Verses was burnt in 1988. I had to gain the trust of the people we wanted to interview, and their friends, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and, sometimes, imams. Any one of them could scupper our careful arrangements, and some did.

One hot evening, I met a group of 40 young men, mostly badly educated and inarticulate, from Kirklees, Halifax and Huddersfield. Unlike their fathers, they had no decent jobs. Before Britain became post-industrial, white and Muslim factory workers were bound through the trades unions. But Thatcherism laid the unions to waste. The men I was talking to - born here, but dislocated and emasculated - blamed the state not only for failing to cater for them when the factories went, but for all their ills and their sense of collective failure.

As the litany went on, and grew ever more demented I finally snapped: "Why don't you leave then? Go to Pakistan and stay there. Go and be happy." An eerie silence settled for a few seconds and then someone from the back shouted: "Because, Memsahib, we can't be speaking like this over there." "Yeah, that's right. You know those Pakistani police, kill you they do", said another hothead. Kareem, who felt this country was destroying his culture, stood up and agreed with the brothers "Pakistan, too well dangerous, man."

This incident comes vividly to mind as the anti-terrorism manifesto is rolled out by President Blair, a control freak whose tryst with destiny has come. Just as George Bush's did after the al-Qa'ida attacks in the US, Blair demands open-ended powers which will be too well dangerous, man.

He wants to use deportation as a weapon to beat individuals engaged in "extremism", a term yet to be defined, and all those whose ideas are anathema to Westerners. To meet inhumane targets, his Government is already packing off deserving asylum seekers. Now they will have the label "suspected extremist" stuck to them to hasten their departure. Our leader wants to strip the "enemies within" of their British citizenship, to close proscribed Islamicist organisations and mosques, to use control orders and widen the grounds for all these measures. Sod the Human Rights Act says the PM, who is growing impatient with judges too. The list is but a few shades off tyrannical.

The good news for our action man is that a vast number of quiet, devout, happy-to-be-British Muslims applaud these measures. Better still, they say, put the Islamicists with rolling, malevolent eyes, hooked hands and forked tongues into weighted crates and sink them in the seas. They hate the lot of them and the websites, bookshops, mullahs and the intellectuals who want to bury women and little girls in black shrouds. I confess to similar murderous thoughts whenever I face these depraved religious Stalinists, whose words can and do poison young minds the world over. Any laws to silence and disable them would be cheering news indeed.

Many Muslims welcome these proposals because they tap into dishonourable personal and shared histories buried within. Muslims can point with pride to the enlightened civilisations in Andalusia in Spain, under Emperor Akbar in India and to the pre-colonial art and scholarship of Egypt, Iraq and other countries. But for decades now, most Muslim states have been cruel and oppressive. You carry the pattern within you. During times of trouble, you instinctively reach down and pluck out authoritarian solutions, always a bad idea, which we also know, somewhere in our hearts.

British leaders should be the very antithesis of these shameful values. They must prove to migrants and their decedents that, even under savage provocation, the British state does not surrender fundamental principles of justice and civil liberties.

Initially, migration took place because of severe economic need on both sides. The ideals of democracy, fairness and freedom were unexpected gifts to the immigrant. The reason those young men in the north wanted to live here was that they had become people of Europe, even while they felt alienated in Europe.

Some committed Islamicist groups are speaking in similar terms. The Muslim Association of Britain, which is regarded by some as inimical to the West, now proclaims: "There can be no doubt that during these difficult times we must stand together to preserve our country's unity, safety and prosperity, while at all times and costs, maintain what we take pride in, our freedoms and liberties." It could, of course, be bluff to get the security services off their backs, but it could equally be a genuine recognition of European values.

It is the Europeanised consciousness that made so many Muslims rise against the war in Iraq and that makes them question our unethical foreign policies. Why, they ask, are Bush and Blair, the messiahs of democracy, so disgracefully chummy with the callous house of Saud? And what are we going to do about Chechnya? They are also proud when justified Western interventions are implemented, as they were in Kosovo, for example.

To be in charge in these explosive times must be appallingly difficult. It can't be business as usual. Muslims must expect to be under exceptional levels of scrutiny; surveillance will have to be expanded, and the police will stop and search brown- and black-skinned men disproportionately. How can it be otherwise? A temporary change in the law may be needed to permit questioning to go on beyond the first 14 days to another fortnight maximum. But what we cannot have is a Government slashing and burning the stirring European Muslim sensibility.

Giles Keppel, a French academic, argues passionately that there is a real possibility we will get a new breed of universalist European Muslim thinkers and that "these young men and women will present a new face of Islam - reconciled with modernity". This hopeful spark must not be snuffed out by Blair or by the governments of France and other European nations imprisoning suspects without trial and deporting people who have not been through established procedures.

It is treasonable for European leaders to betray our history of liberty and democracy just when enlightened Muslims are incorporating those traditions, the very Muslims who will help win the ideological war against the bombers.