Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Ramadan's true spirit is threatened

'I love Western freedoms, but I hate booze-and-sex popular culture. I'm trying to teach my children the value of self-restraint'
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The Independent Online

Normally Ramadan, which just started, would see Muslims around the world willingly laying down their many differences, even enmities, to submit to the tough discipline of fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam which binds them together. The month should bring greater empathy with the poor and oppressed, honest introspection, kindness, peace and sublimation.

All hardships – internal and external – hurt less for a while and even among the most deprived British Muslims, a temporary but important confidence and renewed faith settles in. The most defective and deficient Muslims (and there are many of us) feel drawn to the vast canopy of Islam at this time. We are always welcomed in by our less-flawed brethren, who know that after Eid they will once more have to show their disapproval of our maverick ways.

The war and 11 September have torn through all of that. Now this sense of warm universal belonging is constantly interrupted by the desperate desire to disconnect from various vocal Muslims and their dangerous rhetoric which threatens to subsume us. Every day dozens of Muslims are contradicting these spokespeople and asserting their own independent views. Never in my life have I seen so many well articulated and argumentative letters in the newspapers from ethnically diverse British Muslims – men and women, old and young, middle class and working class, Sunnis and Shias – all expressing a vast variety of opinions on the situation.

Networks of young Muslim professionals have emerged as an energetic and dynamic rapid rebuttal force. They respond, positively and negatively, in numbers, to journalists in the mainstream and the Muslim media. They managed recently to push off course an incendiary Kilroy programme which was to star big-name Muslim fanatics.

Moderates are finally emerging from the shadows because they know that if they don't, the extremists and the unthinking, already too much in evidence, will push forth their indescribably hateful views and make us all suffer the consequences. Attacks and verbal abuse suffered by people with brown skins have risen by 30 per cent since the catastrophic attacks in the US and every time Omar Bakri and his gang speak out, this gets worse still. Asian taxi drivers get beaten up, Muslim women are spat at and shoved of pavements and our children get kicked and taunted.

The bad news is that the media shuts the door on British Muslims with diverse, intelligent, unconventional ideas. I can't tell you how many calls I have had from television or radio programme researchers asking me if I am anti or pro war. When I explain that I support intervention and am wholly against the Taliban but that I oppose the wild bombing and am afraid of what comes next, interest evaporates. They need someone who takes "a clearer line" and is "representative".

Most editors only want to hear Muslim interviewees who either sound violently anti-Western (because it is always so exciting) or those who will say that Blair and Bush really really love Islam and therefore must be supported in all that they wish to do.

Another kind of Muslim voice which is becoming popular is that of the bloke (one a day, it seems lately) on the Today programme or other flagships who cannot communicate well in English and can therefore be patronised or ridiculed. Producers would prefer us to present ourselves as cut-throats, clowns or blockheads. All three exist in abundance among British Muslims, as they do among all other groups, but it is a travesty of democracy to exclude the millions of Britons who are trying to deal with their responsibilities as Muslims and who are now permanently in the West, and not just camping here in Bedouin tents.

Because of effective protests against this deliberate manipulation of expressed opinion, we have now been given "scientific evidence" which allegedly shows that most British Muslims are against the war and that large numbers back Mr bin Laden. First, a newspaper gave us survey results to prove that Muslims are "unpatriotic". Four out of 10 Muslims believe "bin Laden had reason to mount war against the US" and that British Muslims should fight with the Taliban. It turns out this study was carried out by enthusiastic reporters outside targeted mosques on a Friday and in a few known Muslim residential areas. The questions and answers were twisted to suit a pre-set agenda.

Next came an ICM poll of 500 Muslims commissioned by the BBC which was, at least, carried out by reputable pollsters. But look closely and you discover only 31 per cent of the interviewees were over 34 and 69 per cent were men. This explains why 80 per cent oppose the military action in Afghanistan and 57 per cent do not believe Tony Blair when he says that the war is not against Islam.

We are not the enemy within. I have not met or heard from one Muslim who thinks 5,000 plus people deserved to be turned to ash. What I have heard is that the US has become too arrogant and self serving; that it supports intolerant regimes which have destroyed liberal Muslim voices in the Islamic world; that the West has always exploited the rest of the world and needs a new enemy after the cold war; that the Taliban and Mr bin Laden were monsters created in part by the West.

I have also heard, time and gain, that it is vital for Muslims to use this moment to rethink their futures and to stop the pressure to conform to one, imposed, ruthless, joyless, political Islam; that Israel has blackmailed the world long enough; that the West is killing Iraq slowly; that it is foolish to say that our young people should fight for the Taliban to defend Islam, seeing as all Afghanis, including the Northern Alliance, are Muslims; that the bombing was wrong and was used to satisfy the bloodlust of angry America; that unless Muslim women are given their rights, we will not deserve any respect; that we must fight to keep diversity and critical conversations alive.

Complicated positions about values also confound clever-dick headline writers. I love my Western freedoms and rights but I hate the excessive booze-and-sex popular culture which is threatening to drown us all, black and white. I'm trying to teach my children to respect older people and learn the importance of self sacrifice, self restraint and prayer.

I will never, ever (even if Mr Blunkett detains me indefinitely), say that the West is the centre of civilisation. We, the children of the empire, know well the barbarisms, past and present, which have flown from Western ambitions and greed. But the West has given us technological innovations and invaluable principles to build good societies and almost all post-colonial Muslim leaders have stamped out lives, rights, aspirations and dreams.

All these thoughts, contradictions, cross-currents of pessimistic anger and optimistic determination are invading the spirit of Ramadan. American Thanksgiving this weekend, once a simple affirming occasion, will feel even more charged and emotional. Everything did change on 11 September.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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