Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Stop this obsessive focus on Muslims

What drives this relentless digging into our thoughts and desires, hopes and fears?
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The Independent Online

Before I went off for my summer break I spent a day in the House of Commons attending various seminars on British Muslims. It was a year since bombs strapped on the bodies of ardent young British Muslim men ripped through parts of central London, including places frequented by Arabs and ambitious Muslim university students. In the 12 months since the assaults, endless surveys have asked many questions and delivered few satisfying answers.

Millions of words have also been written and broadcast, an understandable response but again leaving confusion and incredulity lingering in the air. I guess, think, imagine, and talk to fellow Muslims; but I too can provide no reassuring, comprehensive analysis. The families of the killers are smeared with the guilt by association but they can proffer no conclusive evidence either. There is no neat Holmesian denouement.

One afternoon the Foreign Policy Centre launched a short report - Born in the UK: Young Muslims in Britain (Hugh Barnes) - and the Fabian Society discussed the same subject, its star turn the assertive Labour MP Sadiq Khan. He criticised his Government for failing to take seriously the recommendations made by handpicked Muslims, after the London explosions.

In a memorable comparison, Khan likened Blair and his lieutenants to the Duke of York "marching all these talented Muslims to the top of the hill of consultation and dialogue only to march them down again".

Later, at the Fabian Society summer party on the terrace of the Commons, the theme of troubled and troublesome Muslims continued to vex guests as they sipped on their cold wines while looking out on the languid Thames. In these exceptional times, it must have comforted them to watch the old river washing in and out as it has always done whatever the perils faced by this small island.

I returned from vacation to find the fixation on British Muslims continued unabated. More books and reports have arrived - 12 in all. On the answerphone is a stream of requests for interviews - from Jamaica to Japan - all wanting to talk about young British Muslim men. And tonight, Channel 4's Jon Snow broadcasts his thoughts on whether Muslims pose a threat to Britain and its values. I groan as I read about the programme, then turn to shrill. Enough already surely? Which Muslims? What values? What more do you want from us? What drives this relentless digging into Muslim lives and souls, our innermost thoughts and desires, hopes and fears?

When researchers and the media turn so much attention on a section of the population they encourage aberrant behaviours. In the Eighties, journalists and social scientists used to swoop on Brixton and Toxteth to "discover" why black men rioted in spite of having the good fortune to be born in England. The young men loved living down to the stereotype; it was cool.

In a woodland outside Oxford, zoologists have, for decades, studied the furry inhabitants, most of which now have tags to identify them as samples of specific studies. I hear the animals are showing deviant levels of compliance with humans, almost playing to the crowds of scientists. I fear that is what is happening to young British Muslim men too.

Most of them are being pushed by the obsessive national attention into an idea of themselves as a breed apart. The scrutiny only intensifies their separateness, leading them to play the part written for them.

The latest Channel 4 expose makes excitable and contradictory claims. In a sample of 1,000 Muslims, one in four said the London bombings were justified; yet only eight people "maintained a very hard line". Eighty per cent apparently said anyone who protected a terrorist was as guilty as the perpetrator.

What about the diversity among British Muslims? Ceri Peach, Professor of Social Geography at St Catherine's College, Oxford, writes: "Islam is pan-ethnic and there are Muslims in Britain of Arab, South Asian, Albanian, Bosnian, Iranian, Nigerian, Somali, Turkish and many other groups of origin whose characteristics and socio-economic profiles are very different." Was there a sample of non-Muslims? Without that, how do we know how different Muslims are from the rest of Britons?

For example, the programme shows many Muslims believe we have not been given the whole truth about 11 September and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Millions of non-Muslims are sceptical too - including beef eating, American mid-westerners. Snow - a journalist I admire unreservedly - is reported as saying: "For the moment, British Muslims are on side." What side? I am not on side, if it means agreeing to the immoral and racist foreign policies of the UK and US axis. Many militant Muslims are not ignorant, fanatical worshippers, but people with eyes wide open, staring at political duplicity.

Most of my friends - across the races and faiths, secular and atheist - are today feeling politically disenfranchised and afraid, very afraid of the twin evils - western intransigence and Islamist terrorists. We detest the war on Iraq, Blair's special relationship with the arses of US presidents, the Taliban, Muslim killers of innocents, anti-Semites, xenophobes, women haters, the hubristic Israeli government and so on. The politics of justice are not owned by any religion or race.

To claim, as our power merchants do, that only murderous Muslims are furious about western actions serves our leaders well. To dwell on Islam and Muslims as the causes of all turmoil, to paint us as malevolent deviants serves them better still, permitting them to scythe through freedoms and choices which otherwise would never be surrendered in democratic societies.

In his sober essay "In the Streets of Londonistan" (London Review of Books) the lawyer John Upton wrote: "A black cloud of Islamist terror is said to be hanging over the Western world; and specific causes of violence and discontent have disappeared into it. Instead we promote the idea that all acts of violence involving Arabs or Muslims, if seen from the correct (that is to say US inspired) angle, will fit together like a jigsaw to form an image of Osama bin Laden.... If this is a war, as the Neocons and Blairite hawks would have us believe, it is being fought as much in the realm of ideology and words as in the realm of explosive shoes and ricin laboratories. It is a propaganda war of shadowy unprovables...."

And part of this propaganda war of shadowy unprovables is to pore over and pronounce endlessly on Muslim alienation to prove that we are indeed aliens, unable to live as quiet citizens, always suspect, devious and determined to destroy the place that once gave us shelter.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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