Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We Muslims are now guilty until proven innocent

Of around 1,200 arrested under the Terrorism Act, just 41 have been convicted
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The Independent Online

Since the al-Qa'ida attacks in 2001, Muslims living in Western countries have been forced into a pen of collective blame and pre-emptive culpability, including those who are most loyal. We are guilty unless proven innocent, a reversal of natural justice, but who cares? The net has to be thrown wide, and we understand that. But not why every time Muslims under suspicion are rounded up, the media goes berserk, slapping pictures across the pages, as if there is no need for due process. And when most of them are freed, the public is not told. Of around 1,200 arrested under the Terrorism Act, 41 have been convicted of terrorism offences and 183 of other crimes. About 700 have been released without charge. It is the way things have to be, and there is no point in raising objections. We must know our constrained place in these difficult times.

Sure, some blameless Muslims will be banged up. "So what?" think the custodians of the state. It is still better than in most Islamic countries, where they cut off hands and heads without flinching. Now we go a step further. A number of cases reveal that even when there is no evidence of crime, Muslim suspects are treated as guilty and punished.

In Australia, the case against an Indian Muslim doctor, Mohammed Haneef, collapsed after he was charged with involvement in the foiled London and Glasgow bomb attacks. He had given one of the alleged bombers, his second cousin, a mobile phone Sim card which still had credit left before he departed for Australia. A terrible picture taken of him in a van after his arrest, bent right over, showed his distress. He was freed by the courts, then in stepped the immigration department to revoke his visa.

In the UK such post-facto retribution is an essential part of the "war on terror". Two long-term British residents, Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, and Iraqi Bisher al-Rawi, helped MI5 to monitor extremist clerics. Their children are British citizens. Both were seized by the CIA and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they were tortured and interrogated for five years. In March, Bisher al-Rawi was finally released, but Jamil el-Banna is stuck there, unable to return to his wife and children. His leave to remain expired while he was on his extended "holiday" in Cuba.

Four freed suspects, interrogated many months back over the Heathrow alert, tell me (and implore me not to reveal their identities) that two have been sacked from their jobs and the other two are shunned in their town, partly because they are stopped so often by the police.

Hasina Patel, the wife of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the instigator of the 7/7 attacks in London, said last week that she knew nothing of her husband's plans, and condemns what he did. She was arrested even though the police had a farewell note in which he wrote: "You have been very patient with me even though I never told you what I was doing and often lied to you." They handed her this letter two years after the dreadful events. On the day of the bombs she had a miscarriage, and then was handcuffed, strip-searched and accused of complicity: "I feel like I've lost my own identity. All people know me as is his wife. And I think that's all people judge me as."

The men acquitted of the ricin plot were either deported or are constantly harassed by the authorities. Jurors in that case have campaigned against the way the acquitted have been treated.

We who are fortunate enough to live in the West take many things for granted - the rule of law, democracy, a deeply embedded culture of human rights and justice, structures for accountability and fundamental protections for individuals. In the South and East, most people crave what we have, envy us as they struggle, generation after generation, for inviolable rights, judicial safeguards and clean politics.

Our politicians often fail their own tests of probity, but watchful citizens and checks and balances ensure that standards remain high. These days the powerful would have us believe that the threat to our civilisation by Islamicist barbarians means we have to let go of all the enduring principles that underpin that civilisation. The people consent because they are afraid, or believe that it is only bad Muslims who face unjust measures.

Beware, I say. Thatcher first practised violent policing on black rioters in inner cities (1981) and white Britons let her. Then she went for the miners (1984-5), then the strikers at News International in Wapping, and the nation realised that once unlawful state activity becomes acceptable for any group, all are in peril.

As one of the freed suspects in the Heathrow panic said to me: "The English, they don't care because it is happening to us. But it will come to them too. The country is becoming like Syria - spies everywhere. No one will be safe from the Government, and England will not be England."