Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why are we Muslims so self-destructive?

Today, dissenting Muslims have to wear virtual body armour in case someone decides to take offence
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The Independent Online

I fast for some days every week of this month of Ramadan. At an ifthar (breaking of fast) gathering last week, Rahim, a handsome young Muslim doctor and I chatted about this and that, and the end of our world: "Do you think refined and educated Muslims will survive this century? Or will we become extinct? I feel I don't know who I am any more. My parents, too, say the same. Barbaric Muslims are stronger than us, more stupid and ignorant, but stronger, you know."

You hear these outpourings of grief and hopelessness a lot these days. Ignorance is not bliss, it is oblivion, wrote the American novelist Philip Wylie. Ill-educated, volatile, easily led, despised by millions, Muslims the world over are falling into that void, into oblivion. Some are and will be annihilated by external foes and enemies within, including the demon cheerleaders inside the heads of suicide bombers, but many more will be consumed by their own terror of the modern world.

Look today at India and Pakistan, neighbours, twin nations with identical histories and values. While the former is poised to challenge the economic and cultural power of the West, the latter is imploding and joins the ever-growing club of failed Muslim states. India has shameful problems – extreme poverty, corruption, greed, the caste system, Islamophobia and misogynist cultural practices – but, unlike Pakistan, it also has a free press and democracy, and its population understands the importance of education and enlightenment.

Come to our isles and the same stark contrast emerges. British Asians of Indian background (including Muslims from India) are top of the league tables in schools, universities, business and the professions. They are mentally agile, inquisitive, and encouraged to strive by their families. With some individual exceptions, British Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds languish at the bottom of all indicator tables. It is heartbreaking.

Some of this failure to catch up is to do with discrimination, no doubt about that. Some, though, is the result of self-limitation. In the past decade, there has been a sharp increase in British Muslims entering higher and further education, but even this good news has a depressing undertow. In nearly all universities in this country, including the elite establishments, there are cells of well organised Muslim obscurantists who entice or bully fellow Muslim scholars seeking to liberate their minds.

They write to me, bright and ambitious students who feel spied on, coerced, hounded and tormented because they do not wear a hijab, or are seen meeting diverse mates in the student union bars, or choose "haram" subjects such as creative writing, art, drama or even European languages. One young Muslim woman at the LSE actually had a novel snatched from her hand, and says she was then held and harangued by her hijabi assailant who left a bruise on her arm. I pity both. What makes a university undergraduate this appallingly afraid of fiction? Who got into her head to distort it so?

It wasn't always thus. The fanatics who want to take us into their version of the holy past don't know and don't care about inconvenient truths. Allah commands us to seek knowledge and intellectual engagement. The best of past Muslim civilisations nurtured enquiry, debate, love, desire, words, music, dance, art, philosophy, science and beauty. The effusive Michael Wood's BBC programme on the Mughal Emperor Akbar last week was a wonderful reminder of that enlightened period of our history,

Today, creative, imaginative, dissenting and innovative Muslims have to wear virtual body armour, hunker down, just in case someone decides to get offended (and someone always does), inciting an uproar on the web, on the media, on the streets bringing out the mobs in Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, South Africa, Somalia and on and on. Inevitably some die for a cause they never really understood and the restless army of discontents shuffles off until the next noisy and bloody march.

I know of talented painters and poets in Pakistan who have just given up or fled. Arab artists, activists and thinkers unafraid of the truth are in actual prisons or enclosed behind limitations built by their fearful societies.

Explosive episodes are always gathering round the corner. We witnessed the organised outrage over the Channel 4 programmes exposing some of the vile imams still controlling some mosques. The film of the Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy in Afghanistan, is causing much anger. One of the pivotal scenes involves a homosexual rape of a Shia boy. They won't have that, it is a slur, an insult. Muslims don't do such things. The same protests met Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane, in which a young Bangladeshi wife in Tower Hamlets has an affair. Muslims don't do such things etc, etc. Of course there is no rape and adultery in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, those are bad "western" behaviours. The controversy will be reheated when the film of Brick Lane is released in a few weeks.

Now I didn't rate the book much; the film, which I have been sent pre-release, actually moved me more. The more voluble East End Bangladeshis are not bothered about considered judgements of literary or critical merit. They will cry foul because the story taints their honour and culture, it reflects back to them what they would rather not see.

When cultures get this coarse, they can only give rise to the worst, most unaccountable and violent leaders. This is what we see all through the Muslim world. In good societies, people build up sense and sensibilities, acquire communication skills, learn intelligent engagement with written and spoken words and with diverse views, open their minds to new ideas and images. And the formally uneducated are as capable of this expansiveness as those with degrees.

The poorest Londoners loved Dickens, and he changed the way they imagined their lives; peasants were drawn to Gandhi because he helped them break out of mental bondage. These men brought political and personal awakening to the rough and wretched, and enabled them to understand subtleties and nuances and what it is to be human. Britain and India have strong democracies because their populations have been acculturated and sensitised over centuries. In Muslim states and communities, you find the people fast becoming deculturalised and desensitised; shutting down and withdrawing into paranoia.

I write this not to encourage Islamophobes, but because I care. Ramadan is a time for sober reflection. It should bring peace, but doesn't. Many of us tremble with trepidation at the bleak future ahead. The savages are taking over and, as Rahim says, they are stronger and will drag all the faithful down into the pits of hell.

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