Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why should Muslims put up with being stereotyped?

Like everyone, we are creatures of many parts. But we are not allowed such complexities

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Looking back at what I did this week, a parade of identities walks past, each one a part of the whole, none the whole of me. A passionate Londoner, I declared against Boris Johnson. With Billy Bragg at the Barbican on St George's Day, I was graciously invited by him to feel part of "progressive" Englishness and, funnily, in that hall, I did.

On to the launch of Quilliam, a think tank set up by reformed radical Ed Hussain, and felt part of a new worldwide ummah of open-minded Muslims. At The School of Oriental and African Studies, I joined a panel and an engaged audience to discuss racism. From deep within stirred the old, anti-racist activist. I read words by James Baldwin at a moving gathering organised by the Stop the War Coalition, and united with other kindred spirits who still fight for Iraq.

Performing my show at the Oxford Playhouse, I returned to my Afro-Asian roots. Attended a concert of classical European music in a church hall, being just myself I guess. Was also a mum, wife, friend and neighbour.

Like all other humans, I am a creature of multiple and changeable parts. However, British Muslims are not permitted such complexities. We must be only Muslim (definition highly specified), walking rule books in uniform, freakishly religious, and preferably demanding and noisy.

Authoritarian Muslim "leaders" impose these orders. But so too do many of the influential and powerful for whom there is no such thing as a complicated or comfortable Muslim who skilfully negotiates various allegiances. Institutional gatekeepers trade in archetypes: those who vociferously refuse accommodation and defiant apostates are easy. Ardent opponents of all things western are sought-after enemies; facile supporters of western duplicities are best friends.

Not welcome are Muslims who defy the classification system – too much toil and trouble when everyone wants simple clarity. Are you with us or against us? Do you have faith or are you a democrat? Do you think Salman Rushdie was right in his Satanic Verses or do you want him dead? Do you support an Islamic state in the west or do you want the west to allow you an Islamic state within? TV is the worst culprit, but quangos and think tanks are not far behind.

They know best what makes a real Muslim. Huma Qureshi, who has great hair and style, says she was auditioned for a BBC series on Muslim women and rejected because "they wanted a really authentic, well-covered one". In her memoir, TV journalist Yasmin Hai writes of her irritation with executives who always want on screen "some mad Mullah types".

At a major arts conference, organisers refused to invite a devout Muslim artist because she paints faces and to them was a heretic. Millions of Muslims are expected to pick a single identity and plump it up with artificial injections of absolute loyalty, causing a distortion both grotesque and unpalatable. Muslims who are content in their faith and are of this land and its history belong but are told they cannot make such claims. They have lived in a democracy, imbibed its principles but have been refused full membership. This Thursday, the day of the local elections, some of us are launching a new organisation to help turn around the invented, destructive and man-made divide splitting Muslims and their state.

British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) believes the separation of state and faith gives us all a safe and mutual space. Most members are not atheists. We can see clearly how religion is poisoning political governance and that politics contaminates religion. Muslims must be free to choose how they practise their religion or even just to be "cultural" Muslims. Diversity has been the constant companion to our faith since its inception. Most important of all, we hope to speak to young British Muslims who have lost trust and their bearings. Obvious and subtle anti-Muslim racism and the failures of their own communities have alienated too many. Self-exclusion and exclusion are blades of the same scissors.

Denied democratic entitlements, stereotyped and used, they feel an anger that is ripe for exploitation. I know this question is not allowed (much is not allowed) but what made Mohammad Sadiq Khan, educated and a loving father, into a bomber? Sorry, it wasn't simply some wicked Mullah. Something far more unsettling is going on. As Zulf, BMSD supporter and medical student, put it: "Nobody understands. We are not stupid, just so disappointed all the time, never allowed to be ourselves, told do this, do that, never free. When will our rights be respected by the community and country?" When indeed?

y.alibhaibrown@independent.co.uk

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