Zoe Pilger: When was the last time you visited a sixth-form common room?

The Generation Gap
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The Independent Online

The comprehensive school in Tooting, south London, that I left two years ago, was attended by a large proportion of pupils of all Asian backgrounds. There was an unofficial "Asian common room" - a secondary common room occupied only by Asians. People would joke about this, but it was accepted as part of the fabric of the sixth form. Whether the common room was a voluntary creation or the result of feelings of alienation remained uncertain.

I don't remember those who came from religious backgrounds talking about it. A standard South London affectation provided a common language for all, and so inquiries into whether someone was Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or anything else seemed irrelevant. I suppose this can be called "getting along", but it was never exploratory. It just meant that from an early age I was comfortable with friends of races different to my own.

The sense of "otherness" felt both by British Muslims and perceived in them by non-Muslim British people has surely been heightened by the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and the continued atrocities in Palestine. Media distinctions between "Muslim" and "terrorist" are often blurred. There is talk of "our way of life", and "our values" coming under attack. The reconciliation of Muslim and Western culture seems surreal against a backdrop of "them and us" propaganda, and the relentless assertion of what it means to be "British".

"British", in popular culture, often comes down to consumerism. Take 20-year-old Shahara Akther Islam, one of the dead, who has been described as the embodiment of multicultural Britain.

Shopping for designer clothes and handbags was cited in newspapers as one of the ways in which Shahara proved her Western adaptability. This is common. Muslim girls at school would frequently wear Nike-embossed, yet otherwise traditional headscarves. These you could buy everywhere. Amalgamations of black American culture merely added to the confusion. Boys of all backgrounds, including the white middle class, would walk as if they'd just been hit in the leg in some imaginary LA gangland shoot-out.

I personally don't care about being British. I don't feel any more British now than I did before 7 July. I think most people would agree that although the attacks were tragic, they do not prove the "evil in our midst". I would guess that most people find the rhetoric of "One City, One World", and the enforcement of a national emotion, presumptuous and sickening. As good Britons, it seems, we must abandon our critical faculties.

Those who feel hesitant in doing this are called "cynical". Those who want to know why these young men, three of them my contemporaries, decided to murder innocent people, are frowned upon as inappropriate, or blasphemous, or extremists. It seems we must prefix every criticism of the Government by emphasising the enormity of the crime committed: "It was a monstrous, unthinkable, inhuman act, but ..." But we waged an illegal war against a sovereign nation. We have passed laws that serve only to demonise Muslims as objects of suspicion.

All this may be irrelevant to the suicide bombers. They may have been fanatics with no genuine feelings of indignation on behalf of the international Muslim community. This seems beside the point. Soufian Shamsi, a 20-year-old I was at school with, is adamant: "Our parents have always told us that this kind of terrorism is wrong, but they also make us aware of the suffering in all the rest of the world, like Iraq, where suicide bombings happen every day." He continues: "The No 1 most socially-accepted terrorist in the world is called George Bush. But of course we're not allowed to say that." So much for Ken Livingstone's notions of harmony.

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