Made to feel like trespassers on European soil: Many middle-class, integrated Muslims who live in Britain are deeply uneasy about the West's reaction to events in Bosnia and feel a sense of betrayal and dislocation (CORRECTED)

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 04 July 1993 23:02


SULTANA, a hospital interpreter in south London, takes me home to meet her family. The living room is self-consciously nostalgic in the way many immigrant homes are, with oriental carpets and cushions, bowls of pistachios, brass trays and even a hookah in the corner. Her son and husband are playing chess. Mona, her 12-year-old daughter, is watching Neighbours. When the news comes on, the children are sent upstairs. There are the usual protests, to no avail.

Sultana explains: 'Mona becomes hysterical when she sees Bosnia. She cries and says she hates whites. I am terrified. I don't want my children to get hatred in their hearts, like the Palestinians and Jews. Mona was born here but in school they call her Ayatollah because she wears a headscarf. Now she thinks they will kill her one day.' Sultana feels such desperation about Bosnia that she went on a demonstration for the first time in her life. 'I thought only communists did that kind of thing. But I had to do something.'

Like Sultana, Muslims throughout the country are feeling terrible anguish over an area few had previously heard of. Dr Abida Khan, a chemotherapy expert from Bradford, tearfully speaks about her 'sisters' in Bosnia.

'I remember, like it was yesterday, scientists flying to the Gulf after the war to rescue birds and make sanctuaries for them. I wish the West had an equal emphasis on the human race.'

Bashir Maan, the first Asian to appear in Who's Who - polyglot, politician, magistrate, author, businessman and member of swanky golf clubs - is just as troubled: 'I've lived in Scotland for 40 years - the most integrated Muslim you could find. I have never felt so concerned. This has completely eroded my confidence in Western society.'

These are the voices of the Muslim middle classes, those who once felt relatively secure in the West. Today they feel an intense sense of betrayal and dislocation as they watch the Bosnian tragedy unfolding. Their deep demoralisation, all the worse because it comes from a shattered confidence, makes them see things in stark terms. The arms embargo, the peace plans, the international stasis, which they see as finely tuned collusion with aggression, all are intended to destroy Muslims, they believe, and if, occasionally, there are other victims, this is a by-product of the genocidal enterprise.

To Mr Maan this can mean only one thing: 'I hate to say it, but my intuition tells me this extermination of the Muslims is because Europe cannot tolerate us on European soil. Those old dormant prejudices have raised their ugly heads.'

Dr Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College in Ealing, west London, a respected academic and a voice of reconciliation during the Salman Rushdie crisis, also sees the resurrection of an ancient hatred. 'The West is back to its old tricks and has no qualms about Muslims being massacred. It is party to the destruction because it is using the blockade to stop the Muslims defending themselves. But, you know, I am surprised. The West should have learnt from the Palestinians that by sacrificing one group, it ends up with a bigger disaster. There is now a tremendous feeling across Europe that Muslim lives are devalued, that to be a Muslim is dangerous, and an apprehension that we will be hounded out of Europe.'

The scale and nature of the assault on the Bosnian Muslims, and the sense of kinship that British Muslims feel with the victims, justifies their response. As the world powers push through the latest settlement in Bosnia, history bears out many of their fears.

But the situation is bringing to the surface underlying issues. For years the majority of Muslims have felt misunderstood and demonised in the West, often by popular media images that portray them as terrorists or barbarous oil potentates with money oozing out of every pore and, latterly, as religious fanatics.

Then came the eruptions over The Satanic Verses and the fatwa, which confirmed these stereotypes. Extremists certainly exploited the genuine hurt felt by Muslims to gain power, mainly among the deprived sections of the community. Yet even Muslims who disapproved of the book, but did not support the fatwa or take to the streets - people who previously felt accepted - became victims of verbal abuse and physical attack.

The assault on Islam by respectable figures from both the left and the right, and the rise of liberal fundamentalism that proclaimed superiority to all other ways of thinking life, helped to legitimise these assaults. Everyone was expected to declare their allegiance. You were either for Rushdie's book or you wanted him dead. The only good Muslim was an utterly Westernised and preferably godless one.

For middle-class, bicultural Muslims caught between these imperatives and shocked by the malevolence of mainstream society, the Rushdie affair created a heightened sense of a religious identity. Many were forced to take stock says Rashidah Butt, a science teacher, who runs a group in Bradford for educated and articulate Muslim women who now choose to wear the hijab, or headscarf.

'As a child I hated Muslims and Muslim countries. I thought they were backward, fanatic. When I started studying the intellectual tradition of Islam, what it did for women, I began to change and to challenge what was said about us.'

The turning point for Rashidah was the Rushdie affair, and the Gulf war intensified her disaffection. For many, it was an illustration of the selective morality by which the West plays its international games. Sultana says: 'We were so shocked by how easy it was for them to kill the blameless Iraqi people and shout victory, but you know they put the tyrant in power. And what can we say about those heartless rich Arabs? How unsafe we Muslim people are in the world today.'

Many felt confused about where their loyalty should lie and guilty that as Western Muslims, they were implicated in this venture. Bosnia is seen as the culmination of their process of alienation. They regard it as the beginning of Europe's final solution for the enemy within. To many, moderation now seems an obscenity.

Three years ago, when the academic Dr Shabbir Akhtar, former representative of the Bradford Council of Mosques , said Muslims would be the next victims of a holocaust, people such as Sultana thought he was insane. Today, the mildest Muslims evoke the same spectre. Their views now seem (uncomfortably for them) close to those of Dr Kalim Siddiqui, a maverick extremist and founder of the recently established Muslim parliament. If they aren't exactly flocking to him, many more are turning in his direction, something he is happy to exploit.

'You see, Dr Akhtar didn't have to wait long for the gas ovens. The West's actions are what they are because they don't want to allow Muslims to develop an identity on European soil. It is the old medieval Christian reaction, and their history shows that they are a killing machine,' says Dr Siddiqui.

Saba Risaluddin, from the Campaign for Bosnia, a respected group supported by MPs that is fighting for a sovereign and democratic Bosnia, believes this confluence and awareness has important implications for a multicultural Europe. 'It has galvanised Muslims, and a number of us who previously may have had difficulties with each other are now at least talking. So Bosnia has become a Muslim issue because of the West's reluctance to intervene. You also know now that, however integrated you are, however much you have forsaken your roots, being a Muslim, even in name, makes you a target.'

So the very symbols of successful integration, such as the gentle Dr Khan, now ask: 'If they can destroy Bosnians, who are white, European and Muslim in name alone, who are completely integrated, what hope is there?'

Ms Butt goes further: 'We should be careful and not be like stupid, blind sheep. The entire fabric of this society is falling apart - and now we have seen their cruelty, why should we let go of all that is good about us for that?'

There is also criticism of the in-fighting and oppression within the community and the cowardice, corruption and compliance of the rich Muslim countries which have made Muslims vulnerable. Many influential Muslims are now arguing for unity, self-help and development away from mainstream society. Various aid groups, newspapers and education projects that have sprung up recently show that this is already happening.

But will the developments that come from such deep disenchantment prove to be counter-productive? Separatism will certainly ghettoise Muslims further and in turn help to justify their continuing maltreatment. Dr Badawi believes that it also encourages simplistic analysis, and that it is dangerous to fall into that trap

'We should think clearly what should be the best route. We must organise politically, but within mainstream politics, not isolate ourselves like the Muslim parliament. We should make ourselves understood, increase our influence gently, sensibly, have a sophisticated approach. And Europe must listen for its own sake. But these messages are so difficult today. How can people think rationally when there is such grief?'


Nasreen Rehman, from west London, is an academic and a consultant for arts groups. Although devoutly religious, she refuses the 'hijab' (headscarf) and, while critical of Salman Rushdie, defends his right to publish.

AFTER Rushdie, the Gulf war, and now Bosnia, I have been forced to describe myself in terms of my religion, to proclaim something that was given and understood before. For 20 years I never thought that being a Muslim was a problem. Then it changed. People would say 'but you are so educated and reasonable', as if all Muslims are maniacs.

I was spat on recently by a man and called a 'dirty wog Muslim'. I jumped on his back and an English lady hit him with an umbrella. But I fear separatism and the backlash. We must stop thinking in binary, oppositional terms. We have several layers of responsibility as citizens and must think of the repercussions on future generations. This is still a just and stable society, and although I have lost faith in it, I've got to hang on.


Action for Bosnia, the group that is campaigning for a sovereign and democratic Bosnia, was wrongly referred to as Campaign for Bosnia in last Monday's article.

(Photographs omitted)

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