Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Don't portray Muslims as victims. We've moved on

Subtle shifts are taking place, and supposed enemies are now friends

Monday 14 July 2008 00:00 BST

After the relief comes the doubt. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but Peter Oborne's blast about Islamophobia last week was too simplistic, too scattergun, and out of touch with where British Muslims seem to be at present.

Of course this unexpected champion's gutsy programme was a necessary antidote, a conscientious, carbon offsetting response to the ceaseless anti-Muslim poison let off by commentators like Rod Liddle, Melanie Phillips and the grandee Charles Moore. Muslims were given back their rights and humanity at least for that hour.

But our story is more complex than one of relentless victimisation, and that comes across in a two-hour journey of discovery broadcast tonight on Channel 4, a thoughtful and courageous exploration of the Koran and the various dilemmas of diverse Muslims across the volatile globe. This programme too is the work of a white man, the respected film-maker Antony Thomas.

Nuanced understanding of Muslims by non-Muslims is now coming through and in the most unusual places. At the annual Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth, even though most of the 2,000 delegates were white (shocking, that) the conversations about terrorism were highly intelligent, knowledgeable, sensitive and bold. And then there is the whole debate over 42 days, a law that will only further unjustly punish and thereby alienate British Muslims.

How very reassuring that those who rise most against it are not themselves Muslim but principled men and women to whom our rights matter more than they do to the Muslim MPs who all voted for the measure. Politics no longer operates with colour or culture bar-codes, and a very good thing too. Nothing is as it has been or seems.

More ex-jihadis are deserting the armies of hate and coming clean, and that must give millions faith in a better future for us all. Meanwhile, some of our supposed enemies are showing themselves true friends. A few days back, I went with Christopher Biggins to the tiny Finborough theatre in Fulham to see a play – Many Roads to Paradise – by Stewart Permutt, an evocative and original playwright/ actor whose work is outside the field of ordinary vision.

The formidable Miriam Karlin, well into her eighties, played an irascible, blind, Jewish woman in a Hendon care home, who can't stand her frumpy, lesbian daughter. Her new carer is gentle, loving, playful, tells the old woman she is so beautiful, does her face and hair and becomes a trusted companion. She is a hijabi Muslim Somali. Through that tender relationship Permutt offers us hope. (This play deserves to be seen widely. Yet I hear venues are showing little interest, a travesty really.)

Optimism surged too when the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of my Shia community, came into London last weekend. The cadence and beauty of his words uplifted the hearts of the thousands gathered. Islam, he has always proclaimed, should make us peaceful, generous, reach out to others whoever they are, inspire intellectual curiosity and artistic endeavour. Non-Muslim spouses of all backgrounds were welcomed. Ugly stuff does go on in many mosques and Muslim homes, and there is too much self segregation. But that isn't the only truth about who we are, an impression vindictively projected by sections of the media.

Off to IslamExpo 2008 at Olympia where more than 20,000 came and went over two days, an event pre-emptively and roundly condemned by Charles Moore as a showpiece of "Islamism". I usually avoid such jamborees for other reasons – most are too thick with self righteous piety and too disapproving of liberal, secular Muslims.

Well this time, invited to a debate on radicalisation I turned up, daringly uncovered. Sure enough, those without hijab and niqab were a minority – and my opposition to both is well known. That aside, the hall was infused with charm and courtesy, and controversial subjects were discussed without malice. And when some of us spoke about the importance of moving beyond the siege mentality we even got some applause.

Jolly rabbis and white families were having a good time, wandering between food shows, media interviews, a garden, human rights stalls and even five-a-side football matches between Muslim teams and Chelsea, Arsenal and other professionals.

These are subtle but significant shifts, missed by the voluble novelists and commentators who malign and singe Muslims with their burning rhetoric. The appeal of obscurantism is still strong, and too many are drawn towards hard Islam. There may be another bomb or worse. Progress is fragile. But for now the air is scented with possibilities and it feels good to be both a Muslim and a Brit.


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