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Fighting Islamophobia At British Dinner Tables – OpEd

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By Neil Berry

THE British Conservative Party’s best-known Muslim, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, projects herself as a common sense “woman of the people”. As such, she appealed to Conservative Party leader David Cameron as he sought to make his party appear “inclusive.”

Warsi became cochairman of the Conservative Party and a minister-without-portfolio in Britain’s Conservative-Liberal coalition government over which Cameron presides as prime minister. Yet many Conservatives are far from regarding Warsi as an asset — especially since she alleged that Islamophobia had passed the “dinner table test,” with the implication that professing distaste for Muslims is now entirely acceptable in polite British society.

To not a few Conservatives, Warsi’s elevation represented the wrong signal for their party to send when Britain is fighting the ‘war on terror’. They will hardly be revising this opinion with the furious media coverage of the news that the way may soon be open for the US to extradite, on 11 terrorism charges, the formerly London-based Muslim militant, Abu Hamza, who has been serving a seven-year prison sentence in Britain for advocating murder and who has been damagingly portrayed as the menacing face of British Islam.

Yet the truth is that long before Warsi’s talk of Islamophobia’s growing respectability, many in the Conservative Party, as in Britain at large, were never more than grudgingly reconciled to the Muslims in their midst. If blatant Islamophobia has not been more in evidence over the years, it is perhaps only because British society has dealt with Muslims by barely heeding their existence — except when Islamic terrorism is at issue.

In so far as Britain’s political establishment deals with Muslims, it is condescendingly, with scant acknowledgement that they are now part of the fabric of Britain’s multiethnic society. It has been the strategy of the Labour Party to select token Muslim candidates to contest parliamentary seats with large numbers of Muslim voters – though the other week this policy blew up in the party’s face in the northern constituency of Bradford West, the home of a sizable Muslim population and previously a Labour stronghold. The triumph over Labour of the Respect Party candidate George Galloway came about in some part because Galloway engages with Muslims as fellow human beings.

Not that Galloway is generally seen as anything other than a rampant opportunist, a Scottish carpet bagger who secured Muslim favor in Bradford by advertising his opposition to British involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Leave aside gratuitous insinuations that Galloway’s long-standing anti-war stance is so much posturing, the most revealing feature of the denigration directed at him was the routine invocation of the ‘Muslim vote’. There is hardly any recognition in mainstream British discussion that to speak of Muslims as a homogenous entity is absurd. Often it seems as if official Britain still sees Muslims through colonial eyes as an undifferentiated alien mass.

Far from conceding any of this, the new political orthodoxy is that Britain’s espousal of ‘multiculturalism’, its commitment to a society in which minorities were free to nurture their own cultural values, encouraged a dangerous degree of Muslim separatism. On this reckoning, the reason why London experienced the horror of the 2005 7/7 bombings was because Britain had been too ready to indulge Muslim susceptibilities. The country had, in short, become the victim of its own misguided idealism, its own generous impulses.

A new book, Europe’s Angry Muslims, by the US political scientist Robert S. Leiken lends support to the view that multiculturalism has done much to create a situation in which, in certain areas, Muslims exist in almost complete isolation from wider British society. Leiken himself visited the area of Beeston in Leeds that spawned the 7/7 terrorist Sidique Khan, discovering that his presence as an inquisitive American visitor could not have been more unwelcome. Leiken argues that Khan in many ways epitomized ‘post-migrant’ Muslims in Britain, painfully confused young men who feel alienated both from their family backgrounds in Pakistan and from Britain’s secular culture and who may be peculiarly liable to embrace global jihad in their desperate quest for an identity. Their predicament, he maintains, is more problematic than their counterparts in France, a republic with a codified concept of citizenship absent in Britain. French Muslims who see themselves as French first and Muslim second outnumber British Muslims who see themselves as British first and Muslim second.

Leiken is damning in his assessment of the way Britain’s security services have handled the terrorist threat posed by radicals. Britain’s laxity in tackling radicalism has, he suggests, many causes — the prosecutorial constraints of an adversarial court system, the British tradition of offering refuge; the decline of ruling class patriotism that accompanied the fall of the British Empire. But his account indicates that it has been bound up not least with the dubious bargain struck between extremists and their British hosts, the ‘covenant of security’ according to which radicals who refrained from attacking Britain would be left alone.

This extraordinary arrangement goes far to explain why Britain is beset by chronic security problems. As London faces the vast challenge of policing the 2012 Olympic Games, untold numbers of potential terrorists are by all accounts operating in Britain.

Yet if Robert S. Leiken’s book is nothing if not informative, it is in the end the work of a white Western academic who personifies the prevailing Western tendency to regard Muslims as at best an aspect of anthropology and at worst as a subversive foreign body, the ‘enemy within’. For all that Europe’s Angry Muslims stresses the complexity of the Muslim settlement in Europe, it conveys little sense of European Muslims as ordinary people, great numbers of whom are as ‘integrated’ into their respective societies as the next person. It will not help to banish Islamophobia from British dinner tables.

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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