Thursday, October 19, 2006

If this onslaught was about Jews, I would be looking for my passport

If this onslaught was about Jews, I would be looking for my passport

Politicians and media have turned a debate about integration into an ugly drumbeat of hysteria against British Muslims

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday October 18, 2006
The Guardian

I've been trying to imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in Britain. I guess there's a sense of dread about switching on the radio or television, even about walking into a newsagents. What will they be saying about us today? Will we be under assault for the way we dress? Or the schools we go to, or the mosques we build? Who will be on the front page: a terror suspect, a woman in a veil or, the best of both worlds, a veiled terror suspect.

Don't laugh. Last week the Times splashed on "Suspect in terror hunt used veil to evade arrest". That sat alongside yesterday's lead in the Daily Express: "Veil should be banned say 98%". Nearly all those who rang the Express agreed that "a restriction would help to safeguard racial harmony and improve communication". At the weekend the Sunday Telegraph led on "Tories accuse Muslims of 'creating apartheid by shutting themselves off' ".

That's how it's been almost every day since Jack Straw raised the matter of the veil nearly two weeks ago. Even before, Muslims could barely open a paper without seeing themselves on the front of it. David Cameron's speech to the Tories a week earlier was trailed in advance as an appeal for Muslims to open up their single-faith schools: "Ban Muslim ghettos" was one headline.

Taken alone, each one of these topics could be the topic of a thoughtful, nuanced debate. The veil, for example, has found feminists among both its champions and critics, proving that it's no straightforward matter. There should be nothing automatically anti-Muslim about raising the subject, not least since many Muslim women question the niqab themselves.

Similarly, Ruth Kelly was hardly out of line in suggesting, as she did last week, that the government needs to be careful about which Muslim groups it funds and with whom it engages, ensuring it leans towards those who are actively "tackling extremism". Other things being equal, that was a perfectly sensible thing to say.

Except other things are not equal. Each one of these perfectly rational subjects, taken together, has created a perfectly irrational mood: a kind of drumbeat of hysteria in which both politicians and media have turned again and again on a single, small minority, first prodding them, then pounding them as if they represented the single biggest problem in national life.

The result is turning ugly and has, predictably, spilled on to the streets. Muslim organisations report a surge in physical and verbal attacks on Muslims; women have had their head coverings removed by force. A mosque in Falkirk was firebombed while another in Preston was attacked by a gang throwing bricks and concrete blocks.


The foundation is fear. Many Britons have since 9/11, and especially since July 7, come to fear their Muslim neighbours: they worry that the young man next to them on the train might have more than an extra sweater in his backpack. Next comes ignorance, a simple lack of knowledge about Muslim life which leaves non-Muslims open to all kinds of misconceptions. That feeds into a simple discomfort, personified, in its most extreme form, by a woman whose face we cannot see.

What's more, the set of issues that Islam raises for Britain are ones that do not break down on the usual ideological lines, allowing liberals and traditional anti-racists reflexively to line up alongside Muslims. The veil, and the queasiness it stirs in many feminists, is one example. Faith schools are another, prompting the ardent secularist to feel a sympathy for the government position that ordinarily would come more slowly. The result is that the Muslim community finds itself suddenly friendless. When it came to opposing the war in Iraq, British Muslims had no shortage of allies, but they face the latest bombardment virtually alone.


Right now, we're getting it badly wrong - bombarding Muslims with pressure and prejudice, laying one social problem after another at their door. I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word "Jew" for "Muslim": Jews creating apartheid, Jews whose strange customs and costume should be banned. I wouldn't just feel frightened. I would be looking for my passport.

The full text of Freedland's article is here.


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