Slights and suspicions

By Roy Hattersley (THE GUARDIAN, 05/02/07):

There was a time when military manuals - advising on the conduct of what was called "low-intensity operations" - emphasised the importance of "denying urban guerrillas a hinterland" in which they could take refuge. The Boer commandos in South Africa and Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia (freedom fighters or terrorists according to taste) made sudden strikes against occupying forces and then disappeared into the country. It is important, the army used to say, to prevent the assassins who wait round the corner of city streets from finding safe haven in the homes of sympathetic families. Perhaps the army manuals still give the same advice. If so, it seems that nobody in the Home Office has read them.

I strongly favour homicidal fanatics being caught, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for long periods. So do most residents of Sparkbrook and Sparkhill, districts of Birmingham that I used to represent in parliament. But I fear that the events of last week - arrests without charge and off-the-record briefings about abduction and decapitation - will make them less enthusiastic about seeing all forms of extremism stamped out. Press has combined with police to make them feel that the whole Islamic community is under suspicion. And they resent it. Although very few of them will ever feel any sympathy for suicide bombers, their alienation from the forces of law and order creates a hinterland of sorts. The terrorists will shelter in the emotional comfort that comes from seeing the gulf widened between Muslims and the criminal justice system.

There is, I know, a great deal of paranoia in the Muslim communities of Britain. Nobody should be surprised by that. The older members recall the days of overt discrimination. Their sons and daughters - British by birth - have all suffered from more subtle forms of prejudice. Young and old hear every day that the public is at risk from an "Islamic threat", an omnibus description that libels a whole faith. Politicians whose speeches begin with assurances about being "the minorities' friends" usually go on to say that Muslims must stop behaving like Muslims. For integration, read assimilation. Assimilation means "behave like the indigenous majority".

It was not until Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses that I understood how some of my Muslim constituents felt about their place in British society. My immediate reaction to complaints about its contents was the response of a proper western liberal. In a free country, there could be no restriction on what is said or written. Then a man called Saed Mogul asked me why, having been a friend of Birmingham Muslims for so long, I had allied myself to people who treated their most sacred beliefs with undisguised contempt. He said the fact that most Christians are casual about their religion is not an argument for insisting Muslims are the same. His demand was for understanding, not censorship. It was then that I realised that much of what is said and written about Muslim Britain carries a clear message. Live like us or risk being treated like pariahs.

I accept that the police (pace the cash-for-peerages investigation) have adopted the Italian habit of leaking their suspicions to the press before they make a formal charge. But was it necessary to spread the lurid stories about kidnapping, torture and beheading before it was clear that anyone would be accused of those abominations? The Muslim people of Birmingham, who are as horrified by such atrocities as residents in the home counties, did not regard the unattributable briefing as proof that the arrests were justified. They wrote them off as propaganda - propaganda against them. And, intended or not, it had the malign result of increasing the suspicion in which all Muslims are held.

The way in which the police behaved in Birmingham last week won few, if any, recruits to the ranks of al-Qaida or its supporting cadres. But it did alienate a large number of basically decent young men who ought to be on the authorities' side. The grandsons of immigrants - born and educated here - are not prepared to accept the slights of second-class status that their grandparents bore with fortitude. Convincing them that society wants Muslims to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship is not only a moral necessity. It is essential to the eventual triumph of the rule of law. All they need is a little respect. They received too little last week.