The challenge for peaceful Muslims

By Minette Marrin (THE TIMES, 08/07/07):

Truth is said to be the first casualty of war; trust is one of the many casualties of terror. If your surgeon or your child’s school assistant or your charity’s youth worker might be a terrorist – as we have seen – whom can you trust: the woman in the scarf at the checkout till? Your bearded GP? The tragedy is that trust is essential to a free and civil society; when trust dies, petty animosities and resentments will swell and civility and civil liberties will shrink.

There was a sad example of this last Thursday on the London Underground in the rush hour. A packed commuter train careered off the rails to the accompaniment of smoke, sparks and bangs. The passengers were thrown from their seats, nearly 40 were injured and it is hardly surprising, perhaps, that a few of them, spotting a dark-skinned man sprinting through their carriage, tried to grab him. They assumed in their panic that he was a terrorist.

The poor man was not hurt; he was lucky, because terror creates mindless violence and in other times, in other places, he would have been lynched. Yet he was innocent. There was no bomb, just an accident. He was just another frightened passenger who happened to look the part of a terrorist in these people’s frenzied imagination. And who can blame them. He might have been one. This will certainly happen again with worse consequences.

The problem is not just that a man or woman might be taken for a Muslim and a terrorist. That is bad enough and divisive. The great majority of law-abiding Muslims feel understandably resentful and fearful about that. What’s probably worse, I suspect, is the growing resentment among nonMuslims about the terrible damage that Islamist terror does to us all and the failure of Muslim families and congregations – I will not speak of so-called community leaders – to do much about it.

Every time a prominent Muslim stands up to say that Islam is a religion of peace and that most Muslims are not terrorists, I feel irritated. Islam clearly means many things to many people, even more so perhaps than Christianity or Judaism, and it is almost meaningless to say that Islam has nothing to do with Islamist terrorism, just as it’s meaningless to say Christianity had nothing to do with the crusades or the inquisition.

There are Muslims who believe that their faith does not require women to cover their faces and there are Muslims who are convinced that it does. There are plenty of British Muslims who support the institutions of this country but there are plenty who think we should live under sharia. What concern us all are those Muslims who believe that Islam justifies terrorism and destroying our society.

As for the usual comment that most Muslims are not terrorists, that is true. But the fact is that most terrorists are Muslims. They come from Muslim environments, they attend madrasahs, mosques and Muslim clubs and societies and spend long periods in Muslim countries. And nonMuslims have been waking up to the thought that these Muslim groups could and should do more about the terrorists in their midst.

Take mosques for example. A couple of British mosques have been notorious for years as breeders of terrorism. So for years anyone interested in this question has expressed concerns about imams – who they are and what they teach. There was a move to limit the immigration of foreign imams, which the Blair government bottled out of. And now it emerges, from a BBC report last week, that only 8% of the imams preaching in British mosques were born in the UK and only 6% of them speak English as a first language – fewer, tellingly, than the percentage born here. According to the author of the study, these individuals are deeply conservative and are overwhelmingly qualified in the traditional Islamic curriculum, which he said had changed little since medieval times.

It would be hard to imagine a better way of preventing British Muslims integrating into the wider, modern society or of driving them into the embrace of more worldlywise extremists. Such imams can have little or no understanding of the difficulties and opportunities facing British Muslims, least of all the young; hardly surprisingly many of the young turn to more interesting, more articulate, more modern and more informed groups outside the mosques – some of whom are the worst extremists, like those of Hizb ut-Tahrir. This process was brilliantly described by Ed Husain in his book The Islamist. So why did the congregations hire them? According to Muslims I’ve spoken to, they are much cheaper than the home-grown variety.

I am sceptical of self-styled community leaders and have my doubts about the Muslim Council of Britain. Why did not such people of influence help the congregations to find spiritual leaders who would advise and guide British Muslims in a constructive way? Why have some failed to speak out against extremists, against book burning or the rabble rousers; why have some, such as Sir Iqbal Sacranie, even called for Salman Rushdie to rot in hell?

It is difficult not to suspect that, rather like the tradition of preventing women learning English or leaving the house, it is due to a contempt for British society or to a wish in some circles to avoid integration. But segregation is the enemy of trust, even without the added onslaught of terrorism.

The question is what, if anything, can be done to repair trust. It is not something that governments can do, although they can try to hold the line as far as possible on civil liberties against our fear of terrorists. The challenge is not so much for the indigenous population as for Muslim citizens; the painful reality is that those who want this society to survive will have to take on the distasteful duty of spying and informing on other Muslims, where necessary.

They should, in their own best interests, stop protesting against writers and artists they disagree with and let them be; they should accept that they cannot avenge Muslim history on British soil. They should stop protesting about Islamophobia and racism, although both exist, and concentrate instead on friendship, understanding and integration. Otherwise trust will fail and with it the civil society that enticed their forebears here.