Muslims under siege

Stuart Weir
4 July 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): There is no such thing as the single monolithic “British Muslim community” that our politicians and media discuss.  Britain’s one and a half million or so Muslims belong to a remarkably diverse set of communities; in all, it is estimated, there are over 50 ethnicities speaking almost 100 languages between them.

However it is possible to speak in generalities about their lives and experience in this country:

They are mainly young;

They tend to live in the most deprived cities, and a third of them live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in those cities;

They are disadvantaged and discriminated against in housing, education and employment by comparison with other faith groups;

Religion for Muslims is the most important factor in their lives after their family;

They suffer disproportionately more from discrimination, racial abuse and racial attacks than any other faith group, and the more openly devout they are, the more likely they are to experience harassment and abuse.

On top of all this, they are the subject of a vicious onslaught of abuse, written, verbal and phsyical - namely, Islamophobia. This  phenomenon is nothing new for Britain’s Muslims.  Impartial observers have identified and tracked it since the early 1900s, but it has grown worse since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 in the United States and the Tube and bus bombings of July 2005 in London.   Insofar as it is a rational phenomenon, it seems that there is at its roots a view of Islam and Muslim culture which is as distorted as that of Osama Bin Laden and fellow extremists around the world.  The voices of ordinary British Muslims are rarely, if ever, heard amid the torrent of their rage – and, let it be clearly said, the representation of Islam and their lives by the media in their own country.  Yet when we at Democratic Audit actually talked to young Muslims across Britain we found an earnest and articulate group of youngsters for whom Islam was a religion of peace and concern for others.  We also found profound feelings of fear and rejection.

There are those who deny that Islamophobia actually exists.  For them the abuse and hatred of Muslims is being exaggerated to suit politicians’ needs and silence critics of Islam.  They argue that the concept confuses hatred and discrimination against Muslims with entirely legitimate criticism of Islam.  Of course, all religions must accept that their beliefs and practices are open to criticism, though few do so with good grace. But the discourse of Islamophobia bites far deeper than honest debate into the lives of Britain’s Muslims, raising anger and fear, as it does, and exposing them to contempt.

The deniers also state that discrimination against Muslims is not as great as it seems.  Well, Peter Oborne and James Jones put paid to that argument in their passionate and deeply humane Dispatches report for Channel 4 on Monday night and in a pamphlet, Muslims under Siege,  which Democratic Audit publishes next week (£12.50, inc P&P, from Denmore Lodge, Brunswick Gardens, Cambridge CB5 8DQ).  The incidents that they describe are symptomatic; similar incidents have happened time and time again in the past, and will continue to happen in the future unless our society takes action.   The exploitative media reporting that they analyse in detail is equally a recurring phenomenon.  Perhaps we expect such shoddy and soulless conduct on the part of a tabloid press which is poisoning our society in a variety of ways. But they also uncover a disturbing willingness among writers in the broadsheet press and elsewhere to indulge themselves in blatantly anti-Islamic rhetoric and argument that would, as they argue, not be tolerated if it were directed against Jews, say, or gay people. I hope this report will give us all pause, and prompt all who care about the quality of life in this country to consider what can be done to halt this damaging and inhumane contempt for Britain’s Muslims.

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