Thursday, April 22, 2004

Aliens in their own country

Massoud Shadjareh
Thursday April 1, 2004
The Guardian

Seyf's a smart-looking guy, Mediterranean looking.
If you're clued up about these things you'd guess
he's of Turkish origin. Buying milk at his local
supermarket he and his American flatmate of Pakistani
origin were approached by a loud, white English
shopper, who yelled in the middle of the dairy
aisle: "Are you terrorists?"

This was an example of what passes as humour in
Middle England at the moment. Before she burst out
laughing and carried on what turned into a tirade,
other shoppers stood by, nervously looking for
staff and indicating that the two Muslim lads might
be trouble.

Forget about the latest arrests around London.
Forget about police profiling of Muslims (and of
that there's plenty) - the general public now
categorises all things Muslim as terror-orientated.
Why? It's easy to blame victims of prejudice for
their demonisation - it's a practice with a long
pedigree. But the unending calls on Muslims, from
rightwing shock jocks to former archbishops of
Canterbury, to condemn terrorism reveal a level of
conditionality that no other community has been
asked to bear.

Throw into this mix the continuous police raids and
arrests since 9/11 under various pieces of anti-
terrorist legislation, the fanfare of media attention
when Muslims of various origins are arrested and the
deafening silence when most (some 450 out of 540) are
released. Add the recent analysis of stop and search
figures that shows a disproportionately high number
of the 32,100 people who were stopped and searched in
the last year (or more accurately 71,100 people when
you take into account the misreporting of some police
forces, according to Statewatch) were of Asian origin.
Do not forget to include Islamophobic media coverage
of an increasingly anti-Muslim "war on terror", and
stir. The result?

British non-Muslims are scared of Muslims; they're
angry with them and they're paranoid about the threat
they perceive from Muslims ready to blow them up.
British Muslims are scared of the backlash against
them from non-Muslims. They're also paranoid about
their safety from wider society, the security
services and the other Muslims that they are told
are out there waiting to blow everybody up.

At either end of this polarisation we are seeing
a level of alienation that bodes ill for British
society. For the Muslim part, their sense of
grievance has to be taken on board by the
government, its institutions and the media in a
meaningful way. It's taken two years of lobbying
the Met about stereotyping, but at last, yesterday,
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke's
statement to the press was at pains to make clear
that the arrests and their focus should not cast
aspersions on the Muslim community. Yet every
breaking news story carried the label "Islamic
terrorists" and the addition of the description
"British of Pakistani origin". It may sell today's
papers but it is ultimately crass vilification.

It is also at the heart of the growing anger among
Muslim youth. Born and bred British, their citizenship
is always conditional. When Kriss Akabussi won
athletics medals he wasn't referred to as a British
Christian of Nigerian origin. Yet Muslims are always
alien by description - their religion and ethnicity
used in reporting further edges them to the boundaries
of society.

This isn't even a post-9/11 concern. After the Oldham
riots in 2001, we heard that long-term unemployment
or poor career opportunities, fuelled by racism and
Islamophobia, in turn fuelled pain and anger among
the young. Three years on, professional affluent
Muslims, whose lives had seen little, if any, of the
social deprivation and societal exclusion that the
Cantle report identified, can tell of discrimination
and hatred levelled against them.

They see an older Muslim leadership panic under the
strain of negativity. While younger organisations
such as the London Muslim Coalition called on mosques
to pray for peace for all in the wake of the horror
of Madrid, the Muslim Council of Britain called on
mosques to report any suspicions they had about
anything. It's the difference between being a part
of society, however marginalised, and perpetuating
the idea that you are an unruly guest, your stay
determined by different conditions than for everyone
else. You don't have to be disaffected youth to see
the anomalies and feel the isolation.

For all the Muslim communities' faults - and we, like
all other communities and individuals, have many -
our empathy, often inspired by our faith, with the
deprived and oppressed is not one of them. To want
an end to injustice against Palestinians doesn't
make you a terrorist, opposing the war against Iraq
or calling on Russia to withdraw from Chechnya
doesn't make you an extremist of any class. Yet
when British Muslims participate in demonstrations
and leafleting - against their government's
participation in occupations of Muslim lands - this
is seen as more evidence of inherent detachment
from British mores and, worse still, attachment to
potential, if not actual, terrorist causes.

The late Sulayman Zain ul-Abedin, who was the first
to be tried and found not guilty of offences under
the Terrorism Act of 2000, found his reading material
used as "evidence" against him. In a letter to some
mosques last year the Charity Commission is alleged
to have asked some not to allow prayers to be recited
for Palestine as this was "political". So, as a
British Muslim you can't act on what you believe in,
however just; you mustn't read about it and you can't
ven pray for it.

Seyf is a volunteer at our offices. Formerly a
journalist in Turkey, he is seeking asylum, having
been tortured by police for his views on Turkish
foreign policy. Some of his colleagues are serving
sentences for possessing reading material deemed
seditious. Civil society can only save Britain from
becoming a country that people seek asylum from,
when its institutions and its media realise that
the alienation of Muslims and many others is neither
self-imposed or imported from abroad.

ยท Massoud Shadjareh is chair of the
Islamic Human Rights Commission

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