Backlash in Britain - Irfan Husain - Wednesday, March 02, 2011

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BARELY a day goes by without some news item or comment about Muslim immigrants in the British media. Unfortunately, almost all of this coverage is unfavourable. Indeed, ‘migrants’ has become a code word for ‘Muslims’, so people can use it with impunity without being accused of racism.

A recent survey cited by Nick Lowles in an article in the Guardian shows just how widespread this attitude has become. The report (Fear and Hope) was prepared for the Searchlight Education Foundation based on the views of 5,000 respondents, and is the largest survey of its kind. Its conclusions, according to the Guardian article, are “stark, brutal and unequivocal”.

Thirty-nine per cent of Asian Britons, 34 per cent of white Britons and 21 per cent of black Britons say that immigration should be permanently halted, or at least until the economy improves. Fifty-two per cent of all Britons agree with the proposition that “Muslims create problems in the UK”. Alarmingly, 48 per cent of Britons say “they would consider supporting a new far right-wing party, if it shunned violence and fascist imagery”.

This is bad news for the two million or so Muslims in the UK. Traditionally, Britain has been seen as a tolerant, civilised country that has welcomed millions of immigrants over the years. The early wave of foreigners entering the country were economic migrants who came to run factories, hospitals and the transport system, accepting low-paid jobs in an economy short of labour in the post-war era. Over time, these workers sent home for their families, and settled in their adopted country. For years, they were seen as adding to the diversity of the country. Multi-culturism was the new mantra of the liberals, and even though right-wing politicians warned of the danger of this tide of foreign workers, their words were largely ignored as racist rants.

Since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the risks it poses to security, the attitude towards Muslims has changed. After the 7/7 attacks on London transport and many other failed terrorist plots, Muslims are being increasingly viewed as a fifth column. And while other ethnic and religious minorities have made a serious attempt to blend into the mainstream, many Muslims have chosen to distance themselves from the host community.

Yasmin Alibhai-brown is a well-known journalist who has commented on British social attitudes and mores for many years. A Muslim from East Africa, she is often invited to appear on TV chat shows. Writing in the Daily Mail recently, she expressed her dismay over what she calls ‘the Talibanisation of Britian”. When she asked a Muslim father outside Tate Britain, a major art gallery in London, why he was so angry with his little son, she was told it was because he had drawn a picture of a human being. When she asked him if he had a camera, and took pictures of people, he replied he did. But his son’s teacher at his madressa had told him it was un-Islamic to paint pictures that represented humans.

Alibhai-brown went on to give other examples of orthodoxy gone mad: the BBC investigated a London school where 20 Muslim pupils had been withdrawn from music lessons “because their parents felt such teaching to be anti-Islamic”. This wasn’t just a few ignorant parents imposing their backward values on their kids: the Muslim Council of Britain confirmed that music lessons would be unacceptable to around 10 per cent of Muslims. As chairperson of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Alibhai-brown has come across many examples of intolerance. In her article, she cites a few:

Many Muslim parents ask librarians not to lend their children storybooks. Some Muslim kids are kept away from school visits to temples, churches and art galleries. Teddy bears and pets are often declared un-Islamic. A Muslim mother who invited non-Muslims to her daughter’s birthday party found that Muslim children had boycotted the party because non-believers had been invited. Perhaps the most tragic case was that of a pupil cast to play the lead role in a school play, who turned up at the dress rehearsal with her face covered in bruises. Apparently, the local imam had warned her family that acting in plays was ‘worse than whoredom’, and her mother had beaten her to stop her from going ahead.

Alibhai-brown concludes with this dire warning: “Young British Muslims – too many of whom are way behind in educational achievements and at the bottom of the job market — will be affected unless we can find a way of stopping the ideologues. The full burka has been banned in France… and other European nations will follow. In Britain, where personal liberty is sacrosanct, such state actions would appear authoritarian. To me, that hands-off approach makes no sense. Why are we fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and indulging Taliban values here? Even if it offends liberal principles, the powerful must find a way of stopping Islamicists from promulgating their distorted creed. If they don’t, the future is bleak for Muslims and the country. Many of us British Muslims care deeply about both.”

Several readers have left supportive comments on the Internet edition of the Mail, with one declaring: “All this pandering to a minority ethnic [sic] group is now uncontrollable. It is like giving an inch and they have taken a mile. The more they are catered to, the more they are demanding.”

Over the last few years, I have been spending quite a lot of time in Britain where all my wife’s friends are very liberal people. But I have begun to notice a distinct hostility towards hard-line Muslims who refuse to make any attempt to integrate. Obviously, there is no racism involved as these are sophisticated, well-travelled people with friends from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, stories of honour-killing, social benefits fraud, and the treatment of women among Muslims now figure more commonly in dinner-table conversations than ever before.

If these trends continue, it is only a matter of time before right-wing politicians tap into this feeling of antipathy. Currently, the British National Party is widely seen as too racist and fascist for decent people to consider supporting. However, if the recession continues, resentment against foreigners grabbing jobs and benefits will intensify. And Muslims might well be the first to suffer from the resulting backlash. Unfortunately, those who are supposed to provide migrant Muslims with guidance and leadership are too ignorant and out of touch with the mainstream to understand where they are leading their community.

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