About fifteen years ago Muslims in Britain fought a long battle for the defence of Islam after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. In the two months since the bomb-blasts in London on July 7, it has become increasingly clear that Muslims in Britain face a similar battle now, as secular and liberal fundamentalists in Britain use the bombings as opportunity and justification for a much wider attack on the Muslim community in this country. Although it is entirely understandable that the British authorities should step up security precautions, and intensify investigations of those tiny and marginal groups among Muslims that espouse the sort of appalling violence that was seen on July 7, British politicians and many media and social commentators have turned the debate about the attacks of July 7 into a debate about Islam and Muslims in Britain and, in many cases, another full-scale offensive on Islam in this country.
One feature of the Satanic Verses controversy was what many Muslims regarded as a surprisingly hardline attitude on the part of Britain’s liberal and secular intelligentsia, most of whom stubbornly refused to make any attempt to see the Muslim point of view, and revealed in the process a deep disdain, contempt and even hatred of many aspects of Islam and many of the Muslims’ most valued religious and cultural practices. Behind the gentle, tolerant facade of British multiculturalism, many Muslims were shocked to find unreconstructed colonial attitudes towards Islam and Muslims as the eternal and irredeemable Other. These are the attitudes that have emerged yet again since the bombings last July.
On the face of it, Muslims might be regarded as having lost the Satanic Verses battle; the book remains in print and the author and his publishers remain unrepentant. But British Muslims and the establishment in Britain both learnt one thing: that Muslims living in a Western society are like square pegs in round holes. An accommodation of sorts is possible, but there are bound to be areas where the two cannot meet, as well as places where friction is inevitable; overall, the fit is bound to be imperfect. Although the British Muslim community consists largely of young people born and brought up in this country, speaking English as our first language, and more comfortable in many ways with local norms (or adaptations thereof) than with the culture and traditions of our parents’ homelands, the fact is that our being Muslims involves an embodiment and assertion of values and principles that appear alien to most of our fellow Britons.
Recognition of this reality does not preclude peaceful and harmonious co-existence, but it does demand understanding and accommodation on both sides, and an agreement to disagree. Muslims in Britain, like other minority communities, are accustomed to routinely making such accommodations, almost without noticing, in virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Of course we have our prickly, difficult, unreasonable and unruly elements, but then so does every community. We also have a tiny minority capable of acts of unbelievable inhumanity, as we saw on July 7; but then, so do other communities, be they Irish nationalists, British nationalists (as racists in Britain call themselves), animal-rights activists or, for that matter, government ministers. And it may well be that we have been blind to the threat that this minority poses to both wider British society and ourselves. But overall Muslims have made huge efforts to fit into that society and to become a constructive and positive part of it. What we cannot accept are demands that we must integrate completely, setting aside major elements of our faith, worldview and way of life, in order to be accepted. Sooner or later wider British society is going to have to accept that Muslims in Britain are here to stay, and will stay as Muslims in the fullest sense of the word. Other British people are going to have to be as flexible and accommodating of us as we have long been of them.
In truth the July bombings are incidental to this debate; they have provided the opportunity for it to re-emerge, justifying attacks on Islam that only a couple of months ago would have been regarded as unacceptably Islamophobic, but the issue that has arisen since has nothing to do with the bombings. On the bombings, there is little difference of opinion or outlook; Muslims have been as shocked as everyone else in Britain, and condemned them as vociferously, if not more so; what goes without saying for others Muslims are obliged to repeat again and again. Nor is there any dispute about the right – indeed, responsibility – of the British authorities to take steps to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
Where there is a difference is in understandings of the bombings’ relevant context and ultimately the indirect blame for them. For most Muslims (and for many others), the bombings can only be understood in the context of British policy in the world, particularly its alliance with the US in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the longer history of Western support for tyrants in Muslim states and attacks on Muslim countries. There is ample evidence for this in terms of the targets that have been bombed in the past and the statements of some of the bombers and their supporters. Of course such a context does not justify what happened, but it is essential to understanding it.
But this is a reality that the British government cannot afford to except; desperation to deflect all attention from their own policies and from the fact that they provoked the bombings is no doubt one reason that British government ministers are so anxious to highlight anti-Western and pro-Islamic political opinion among British Muslims as the key that explains the bombings. This has combined with the permanent disquiet among many in the West, including many of the same politicians, about Islamic political aspirations, social norms, and indeed many other elements of Islam. This is how the cruel and vicious stupidity of a few misguided Muslims has been turned into an onslaught initially against what Tony Blair called “extremist ideology”, including in it notions of khilafah and jihad, and then extending it to include not only political activism, such as support for Islamic movements in Muslim countries, but also such fundamentals of Islam as shari’ah, hijab and Islamic education. What began as an anguished discourse about the roots of terror has become a witch-hunt in which all manner of Muslim community figures and organisations, many of them long regarded as “moderate”, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Foundation, have been attacked for praising Maulana Maududi, describing Western society as morally decadent, condemning Israel or simply regarding Islam as superior to other religions. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Britain is in the grip of a new McCarthyism, with Muslims the target and Islam the accusation.
As usual, whenever these episodes erupt, the immediate protest of the West is that the West has nothing against Islam; it is just the extremist misinterpretations of it that are the problem. In the current outbreak, the use of the phrase “war on Islam” has been cited as a defining characteristic of the extremism that supposedly gave rise to the London bombings. And, as usual, there are plenty of Muslims who are so cowed by the weight of the attack, or so desperate to be understood and validated by non-Muslims, that they are happy to agree, arguing that they are free to practise Islam in Britain, so clearly it is not true that Britain is at war with Islam.
Unfortunately these arguments just won’t wash any more. The key question is how we understand Islam. The liberal West would like us to see it in purely “religious” terms, as a matter of one’s personal faith, spirituality and conduct; that they could accept, albeit grudgingly. But for most Muslims Islam is far more than that; it includes principles for collective and societal morality as well as the personal, and demands that we enjoin good in the broadest possible sense. That is why Muslims all over the world see Islam as central to their politics, and why Muslims in Britain sympathise with them, even as we recognise the limits of what we can do in that direction in Britain. That is why Muslims criticise Western societies – for many of the same ills that Westerners themselves highlight – in Islamic terms, and that is why Islam is invoked whenever and wherever Muslims fight against aggression and oppression; which usually means, in the modern world, against Western governments or their allies, or both. This broader, more complete understanding of Islam is what the West is most definitely at war with; both because Westerners are at war with anything that stands in the way of their hegemony and interests, and because of the deep-seated and irrational hatred for Islam that many secular Westerners harbour.
Muslims in Britain cannot afford to delude themselves: Islam is under attack in Britain, as just one part of a global war on Islam. For British Muslims it is not yet a military war, but it is a social war and a political war for the right to practise Islam fully in Britain, which includes both the way we live as a community in this country and the way in which we identify with our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
This is a war we will have to fight again and again; it may be one that, given the wider historical and geopolitical situation, we cannot win. It is certainly one that we cannot afford to lose if we and our future generations are to survive as Muslims in this country.