Every now and again, Khurshid Ahmed, a leading figure at the Commission for Racial Equality, has encounters with strangers which border on the surreal. Men and women who appear to be well-informed and well-intentioned stop him in the street or in shop queues and ask in a polite manner if he and his fellow Muslims want to kill them.
Ahmed replies with equal politeness that, no, neither he nor anyone else he knows supports al-Qaeda or applauds suicide bombers, and he walks away wondering and worrying.
It takes time for an immigrant group to establish itself. The gap between their numbers and the status society accords them is usually expressed as complaints about disproportionate rates of unemployment or accusations that there aren't enough MPs from group X or newscasters from group Y. The popular imagination is as important as racial discrimination. A new culture is a little bit more secure when it presents to the rest of the population a benign face, even if that image is a stereotype.
The latest group to carry off this essential assignment with aplomb are British Indians. People who have never met an Asian will still watch Goodness Gracious Me, and are cheered by the comforting sight of fantastically competitive mothers, henpecked husbands, and children trying and failing to be cool. I'm sure that in the future, the children of today's Indians will dismiss this humour as patronising and dated, but they would be fools if they denied that it had broken down the barriers and helped British Indians establish themselves as British.
And British Muslims, what images do they have in the national imagination? Abu Hamza, the Finsbury Park Mosque, the shoe bomber and precious little else. At the beginning of the Kenneth Bigley affair, the government's crisis command unit, Cobra, warned that his murder could trigger attacks on Muslims. At the same time, the Muslim Council of Britain told the Guardian that it had received 2,000 threatening e-mails. Ahmed is as apprehensive as any of them. He can see an Islamist attack, leading to a backlash, leading to riots and "civil war" in the cities. …