Muslim Is Not a Dirty Word: When Government and the Media Persist in Defining British Muslims by Their Religion, They Turn Them into Automatic Suspects in Any Case of Terrorism

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), October 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

Muslim Is Not a Dirty Word: When Government and the Media Persist in Defining British Muslims by Their Religion, They Turn Them into Automatic Suspects in Any Case of Terrorism


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


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.

It may be of help to bear in mind that the country has been here before. Jonathan Coe's Birmingham novels, The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, brilliantly recall the last time an immigrant culture was held guilty of terrorism by association. The plot turns on the consequences of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Anyone who remembers the slaughter will also remember the wave of anti-Irish violence that hit the West Midlands. The National Front was screaming at the top of its voice, and incitement to hatred against the Irish followed naturally from incitement to hatred against blacks.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Fewer people remember how the fascism of the time was fought. Coe brings the struggle to life through the character of Bill Anderton, a militant shop steward at the Longbridge car plant who finds racist propaganda in the factory. "Refuse to work with IRA bastard murderers," reads a scrawled notice. Black immigration is bringing in the dirty, stupid and lazy who threaten "the jobs and homes of the white Englishman", announces a pamphlet doing the rounds.

   Bill did not bother to read any further. He already spent too much of
   his time organising lectures and meetings to counteract this sort of
   nonsense, making sure the union put out its own anti-racist
   pamphlets, most of which he ended up having to write himself (and he
   was no writer). Today, taken together, the scribbled message and this
   putrid leaflet served to depress him profoundly. It was so easy, so
   stupidly easy, for the workforce to find reasons for hating each
   other when they should be uniting against the common enemy.

Immigrants always face prejudice. They are always accused of being aliens who steal the natives' jobs and benefits. But from the 1880s through to the 1980s, there were Bill Andertons to help them. …

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