Making Muslims into a race apart

In his TV show on British Muslims, Jon Snow was more anthropologist than journalist, trekking to an exotic land to meet apparently peculiar people.

Munira Mirza

Topics Politics

‘What do Muslims want?’ asked Jon Snow last night in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme that promised groundbreaking insights into contemporary Britain.

Based on the largest ever survey of Muslims in Britain, the premise of the programme was that ‘Muslim integration in Britain has come to a standstill’. Younger Muslims, of the second and third generations, feel a greater sense of identification with Islam than they do with Britain. This is contrary to the typical pattern of the immigrant experience, where younger people usually feel more affinity with a society over time. Appropriately dressed in a white suit – the uniform of a foreign correspondent – Snow set out on his investigation as if he were an anthropologist trekking in an exotic land to meet a strange and unusual people.

It must have been disappointing, then, to discover that the folk he meets are a bit like Daily Mail readers, filled with the same hysteria about crime, corrupt Western society, homosexuality and conspiracy theories. Normally such views, when held by Christians or Guildford suburbanites, are considered outdated and irrelevant, but through the distorting lens of the ‘war on terror’, society has come to take the ‘Muslim viewpoint’ more seriously.

Certainly, today’s younger Muslims are far more interested in religion than their parents are. This was illustrated well by Snow’s encounter with a highly articulate and confident mother of two, wearing a black headscarf. She talked to Snow about her relatively secular upbringing and her spiritual awakening to Islam. Her father arrived in Britain in the 1940s, with a very ‘modern’ attitude and sense of Britishness, which she described as naive. For her, British society has grave social and cultural problems, which she does not want her children to be exposed to. Wandering around the civilised surroundings of the Natural History Museum with her children, she lamented the decadence of contemporary British culture – its shallow obsession with alcohol and its degraded treatment of women.

This woman’s concerns were echoed by a couple of young students Snow met in a café in London. They were convinced that the West is corrupt and that Islam has all the solutions to mankind’s problems. Unsurprisingly, they were extremely passionate about foreign policy. Everybody knows from countless surveys that a large number of young Muslims are angry about the war in Iraq and the troubles in Afghanistan, Palestine and Chechnya. Many non-Muslims are hostile to Britain’s foreign policy as well. But what was most striking was how the young students’ passion for Islam was not just about foreign policy; it was about ambivalence towards the West itself. They felt that they have learnt all their values from Islam, and that Britain has not offered them anything. A young woman told Snow that she chooses to wear the headscarf out of personal conviction rather than pressure from any wider community. This is not religion practised through cultural inheritance, but something new, more puritanical and individuated. It is a way of saying ‘we want out of this society’.

Snow asked why this sense of separation has occurred, and whether there is something particular about the Muslim religion which may have caused it. Walking through a bleak street lined with red brick houses somewhere ‘up north’, he reflected thoughtfully on how ‘these northern towns symbolise a kind of culture clash’.

But more striking is how common this search for meaning is among many religious groups. The rise in religiosity is one way in which Muslims, and many non-Muslims, have attempted to tackle the growing sense of disorientation in the modern world. The desire for meaningful values arises from dissatisfaction with what’s on offer in the West. As with the rise of new age religion and fundamentalist Christianity in the US, the sense of a moral vacuum in the west is not unique to Muslims. In our own relativistic age, the desire to have clear moral guidelines and something to identify with is clearly very strong. And this disillusionment with the West and its consumerism is a common theme in much of the anti-globalisation movement today.

Similarly, the ambivalence about Western liberal values that Snow counterposed to Islam are not championed particularly strongly by Western elites, either. The television images of Muslim protests during the recent Danish cartoon furore were supposed to make us think that the greatest threat to our freedom is from an alien culture, but the truth is that our own government has been happily creating laws to curb our freedoms – without much complaint. With regards to freedom of speech, the growth of race relations, speech guidelines and diversity training are all institutional reminders of the greatest moral commandment of our time: Thou shalt not cause offence.

The counterposition Snow presented between Islam and the West does not hold up on closer examination. There is a sense of separation, but at the same time there are many Muslims who feel as British as anyone else. Disappointingly, Snow didn’t meet those Muslims who feel ‘Westernised’ and who actually do the things they’re not supposed to (drink, have sex before marriage, have gay relationships). There are many Muslims I have come across in my research and my personal life who go to the mosque on Friday and then get drunk in the pub on a Saturday night. For some reason, television documentaries and opinion surveys never seem to encounter them. One of Snow’s interviewees says that gay people have ‘lost their way’, but only mentions this in passing as she talks about how much she loves watching Big Brother. Not exactly the cultural conservative you might imagine, then.

The most distinctive and worrying phenomenon Snow uncovered was the heightened sense of grievance and insecurity among Muslims. One of his interviews takes place with a group of young men in a football ground in Stoke-on-Trent, a town with a three per cent Muslim population, which corresponds to the national average. They, too, despise Britain’s foreign policy and feel angry about it. More shocking, however, was these young men’s doubts over who planned 9/11. They suggested it was in fact a ‘conspiracy’, planned by sinister forces out to get Muslims. Even worse, they were convinced that Princess Diana was killed because she was going to marry a Muslim (four out of 10 Muslims surveyed agree with this sentiment).

Conspiracy theories are of course rampant in society generally, but it is significant that these young men’s paranoia is endorsed by the authorities. Fifty-six per cent of Muslims in the survey fear they will be victimised because of their religion. This is not surprising when commentators, politicians and even the Metropolitan Police’s own Tarique Ghaffur complain about the victimisation of Muslims. Statistics like these are often cited by observers to prove widespread persecution of Muslims, but in fact they reveal that, rather like the Diana conspiracy theories, many Muslims are disproportionately anxious about their place in society. Rather than challenging this viewpoint, people in authority have come to take them as given. This is a vicious circle effect, with Muslims feeling increasingly isolated because they are being told how persecuted they are.

Like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, we are told by Muslim experts that if we don’t address the concerns of Muslims there will be more extremists, and hence, more violence. This in itself shows the hysteria of the authorities. We are bullied into accepting arguments about issues like freedom of speech by the logic of security. But the problems we face should not be approached like risk management. Muslims should not be seen as a race of potential terrorists, but as part of a society desperately in need of a public conversation on a range of topics, not just religion. The $64,000 question isn’t ‘what do Muslims want?’, but what do we want. That’s not anthropology; that’s politics.

Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London.

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Topics Politics


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