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Probing the British Muslim

Published : Aug 26, 2005 00:00 IST

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While most of the Muslims immigrants of the older generation are a contended lot, a majority of their children see themselves as victims of racial discrimination.

A REASONABLY mild summer enlivened by plenty of soothing sunshine and the hype about the current Ashes series create an euphoria that tends to take the average Londoner's mind off the threat of a third wave of terrorist attack. Not many are inclined to discuss in-depth what happened on July 7 and 21. Efforts to draw some fellow-commuters into a conversation on the subject elicit polite remarks that border on indifference. What is most obvious in all this is a refusal to be intimidated by the recent events, something that is in striking contrast to the paranoia that I saw in the U.S. in the days following 9/11. I do not see the Londoner's fortitude and stoicism as something contrived. I cannot also detect any underlying fear that a casual demeanour could often mask. The latest declaration of Dr. Iyman al Zawahri, regarded as Bin Laden's second-in-command, that London will be attacked again, is therefore not likely to set the Thames on fire.

Police presence in tube stations and elsewhere has no doubt been visibly strengthened. This reassures the citizen that the Met will do its best to protect him from the madness that clouds the thinking of a few misguided youth. The Londoner is generally pleased with the police performance and many have said so in public fora. Beyond this, he is not overly exercised over the current scene and about possible terrorist plans. One explanation of the marked difference in the response to terrorism across the Atlantic is possibly the enormity of 9/11 compared to 7/7. Also, the American psyche sets much store by immediate action on the basis of bullet points. The British veer around the view that correctives will no doubt have to be applied, but not in a rapid-fire sequence and definitely over a course of time. I can best illustrate the range of perceptions by referring to how doctors in the two countries treat a medical problem like high blood pressure or a high cholesterol count. While the American physician would intervene immediately with a beta blocker or statin, the U.K. physician would prefer to wait for the response of a patient to dieting and exercise, before he can think of prescribing medicines. This may appear to be too simplistic an analogy to describe attitudes, because it does not enlighten us on many issues, such as why a Britisher, Tony Blair, jumped into Iraq instead of waiting for a while to assess the pros and cons, especially when public opinion was sharply divided on this.

The U.K. media, both print and visual, have a field day in trying to tell citizens that they are now living in extraordinary times. The message is: they cannot be indifferent to what is happening if they want to be secure in the future. I am extremely impressed by the sensitivity of the Met to the public's right to know, and by the savvy of some Met officers in briefing the press with an ease and aplomb that can be the envy of their counterparts in any part of the world. Sir Ian Blair, the Oxford-educated Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police - described by many as a thinking policeman with great literary prowess - has in particular struck the right note of pride in his men and a moderate sense of accomplishment. He has had some moments of low, especially when it was found that the Brazilian immigrant who was killed by the police in Stockwell was innocent and not a suspect, as the Commissioner claimed him to be in the hours after the unfortunate incident. Nevertheless, his public apology for the grievous mistake has gone well with the community and the damage control exercise has been successful. The point, however, is whether the police, in a pressure-cooker situation, should rush to the press so often, instead of waiting for facts to become clearer than they are in the immediate aftermath of an incident.

The Times and other newspapers have reported on recent events with great gusto and a striking regard for truth and objectivity. The responsibility to inform and communicate is well marked in all stories. Columns have been generally incisive and care has been taken to give ample opportunity to the Muslim community to project its point of view. The writing has been refreshing in the sense that the focus is not merely on facts of incidents but also on why those arraigned by the police behaved the way they did. There is an underlying concern for what the future holds for the British and how a community, some of whose men directly committed the violent acts or lent a helping hand to them, will have to apply the balm on the minds that are vulnerable to vicious propaganda. In this context, several theories have been advanced by columnists on why there have been so many recruits to the Bin Laden order. In this process, the Muslim community has been dissected almost to the core. The question to which many in Britain seek desperately an answer - the one posed to Tony Blair at one of the press conferences - is: "How could people who grew up here, received their education here, enjoyed cricket, enjoyed so much about British life, have turned on their own people?"

I AM convinced that the many analyses generated by 7/7 and the events thereafter are relevant to India as well. I know how many urban centres in our country, such as Coimbatore, have become sites for the propagation of blatantly virulent religious ideologies. If the number of such centres is not to go up, we must act decisively right now, not through the law and order machinery but by using the means available for promoting religious harmony and equitable distribution of economic opportunities. Our opinion leaders will have to digest ideas thrown up by the recent happenings in the U.K. for reflection and action, if only they desire a total integration of sections such as the Muslim community with the rest of society. This is why I thought I should devote a considerable part of this column to what I have read in the past few days in the British press on this crucial subject of the Muslim mind. It is not as if all the columnists have been original and say something that has not been said before. But it is useful to assemble the various thoughts in one place, to make assimilation easy.

The parents of at least one of the July 7 bombers confessed that they had no clue of what their son was up to. This is of course true of many modern parents, irrespective of the religion to which they belong, who are surprised by the deviant behaviour of their children. But, here, we are not talking of ordinary deviance or crime, but of violent activity that causes the utmost damage to society.

There is information that one of the bombers had suddenly become extremely religious, and this did not arouse his parents' curiosity. Some writers believe that this is a prominent characteristic of the U.K's Muslim community. Most of the parents in their 50s are immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh or India, who had come into the country two or three decades ago seeking enhancement of their economic status. Some of them had succeeded in this objective, while the others had improved their lot marginally. Overall, they were a contented lot, with no major complaints against the existing social order. Their children, however, have other ideas about British society. A majority of them believe that their plight was miserable, and this was because of gross racial discrimination. This feeling of neglect and injustice has led to desperation in some of them, and a search for succour has led them on to Bin Laden, whom they consider their saviour.

The Times columnist Helen Rumbelow is positive that the recent disaster did not come as a surprise to her. It was waiting to happen because recent fiction in the country by writers of Asian origin had clearly sent warning signals that many like Prime Minister Blair had ignored. She was referring particularly to the much-celebrated Brick Lane (2003) by Monica Ali. This powerful novel portrays the plight of the Bangladeshi immigrant and the divide between him and the Muslim born in England, who nurses many grievances and does not have a trace of gratitude for what the country of birth has done for him. While the former is appalled by attempts to subvert his loyalty to the country he has adopted, because he feels indebted for the economic opportunities thrown up to him, the native Muslim talks in terms of avenging the injustice meted out to him.

Anticipating Monica Ali as early as 1993 was Hanif Kureishi, whose short story "My Son The Fanatic" depicts almost the same theme. Born and raised in England, the good son ( "a happy, cricket-loving accountancy student") of Pakistani parents, who was growing on lines eminently pleasing to his elders, suddenly becomes a jehadi. The taxi-driver father is shocked beyond words, when his son tells him that it is the absolute licence in British society, where one is allowed to do whatever he wants - a characteristic that the father admires most - that had driven him (the son) to militancy. The powerful story was later made into a successful film, and we can quite gauge its impact on the Muslim youth of an impressionable age. Rumbelow cites Zadie Smith's work White Teeth as further support for her thesis that the chasm between the first generation Muslim immigrant and his children in England is too serious to be taken lightly.

One recent report that attracts some attention is about how prisons breed discontent within a religious minority, especially when substantial numbers from that community are jailed for proved crime. While this is universally true, in the present context of a country battered by terror inflicted predominantly by men from one religious group, it calls for serious note by those who make criminal justice policy in the U.K. Writing for The Times, Theodore Dalrymple, a retired prison doctor, says that Muslim prison population in the country has gone up six-fold during the past 15 years. He also believes that Islamic proselytisation in prisons is of a very high order. According to him, the ambience provides ample opportunity for the igniting of an already existing sense of injustice and alienation from a society that is considered by the non-white prisoners as highly racist. Unleashed on a society where economic opportunities for the under-educated youth from the minority community and bearing a criminal record are abysmal if not non-existent, these young Muslim convicts are gobbled up by Islamic fundamentalism immediately on being set free. This perspective of incarcerated Muslims turning to militancy on release from prisons is difficult to be dismissed as fanciful.

Findings of opinion surveys carried by the press from time to time are attractive, especially when they are doled out in capsules that are readily usable. Not all of them can, however, be dismissed curtly as inconsequential, even when they are overloaded with what are obviously deceptive generalisations. The recent Daily Telegraph-commissioned survey of attitudes within the U.K. Muslim population is one that may be superficial, but it does convey some hard truths.

While an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the country condemn the London blasts, some 6 per cent (representing about 100,000 in actual numbers) justify the explosions. About one-quarter of the community portrays a measure of sympathy for the perpetrators. Questioned on loyalty to the U.K., 18 per cent of the respondents were clear that they did not have any. Also, one third of those who were asked stated that they considered Western society as decadent and immoral. A few did not disfavour the resort to violence to change this social order.

Accuracy and honesty may not be the strongest points of the opinions elicited by The Daily Telegraph. The findings are nevertheless a pointer to the conflict within the community; between a majority who feel that the U.K. is their home and a substantial number, especially in the younger age-bracket, who feel they are aliens. The latter are more than willing to align themselves with anyone who is at war with the government of the land where they were born but which, in their view, has treated them unfairly. This possibly explains somewhat what the U.K. is going through now and indicates what is in store for it.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 26, 2005.)

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