FOR BRITAIN'S MUSLIMS, UNEASY DAYS
I met Sher Khan in a cafe near Leicester Square. It was Ramadan, so, although I had a coffee, he made do with nothing, waiting until sundown to break the fast that is obligatory for observant Muslims the world over. Khan was born here, but his family came from Bangladesh. His day job is in investments, but he works with the Islamic Society of Britain, an umbrella group that keeps tabs on how Muslims are faring in Britain.
According to Khan, the minority problem in Britain used to be perceived in racial terms more than religious. But since 9/11, and especially since the suicide bombings of July, "we have a new identity marker, Muslim." But Khan is quick to say that, although the majority of Muslims in Britain may originally have come from the Indian subcontinent, there are Arabs, Africans, Central Asians. Since the British empire was more diverse than other empires, so are the Muslims of Britain today.
Khan and other British Muslims I have talked to mostly say that Britain is as good a place as any in which to be a minority. Since the English had to first absorb the Scots and the Welsh, and some of the Irish, multiculturalism had a head start here, they say. And just as Scots and Welsh are always annoyed when foreigners lump them together with the English, so does Sher Khan remark that even here in Britain, Muslims are lumped together as one.
More often than not, ethnicity trumps religion among Muslims in Britain. Bangladeshis, on the whole, are further down on the social scale - and more discriminated against - than people from Pakistan, I have been told.
Other Muslims, such as the Arabs, have felt swamped by the total numbers of those who came from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and some complain that most of the Muslim organizations are run by Pakistanis, who, they say, don't really speak for them. In France, the Muslim population is more homogeneous, for, although you find Muslims from every climate, North Africans predominate following the retreat of the French empire.
Some Muslims have found it easier to adjust to the majority culture than others. Professor Philip Lewis, who teaches at Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies, for example, told me that a very large proportion of Muslims in his former mill town, as well as in Britain as a whole, originally came from a few villages in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, according to Lewis, not far from the epicenter of the recent earthquake. They were originally rural people who might have had difficulty adjusting to life in Karachi, never mind in Britain. They have kept a very close-knit community, with even British-born second and third generations sending back to the old country for their imams and even for their spouses, making it harder for them to integrate. Lewis contrasts the Kashmiris to the Indians and Pakistanis who were expelled from East Africa. Having adjusted to being a minority once, the latter were more adept at it the second time around.
Is it harder for Muslims to adjust in Britain than other minorities? Faisal Bodi, a freelance writer, says maybe it is. "Our two popular soaps, 'East Enders' and 'Coronation Street,' both take place in pubs, for example, and it is difficult for an observant Muslim to relate to the pub culture."
According to Sher Khan, the goal in Britain should be integration, not assimilation as in France. "Assimilation always requires a measure of coercion," he says.
Most British Muslims are feeling the post-suicide bombing heat, however, as the government rushes to introduce even tougher antiterrorism laws. Some of these proposals have been questioned by legal authorities, and it is hard to miss the uneasiness that British Muslims are beginning to feel.
I asked Fred Halliday, a terrorism expert at the London School of Economics, what he thought about the new legislation. He said that such laws were necessary only to make people feel good. Governments had to show that they were "doing something," but as for thwarting terrorism, such laws are useless. What it takes is "good police work and luck."
Terrorists, Halliday said, come from a tiny, transnational minority who, from perceived injustices and humiliations in their formative years, have found an answer in extremism - not unlike the way youths were drawn to and recruited by the Communist Party. "They want to change the world," and understanding them has as much to do with the psychology of young people as it does with Islam.