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'Muslim awareness' and the war on terrorism
Tins WEEK — which most of us were unaware was to be designated "Muslim awareness week" — began with a row over the refusal of lain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader, to follow the leaders of the Labour and Liberal democratic Parties in signing a "Pledge to British Muslims", despite the fact that he and his party had already declared their support for it. The pledge affirms tolerance towards Muslims and contains a commitment to avoiding racially inflammatory language.
According to Mohammed Riaz, adviser on ethnic minority affairs to Mr Duncan Smith, "we felt it would be more appropriate to issue a statement to reflect the contribution of all organisations and the Muslim community in general"; Mr Duncan Smith himself said that he wanted to express support for Islam awareness week "in his own language". The affair is not entirely easy to follow. Nobody, it seems, feels that Mr Duncan Smith is insincere; there are, nevertheless, accusations that, in the words of the black Tory peer Lord Taylor, the Conservatives "have once again scored a political own goal".
It is not for us to express any view on this arcane political row, which may or may not reflect badly on Mr Duncan Smith's political judgment. What undoubtedly it does show, however, is the extreme — and growing — sensitivity of the whole question of the relationship of the Muslim community with the rest of British society in the specific context of the present "war against terrorism".
Mr Blair's unceasing travels throughout the Muslim world in recent weeks have had the obvious function of consolidating (or "shoring up" as the BBC always puts it) the world-wide coalition against terrorism in general and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in particular. Their principal purpose is to preach the message (now being echoed by Dr Carey) that the Afghan conflict is being waged against terrorism, not against Islam: and that that we do not blame Muslims for what happened on September 11. In other words, that we accept as representing the overwhelming voice of Islam those moderate leaders who have utterly condemned the atrocities committed on that day and utterly reject the notion that they were committed on behalf of Muslims everywhere.
This is a message which has its obvious relevance to the question of community relations in this country. For, if ever it began to be suggested that a substantial part of that community were not only not in support of the "war against terrorism" but actually supported Osama bin Laden and all his works; and if such notions then came to be given credence, even by a minority of the population, then relations between the Muslim population and the rest of us could come under extreme pressure. And the alarming fact is that there are some signs that this may be beginning to happen. According to this week's Sunday Times, which published what it describes as "the first large-scale survey of the Muslim community since the start of the bombing campaign against Afghanistan", 40 per cent believe that bin Laden has cause to wage war against America and a similar proportion say that British Muslims who choose to go to fight alongside the Taliban are right to do so. Eleven per cent were even prepared to say that there was some justification for the attacks on the world Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It needs immediately to be said that these results were dismissed by some Muslim leaders as being untypical of mainstream Muslim opinion, and the poll itself was heavily criticised in other newspapers: but if even we halve or even quarter these percentages, they are still disquieting enough. Inside the Sunday Times, its star columnist, Melanie Phillips — by no means an irresponsible or alarmist voice — called for "both Muslims and the host community" to "change their attitudes dramatically — and fast". She continued: "It's not enough for moderate Muslims to say their interpretation of Islam is the majority view. They've got to show this is true by putting their house in order. If they really are in the majority, then let's hear them deal robustly with the minority who have hijacked their religion".
As for the "host community", Melanie Phillips believes it should now start taking seriously the widespread hatred of Britain among young Muslims, inter alia by arresting those who incite violence. But we need to take this hatred seriously in another way too: by asking where it comes from. It may or may not turn out to be necessary to say that it is unjustified: but whether it is or not, we ignore it at our peril.
This brings us back to "Muslim awareness week", with its pledge to affirm tolerance towards Muslims and its commitment to avoiding racially inflammatory language. It is probably the case that most of "the host community" have already made a firm decision to these ideals already, and have resolved not to think any worse of Muslims because of the events of September 11: but it is certainly true that a significant minority have not. A recent Daily Telegraph poll found that 82 per cent had not changed their view of Muslims because of the atrocities; but 13 per cent had — quite enough to account for the feeling of many Muslims that they are indeed now being perceived as the enemy. These are dangerous waters; and the longer the conflict in Afghanistan continues, the more dangerous they become. This is not necessarily an argument against the war: but it is a strong argument for doing everything we can to make our Muslim population feel that they are a valued part of mainstream British culture. For their part, Muslims will, perhaps, need to make it clearer that this is an ideal to which they genuinely aspire.