Rise of a siege mentality
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray
Seven young British Muslims face trial for plotting terrorist acts in Britain. Others joined the Taleban, fought for the Chechens, or are for Iraqi Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.
Like many non-Islamic states (China, India, Singapore and even the United States), Britain does not know quite how to handle its Muslims. There are 1.8 million of them, roughly 3 per cent of the population, and they are seen as both a political asset and a potential social liability. Generally speaking, they are underprivileged with lower-than-average educational and income levels, and a higher unemployment rate.
But unlike Indians, Afro-Caribbeans or even Bangladeshis who might be similarly disadvantaged, culturally militant Muslims, mainly from Pakistan, are convinced they are victimised because of their religion. Prime Minister Tony Blair's participation in the Iraq war reinforced paranoia: hostilities against an Islamic nation were seen as hostilities against all Muslims.
Matters have not gone as far as in Canada, whose 600,000 Muslims seem bent on exclusive legal rights. Ontario's Arbitration Act, passed to facilitate an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, has enabled them to set up an Islamic Institute of Civil Justice whose tribunals will arbitrate in questions of personal law. Apparently, the government agreed to incorporate sharia law in the arbitration process until a public furore prompted an inquiry two months ago.
Similar pressures may be building in Britain, too, with Muslim repudiation of many national norms, recalling a Calcutta seminar where Muslim clerics rejected ordinary schools and part-time religious instruction because a Muslim child has to read the Koran first and last. Some British Muslims object to the nursery tale, The Three Little Pigs. Others demand Friday closing.
The British army reportedly condoned one soldier's refusal to fight against his co-religionists in Iraq by posting him elsewhere. When the Islamic Bank of Britain was set up to find a way round the Koranic objection to charging interest on money loaned, HSBC established its own sharia board of Pakistani and Saudi scholars.
It is only when Muslims are in a minority that governments bend over backwards to conciliate religious extremism. The other paradox is that while earlier waves of immigrants were anxious to merge with an enriched mainstream, many of today's settlers cling to the identity of the society they abandoned to seek a better life in Britain.
Muslims being foremost in this trend, beards and burqas are more visible in Bradford and Leicester than bowler hats and rolled umbrellas, the traditional icons of English life. There is a backlash, too. Some friends have taken to writing 'English' for nationality instead of 'British' because they want to distance themselves from the dialect and demeanour of immigrants who are called 'new British'. They are not alone in feeling that the England they knew is under siege.
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author