"British Muslims have reached a turning point. I don't think they're going to take this for much longer," remarked a seasoned TV news reporter attending the packed Muslim conference in Tooting, South London on a scorching afternoon, last Sunday.
The conference had initially been organised to discuss the wave of arrests of 609 mainly young Muslim men since 9/11 under the anti-terror laws, and in particular, the case of Babar Ahmad. The 30-year old IT officer had first been arrested at his home in Tooting in early December 2003 and had claimed that he had been badly assaulted by several police officers at the time of his arrest and had also been forced to kneel with his face to the ground - in the style of the Islamic prostration during prayer - while being taunted with cries of 'Where is your God now?' Certainly, the pictures of the clearly bruised Babar which appeared in the Muslim press immediately after he was released without charge six days later, convinced many British Muslims that the police had indeed trampled over the very laws that they had been sworn to uphold.
Now, just three days prior to the conference, and with a Police Complaints Authority investigation into the alleged beating still not completed after eight whole months, Babar had been rearrested, this time on the basis of a US extradition warrant claiming that he was in reality a key al-Qa'ida fundraiser. The attendees of Sunday's conference were in no mood to believe these latest allegations. And you can perhaps understand why.
In November 2002, we were treated to front-page stories about the arrest in London of an alleged al-Qa'ida cell that had been plotting to release cyanide gas into the Underground. As we now know, no one was subsequently charged with - let alone convicted of - any such plot. In April 2004, amid blanket nationwide publicity, 10 people were arrested mainly in the Manchester area, with several papers claiming that Manchester United's football ground was the target of their bomb plot. No, no, boomed another paper, it was Manchester's Trafford Shopping Centre that was the true target. The 10 were all released by the police without charge and the papers which had earlier speculated so assuredly and energetically did not feel it necessary to give their readers any explanation about this curious turn of events.
This time, following last week's arrests of thirteen men, we were informed that a plot to bomb Heathrow had been uncovered. Within days, this latest scheme had already begun to look less and less credible.
Contrary to the impression left by much of our sensationalist media with their perverse fixation with the ridiculous antics of Omar Bakri and his tiny – and not very merry - band of semi-thugs, only 15 people have actually been convicted under anti-terror legislation since 9/11: a current strike rate of 2.5%. And the majority of these convictions have been for credit card fraud or immigration offences.
For many years, Muslim immigrant communities in the UK had adopted a 'keep our heads down' mentality but the relentless pressure of the anti-terror raids and the stop and search activities, allied with a steady diet of often virulently hostile commentary – usually from pro-Israeli quarters - in our press denigrating Islam and its followers, is persuading an increasing number of British-born Muslims that it is time to say enough is enough.
Many of these British Muslims had marched determinedly alongside hundreds of thousands of their non-Muslim fellow citizens in the huge – and peaceful - anti-war demonstrations of 2002 and 2003. The government ignored them. For months now these same citizens have been watching the wretched spectacle of Ministers performing the most shameful of linguistic contortions to explain away the absence of weapons of mass destruction in occupied Iraq. Now in the latest edition of Private Eye we read that a senior Cabinet Minister, having come under renewed questioning about the govt's case for war, simply told a World Service presenter to '**** off'.
The ‘war on terror’ and the bloody occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in an intensification of the prejudice that British Muslims here are subjected to. Last month, a BBC investigation found that job applicants with Muslim names were much more likely to be discriminated against than other groupings. CVs from six fictitious candidates - who were given traditionally white, black African or Muslim names – were sent out to 50 employers by Radio 5 Live. The findings showed that candidates with ‘white’ names were far more often granted an interview than a similarly qualified person with a ‘Muslim’ name (almost by a margin of 3:1) or a ‘black African’ name (by a margin of 2:1).
Throughout the month of July 2004, the Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson approved the publication of a series of four incendiary anti-Muslim comment pieces by someone writing under the pseudonym ‘Will Cummins’. Apart from comparing Muslims to dogs (July 25) and taking issue with a Conservative candidate in the recent Leicester South by-election who had dared to listen to Muslim concerns (July 18), Cummins offered us the following historical lesson:
“Christians are the original inhabitants and rightful owners of almost every Muslim land and behave with a humility quite unlike the menacing behaviour we have come to expect from the Muslims who have forced themselves on Christendom.” (July 4)
It is unthinkable that an editor of a UK national paper would still be in his job had he allowed such a sustained barrage of not merely abuse – but actual incitement – against, say, the Jewish community. But it is highly indicative of a rising Islamophobia and the systematic dehumanising of British Muslims, with the result being that they are now the closest definition we have of a pariah community.
Karl Popper remarked that the true hallmark of a democracy was not the frequency with which a country held elections, but in the manner in which it protected its minorities. We in Britain – the seat of democracy – still have a lot to learn.