East, West, talk is the best

January 24, 1997

The recent Islamophobia in the press results in a kind of Westophobia among Muslims, points out Akbar Ahmed, who says dialogue is the only way forward. The reaction to Prince Charles's speech last month is a good gauge of the level of Islamophobia in Britain today. The prince, speaking at the Foreign Office conference centre at Wilton Park, Sussex, said that Britons would benefit from Islamic teaching - enabling us "once again to learn with our hearts, as well as our heads". Even the normally balanced and liberal sections of the press became hysterical.

Catherine Bennett in The Guardian made a savage attack on Islam ("What on earth is Prince Charles up to?''). Private Eye carried joke after stale joke - Prince Philip hitting Charles with a cricket bat for becoming a Muslim and so on.

There was little difference between the tone and content of what The Guardian and The Sun were saying about Islam. I had to confront this fact with sorrow as I am a Guardian reader. I asked myself would The Guardian allow a similar attack on any other community in Britain, the Jews or the Afro-Caribbeans, for example? I do not think so. So what was going on? Perhaps the answer was that the paper was unconsciously inhaling the fumes of Islamophobia that are rising in the land.

In this climate any kind of malicious outpouring can be published about Muslims, as the following excerpts illustrate: "They are backward and evil", wrote Robert Kilroy-Silk in The Express, "and if it is being racist to say so ... then racist I must be - and happy, and proud, to be so''. "Islam, once a great civilisation worthy of being argued with," noted Peregrine Worsthorne, "has degenerated into a primitive enemy fit only to be sensitively subjugated. But if they want a jihad, let them have it'' (The Sunday Telegraph). "Muslim society looks profoundly repulsive,'' observed Conor Cruise O'Brien (The Times). "It looks repulsive because it is repulsive.'' Is the fear and hysteria over Islam an unreasonable and primal response or is there a need to take the outpourings of these writers seriously? The answer is a bit of both. Although there are atavistic reasons in European culture to fear Islam - all the old historical arguments about Islam knocking on the doors of Europe for the last 1,000 years and so on - the fact is that Islam's situation has substantially changed in this generation. First, there are the million and a half or more Muslims in Britain. They are growing increasingly uneasy because of news of atrocities against Muslims in Palestine, the Balkans and Kashmir. Second, Muslim countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan continue to play pivotal roles in the global strategy of western powers. Third, the actions of the so-called Muslim fundamentalists - bomb explosions in New York or in the Middle East - keep Islam in the news. Islam clearly cannot be ignored.

But writers who think that contempt of Islam somehow dampens Muslim commitment are mistaken. Rather, it convinces Muslims that even reasonable people in the West cannot understand Islam and that indeed there is deep-seated hatred. Far from undermining them or causing self-doubt among Muslims, it makes them close ranks. It creates a mirror image in a kind of Westophobia; everything coming from the West is seen in terms of suspicion and hatred. Westophobia carried to an extreme makes the Taliban in Afghanistan reach for their guns and shoot at television sets because for them the TV represents the sex and violence that is the West. In a sense they are reflecting the prejudices of the West; they too do not want dialogue.

Attempts at dialogue can jangle nerves. When I was invited to given an address at evensong at Selwyn College, Cambridge, last year, the leader of the Muslim Parliament condemned me. Other Muslims supported me. The condemnation was not one-sided. Certain Christian groups, objecting to a Muslim in church, boycotted the event.

The rape of an 80-year-old woman, half-blind and crippled, by boys barely in their teens; random shootings and stabbings of school children by grown men - these are warning signs of interest not only to social scientists. Here Prince Charles is right. We need to rediscover a sense of the sacred, or morality.

Islam has much to offer contemporary Britain: its emphasis on family life, its respect for elders, the value it places on stability and order. But in the media, Islam is reduced to jokes about wives walking three paces behind their husbands and headlines about beheadings and amputation in Saudi Arabia.

How can matters be improved? The United States, where the Muslim community is making an impact in business, academia and politics, is an example of what is possible. It may not be politically correct in certain quarters to say so, but Britain has a better record on immigrants than other European countries. The Jews and later the Sikhs have been absorbed reasonably well and without too much fuss. There is no reason why the same cannot happen to the Muslims.

One way forward is dialogue and debate in the media at different levels to educate people. More needs to be taught about Muslim culture and religion at school to lessen the idea of an exotic or alien people. More Muslims need to be visible in public life and the media to assist communication.

From the British side, especially among the academics and writers who set the tone, greater understanding is required; from the Muslim side, especially among community leaders, more imagination. Britain needs to come to terms with Islam not only for reasons of understanding the "other'' but because Muslims, whatever their links with other regions, intend to stay.

Akbar Ahmed, a fellow ofSelwyn College Cambridge, is a member of the Runnymede Commission on Islamophobia.

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