Even the most blasé seen-it-all British Muslim must have been jolted by a recent poll, according to which an overwhelming majority of Britons associate Islam with extremism, repression of women and lack of equity and justice. Few believe that Britain's 1.6 million Muslims have a positive impact on British society.
The figures were staggering: 58 per cent of those questioned saw a link between Islam and extremism or terrorism while 68 per cent said it was anti-women. Only 13 per cent associated the world's fastest growing religion with peace, and a mere six per cent with justice. Asked whether British Muslims did any good to British society four out of ten said: no.
To a casual observer, it might seem like just another poll that merely confirms a trend that, in the past decade, has seen an unremittingly negative focus on Islam and Muslims around the world. Yet there's something deeply worrying about discovering that Muslims are held in such deep contempt at a time when, on the face of, there appears to be a lull in overt anti-Muslim prejudice. Indeed, for the first time in many years, British Muslims feel they are able to breathe a little more freely and say they feel under less pressure compared to what is happening in many other European countries, including France and Belgium next door.
“We are lucky to be living in Britain. It is heaven compared to other countries,” one Muslim activist said. But, clearly, the surface calm is deceptive and the sponsors of the poll admit that they have been surprised by the findings.
“Yes, we were surprised and it is a cause of deep concern,” a spokesperson for the Exploring Islam Foundation which commissioned the poll said.
The Foundation has been set up by a group of young educated British Muslim professionals (mostly of Asian origin) concerned about the perceptions of their community. Its stated aim is to “challenge” misconceptions surrounding Islam and Muslims; raise awareness about religious and cultural practices relating to Islam and highlight the contribution of Muslims to “civilisation.” The idea, according to its mission statement, is to “dispel the common stereotypes and myths about Islam and Muslims by using strategic media campaigns.”
“We appreciate that the relationship between Islam and various aspects of modern life are continually under intense scrutiny. We want to play an active part in that debate and discuss the place of Islam in 21st century Britain. Our ambition is to engage in stimulating and thoughtful discussions on a spectrum of issues from economics, politics and social customs to history, art and spirituality,” it says.
The Foundation responded to the poll by launching an “Inspired by Muhammad” project starting with a slick poster campaign based on texts of Prophet Muhammad's teachings on a range of issues such as women's empowerment, social justice, environment, tolerance and human rights. Eye-catching posters, each with a tagline “inspired by Muhammad” and displayed on the London Underground, buses and taxis, feature young practising Muslims who are also campaigners for gender equality, environment and social justice. They proclaim that that their lifestyles and beliefs are “inspired” by the Prophet.
The faces featured in the posters are not professional models but drawn from real life to illustrate how the British Muslim youth balance their modern day life-choices in a western country with the traditions of Islam.
One poster features a hijab-wearing woman barrister, Sultana Tafadar, with the caption “I believe in women's rights. So did Muhammed.” Another has former MTV presenter Kristiane Backer, a convert to Islam, declare: “I believe in protecting the environment. So did Muhammad.” Then there is a young male Muslim charity worker Rupon Miah who says “I believe in social justice. So did Muhammad.”
A website “www.inspiredbymuhammad.com” elaborates on the claims of the men and women featured in the posters with actual quotations from Muhammed. On social justice, he is quoted as saying: “The best people are those who are most useful to others.” And he described women as “twin halves of men” whose rights were as sacred as those of men. Emphasising the importance of protecting the environment, the Prophet said: “All of the earth has been made to me as a mosque”. He encouraged his companions to conserve water instructing them not to be wasteful even if they were next to a flowing river, and stipulated the importance of keeping public places tidy declaring: ‘One of the branches of faith is to remove litter from the street.' Campaigners say they were prompted by their own daily experience of widespread ignorance about Islam and the notion that it is a regressive religion whose practices are not in sync with the modern world. By putting their faces on public hoardings and telling their own life stories they wanted to show that there was such a thing as a modern 21st century Muslim.
Ms Tafadar, who wears a hijab to work, says: “Working as a barrister at a leading human rights firm, I often get asked the question: how are you able to reconcile your choice of profession with Islam's views regarding the role of women? The question usually stems from the false presumption that Islam sees women as unequal to men. This could not be further from the truth. My answer is that there is no conflict to reconcile. Rather my choice of profession is entirely in sync with, and indeed promoted, by Islam.”
Romana Aly, who was born and brought up in Britain (her parents came from India) and is campaigns director of the Foundation, says young independent Muslims like her are deeply worried about the way their community is perceived. She holds the media largely responsible for perpetuating the idea of Muslim separatism by reducing the debate to what Muslim wear and suggesting that somehow being a practising Muslim is not compatible with being proud and patriotic British. It is an artificial construct rooted partly in ignorance but mostly in prejudice.
“I am just as proud to be British as I am proud to be a Muslim and have pride in my Indian heritage — and that's true of most Muslims of my generation,” she says.
Young Muslims also believe that the whole “identity crisis business,” the view that confusion among second and third generation Muslims about their cultural identity tends to push them towards extremism, has been exaggerated to fit a stereotype image of Muslims. They think that much of it is part of a political agenda, helped by the media, to perpetuate a certain idea of Muslims. They also object to any one group of Muslims being portrayed as representatives of the entire community. The Muslim Council of Britain, once patronised by the British Government, is no more representative of British Muslims than is the Exploring Islam Foundation, its officials say.
Up to a point these are all valid arguments. There is no doubt that both the media and the political class — not just in Britain but everywhere — have contributed to the prevailing Islamophobia and, often, as part of an insidious agenda. But what about Muslims themselves? Have they ever asked themselves why the whole world appears to be against them? It is a bit like the Americans who never tire of moaning how everyone is against them but seldom pause to ask: why? There is an appalling lack of introspection which is compounded with a deep-seated sense of “victimhood”— the idea that there is a grand global conspiracy to do them in.
Ms Aly gently sidesteps questions about the Muslim community's own role in contributing to some of the negative images and whether it has ever pondered why it is perceived the way it is. Rather than finger-pointing what is more important, she argues, is to focus on countering these negative perceptions and “fostering” a better understanding of Muslims and Islam.
“We want to foster a greater understanding of what British Muslims are about and our contribution to British society which is not often acknowledged,” she says.
Contrary to the popular view — and, to a degree, my own scepticism — I should like to believe that women like Ms Tarafdar and Ms Aly are more typical of the new generation of British Muslims than the caricature of the angry, alienated Muslim routinely fed to us. Despite their own deeply-held religious beliefs, they do not spout anti-westernism, do not appear to nurse imaginary grievances and do not believe that anyone who is not a Muslim is an enemy of Islam. Indeed, in many ways, they are more culturally integrated than some of the apparently more “secular” immigrant groups.
If this is the new face of British Muslims — and, of course, it is a big “if”— let's embrace it. So what if it comes in a hijab?