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A letter from London

A letter from London

Author: Vir Sanghvi
Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: November 1, 2001

For a country that was once regarded as being riddled with the virus of racism, Britain has made astounding progress over the last 20 years. It is, for my money, the most genuinely multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society in the West. And unlike the United States, which prides itself on being a melting pot, where distinctive national traits are melted down to create an all-American identity, England is happy to be a mosaic, allowing citizens to retain Indian, Jamaican or Bangladeshi identities while calling themselves British.

And yet, this time, for the first time in many visits, I sensed a vague disquiet within Britain's multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ethos. Oddly enough, it wasn't colour that made the majority uneasy. It was religion.

Even before the horrors of the September 11 attacks, Britain's Muslim community had begun to grow increasingly militant. In recent months, there has been anger and violence. The maulvis at the Finsbury Park mosque have delivered sermons that would make the Shahi Imam of Delhi blush and there have been riots in the predominantly Muslim Brick Lane areas. There have been full-fledged riots in the Lancashire town of Oldham. The British media have called them race riots but anybody familiar with the subcontinent would have recognised them as communal riots.

Gangs of young Muslims attacked the police, destroyed property and targeted non-Muslims. In Bradford, a Muslim underworld has grown up so quickly that the police are worried.

As worrying as these developments were, they did not concern the vast majority of Brits till September 11. Since then, however, the growing militancy of the Muslim minority has become front page news.

Opinion polls show that a majority of British Muslims believe that America had it coming. There is enormous sympathy for the barbarians of the Taliban. There is little support for the British-American operation against Afghanistan. And there is a more worrying readiness to go and die for the Taliban. To the horror of British liberals, hundreds of Muslim youth are trying to get to Afghanistan to fight -against the British forces and along with the Taliban.

As such in mosques as the one in Finsbury Park, the sermons have now got so extreme and anti-West that we in India would have arrested the Shahi Imam if he had said anything even half as offensive. Such sermons are routinely greeted with pro Bin Laden slogans. Outside Birmingham's Central Mosque, stalls sell Bin Laden videos and CD-ROMs. One such video has the mass murderer declaring that the death of Americans gave him joy and emphasising that the jehad against America is at the core of Islam.

The evidence is that this kind of jehadi fervour is growing. Last week, a radical Muslim group firebombed a church to show solidarity with Islam's global fight against Christianity. And the police in such trouble-spots as Oldham and Bradford say that they expect more trouble.

So far, at least, the British authorities have taken an admirably liberal view. The Finsbury Park mosque gets police protection. No action will be taken against a company called Foundation of Radical Dialogue which distributes the murderous Bin Laden videos. Tony Blair continues to meet Muslim leaders who have clearly lost control of the extremist fringe of their community and pretends that British Muslims are backing the war effort.

All this seems to support my contention that Britain is a truly multi-cultural society - in India we would have had communal riots if Muslims were openly rushing off to fight for the other side in a war where Indian forces were involved.

But that patience is now running thin. Even liberals within the British media are beginning to show their exasperation with Muslim fanatics. Among the Asian community, the distinction has never been clearer. The two main groups of Indian origin (Gujarati Hindus and Sikhs) are solidly behind the anti-Taliban campaign. The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are more ambivalent. And condemnation of the fanatics is not as loud as it should be.

Inevitably, there has been a search for answers. Why should Pakistani children, born and brought up in the UK, having enjoyed the benefits of the British welfare State, suddenly want to make common cause with the murderous Arab leader of fundamentalist Afghans?

The standard answer - this is a response to British racism - will not wash. If racism is the motivating factor then why don't Hindus and Sikhs react in the same sort of way? Nor will the answer offered by liberal Muslims -- this has nothing to do with Islam - work. To echo Salman Rushdie, if this is not about Islam, then why should a British-born, English-educated youth in Bradford want to join an Arab terrorist when the only thing they have in common is Islam?

The only answer that makes some sense - in Lahore as much as London - is the role of the Islamic clergy. Till 1973, most Islamic countries (including Pakistan) were moving towards a more or less secular ethos in line with the Turkish or Egyptian model. Then, after the Yom Kipur War, the Arabs raised the price of oil and changed the balance of global economic power. The countries that had oil were run by those who made a fetish out of religion.

These countries used their new-found wealth to finance mosques and clergymen all over the world. They turned hatred of Zionism into an Islamic religious tenet rather than the political position it had once been and asked all Muslims to treat all Jews as the enemy. (Think about it: a mullah in any Indian mosque will ask the faithful to treat the Palestinian struggle as their own. But will any Catholic priest in say, Goa, ask the congregation to treat the IRA's long fight as a battle on behalf of global Catholicism?) When countries with Islamic populations said they were secular, they ran into the disapproval of the Sheikhs. One instance: King Faisal of Saudi Arabia refused to help Bangladesh till it called itself an Islamic State.

Oil money was used to drive Islam back into the middle ages. Mullahs and maulvis began spouting fundamentalist rhetoric and treating liberal Muslims with disdain. Much of the money went into the setting up of madrasas which told students that they were Muslims first and citizens of their countries second. It is such madrasas that produced this generation of Kashmiri jehadis; and similar madrasas are now transforming the ethos of Nepal's Muslim minority.

Hitherto liberal Muslim nations rushed to embrace medievalism in the hope of benefiting from their Arab benefactors. ZA Bhutto pushed Pakistan into the front rank of Pan-Islamic nationalism and Gen Zia-ul-Haq, completed the process, creating the fundamentalist forces that will destroy Pakistan one day.

At first, the West encouraged this process. In Britain, the State actually helped finance madrasas for Muslim children. Only now are the British realising that no real teaching goes on at these madrasas. For instance, Bradford has 18 private Muslim schools that are independent of all secular scrutiny. Each year, students at these schools turn out to be the least-educated kids in Britain. The schools say they don't mind: they would rather teach the Quran, than history, geography, science, etc. An official report into the causes of riots in Bradford blamed the Muslim schools and the hatred they spawned.

None of this is meant to suggest that Islam by itself is backward or medieval. All religions have their fundamentalist sides. Think how Hindus would react if the Hindu community was hijacked by the Bajrang Dal, if Sadhvi Rithambara or BL Sharma 'Prem' claimed to speak for Hindus; or if children were given textbooks in which Dara Singh was hailed as a hero. The problem is not Islam itself; it is the fundamentalist faction that espouses an Arab-inspired, Pan-Islamic identity.

And yet, I'm not sure that everybody makes the distinction between fundamentalist Islam (the Islamists in Rushdie's terminology) and moderate Muslims. In India, we've been fortunate that so many liberal Muslims (led by the likes of Mushirul Hasan and Shabana Azmi) have isolated the Islamists. But, as Salman Rushdie points out, this is not happening elsewhere in the world. In Pakistan, the liberals are silent.

And in such countries as Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalists have actually turned on their paymasters and now threaten their thrones.

But it is Britain that worries me the most. A month ago I wrote that I was concerned by the number of Hindus who were using Muslim support for the Taliban to treat all Muslims as fanatics. That danger seems to have receded in India but a similar feeling is surfacing in the West. For many Americans, Islam is already the enemy: the new evil empire. Sadly, the same sort of view is beginning to take root in the UK, despite the country's multi-cultural ethos.

None of this augurs well. The last thing the world needs is another Cold War; this time, Islam versus the West (or even, the Rest.)

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