Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, head of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), gave a much publicised interview to the Telegraph this week. Dr Bari knows that we have differred with him and the MCB on many matters in the past but this interview is worth addressing for several reasons. This is not the first interview that he and the MCB have given but very unusually this interview was carried as a lead story, not only by the Telegraph, but by BBC Radio 4 News, the Today Programme and BBC News Online. His Telegraph interviewers – Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson – are amongst the most senior journalists at the paper, and the latter is also a trustee of the right-wing neoconservative think tank the Policy Exchange.
The responses posted on some message boards have been predictably vitriolic. These include: "Please, Please, Please just pay them to leave whatever it costs in the long run it will be worth it" and "Jews did not ask the country to change its way of life to suit them, the Muslims do. This is what is against them" and only strengthens the argument made about the heightened hostility towards Muslims.
These responses fall into one of two categories. Either, they deny the substance of what was said, ridiculing the association with Nazi Germany. Or they acknowledge the hostile atmosphere towards Muslims but justify it by making false accusations about Islam and Muslims. Europe needs to be vigilant about the treatment of its minorities given its history: the killing of Jews in the 1930’s and 40s; their persecution over preceding centuries; the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century and from Bosnia in the 20th century. There are many from amongst the Black, Catholic and Irish communities that can testify to the persecutory manner minorities have been dealt with in the past, and the accompanying lack of insight from politicians and the media about this treatment.
If a Muslim expresses concerns about some of the social ills that have befallen Britain, it is taken as an expression of hatred for the west. To challenge the government’s colonial foreign policy is now seen as ‘extremism’ and a justification for terrorism. It seems Dr Abdul Bari has crossed a line by expressing a historical truth – that Europe has a serial inability to deal well with minorities. The interview has also exposed a contemporary problem; that Europe currently seems unable to tolerate even an intellectual expression of Islam’s ideas without making apocalyptic accusations that Muslims are trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else. When Muslims do not engage enough, they are labelled as isolationist or separatist. When they do engage, and carry and are independently minded they are told to shut up. For a Muslim to express a truth is deemed unacceptable, even if others say the same thing.
It is right to say that Europe needs to be vigilant about its treatment of minorities. Its history of tolerating difference is appalling. Despite this history, Muslims in Britain are being treated as subjects, not citizens. It is not disimilar to how Indian ‘subjects’ were slapped down hard – physically and metaphorically – if they dared to speak out of turn to the ‘sahib’s’, even if they spoke the truth. Others have said similar things to Dr Abdul Bari but have not been attacked for it. India Knight, writing in the Times in 2006 said "It’s open season on Islam – Muslims are the new Jews. And the idea that Straw’s divisive statement should not only be tolerated but adopted on all sides, as it has been with a kind of bullying relish, troubles me."
The analogy of 1950’s America is a better one than Nazi Germany. Modern day McCarthyism in Britain is manifest by the fact that you can be labelled a ‘terrorist’ for possessing a book, or an ‘extremist’ if one speaks against foreign policy, dares to link Islam and politics, or wears Islamic clothes. This atmosphere exists on University campuses and the work place amongst other arenas.
Many find it uncomfortable when Britain’s colonial policies are addressed, as well as when many ugly issues within Britain are raised – whether these are social concerns or the parallel system of justice that has emerged for Muslims. However, these issues will not simply disappear by burying our heads in the sand. Some of us would argue that there are not enough voices – Muslim and non-Muslim – that address these loudly enough. In the end these matters affect all people – not only Muslims. We must not shy away from addressing them, despite the hostile reactions from narrow minded people who cannot tolerate different views. People who bully and intimidate do not help the world’s problems if they are not willing to confront their demons. They simply close down debate and dialogue.
What the response to the interview has revealed is not only misplaced pride, but good old fashioned prejudice.