Yes Muslims Have a 'Special Burden'
Do Muslim minorities have a "special burden" to help track down extremists, as Sajid Javid, the U.K. government's most senior Muslim, said in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris?
This is a sensitive question for any of Europe's Muslim populations and on Monday, the U.K. government jumped in head first with a letter to 1,000 Imams. In it, the religious leaders were asked to carry out their "important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith and Islam can be part of British identity."
The heated response from the U.K.'s major Muslim organizations left Prime Minister David Cameron flummoxed. Anyone who found fault with the letter "has a problem," he said.
The letter works overtime to say the right things, starting with the peaceful Muslim greeting (Assalamu Alaikum) and continuing with expressions of pride in the way British Muslims have responded to what happened in Paris. The request that it makes for cooperation in a common struggle against terrorism seems hardly unreasonable:
We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement: that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy. We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world.
What offended the country's Muslim leaders and Imams was the public implication that there is a problem to be overcome in integrating Muslims into British society, and that it's up to the Muslim community itself to root out Islamist jihadism.
This "feeds into an Islamophobic narrative, which feeds into a narrative of us and them," the Muslim Council of Britain's Tahla Ahmad told Sky News television. Others said the approach legitimized far right claims that the U.K.'s Muslims had cut themselves off from society, which amounts to the same thing, or that the letter was patronizing because the government knew full well that Muslim leaders were already doing what it asked.
Actually, I think both sides are pulling punches. This is a dispute over loyalty. Many Britons suspect that their Muslim fellow citizens don't think of themselves as British first, but as part of a wider Muslim fraternity or even Umma, in the parlance of Islamists. So they want to see the community demonstrate its loyalty collectively.
When Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Community of Britain was pushed (also on Sky) to explain his hostility to the letter, he said that what Imams want is to work "as equals" on the problem, looking at not just rogue preachers but also other causes of radicalization, such as "foreign policy" and "drones dropping bombs on innocent Muslims." In other words, how can we stop young British Muslims from getting out of hand, so long as the drones of the U.K.'s closest ally are killing fellow Muslims in Pakistan?
There are two ways to justify anger at the letter. One is that by now, as opposed to the so-called Londonistan of 15 years ago, radical preachers do represent a relatively small part of the problem; more youngsters are radicalized on the Internet, by groups that use just such foreign policy issues to inflame passions. So focusing on Imams is a way of shifting the blame for failure.
The second is that there is a clear Catch-22: If Muslims comply by identifying and speaking for themselves collectively as a special case, they will behave just as the government and society more broadly says they must not: They won't be acting just as any other U.K. citizens in their response to terrorism, but specifically as Muslims.
Ultimately, though, I think this is all weirdly theoretical. It is surely accurate that parents, faith and political leaders are better placed to influence young Muslim men than is the state. Read without hostility, that's what the letter from Eric Pickles, the wonderfully named British minister for local government and communities, said.
Who else can convince young men who are infuriated by Israel's policies in Gaza that this has nothing to do with individual Jews? Who else can convince them that the best way they can protest against British foreign policy in Iraq, or the use of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, is at the ballot box or using other lawful tools of protest available to them as U.K. citizens?
Most British Muslims already know this -- as do French Muslims -- and it's why they find it offensive when the government demands they prove themselves. Yet a few don't, with horrific consequences. Like it or not, this creates a special burden. It helps nothing to take instant offense, or to resurface long-aired complaints over foreign policy. Better to tell the government: Of course, we're already on board, because we're more worried about our sons and daughters than anyone else can be.
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