There are few things in this life I am ever less likely to do than ‘check my privilege,’ as left wing university students are so keen to remind people these days. Popping my dangly bits into a working toaster is one of them; getting a tattoo of Uncle Joe Stalin nursing a puppy back to health is another.
But there are times when I do think to myself how difficult it must be to be a British Muslim since September 11, 2001. One day, you’re a relatively invisible member of a religion people are vaguely aware has some relation to Judaism and Christianity, the next you’ve become public enemy number one and a scapegoat for all society’s ills.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a general distaste for all three Abrahamic religions, and my favourite things about the Catholicism I was raised with are the bits which were borrowed from Roman paganism. I look with envy, for example, to this island’s mirror image, Japan, where the two main ‘religions’ – Shinto and Buddhism – make virtually no mention of God, if any.
But whatever people choose to believe is none of my business and I’m not ignorant enough to be unaware of the burden many Muslims must feel every day; the constant feeling of being under suspicion, of sticking out as ‘the enemy within’ and the fear of physical and verbal assault.
And it genuinely does baffle me how people can get so worked up about, say, Islamic faith schools while clamouring to have their non-religious children signed up for the local Church of England school, or suddenly discover they care about animal rights when it comes to Halal meat but are happy to ignore Kosher methods of slaughter.
By the same token, Sharia family courts are frequently presented as an attack on ancient English Law, while Jewish Beth Din courts have long gone unnoticed in North West London.
I say these things because, while I am not religious myself, I have never been blind to the social, civic and spiritual benefits a religious life can bring; various studies have shown religious people to be more likely to be content in their lives, less likely to commit crime and even longer lived. I have also seen what the alternative can sometimes be.
I work as a journalist in Southend-on-Sea, a wonderful Estuary town known for its mile-long pier, being the backdrop of Lady Hamilton’s affair with Lord Nelson, The Horrors, and its excellent transport links with central London. The downside of the latter, though, is that drug gangs find it just as easy to travel to Southend as tourists do, and in the last week alone I have covered two murder cases at Chelmsford Crown Court involving the stabbings of rival drug dealers.
Where does Islam come in here? Well, it’s simply astounding just how many of these horrific drug-fuelled crimes are committed by young men with Islamic-sounding names. One of the cases mentioned above, for example, involved victims and defendants with names such such as Tajwar Alam, Abdullatif Abdulkadir and Hassan Mohammed.
And, while a daily glance at the Metropolitan Police’s media line often brings up Islamic names in relation to counterterrorism operations, they just as frequently appear in cases of savage violence and cruelty where the perpetrators are clearly non-religious, if not outright atheistic. And it’s a pattern I’ve noticed is growing.
It is, however, hardly a new phenomenon. One of the great moral panics of the 1970s (and beyond) was that of muggings, rapes and murders committed by young second-generation West Indian men who had somehow grown up turning their parents’ disciplined, conservative and devoutly Christian lifestyle on its head.
By the grace of God, I am not a sociologist, so have no idea what social forces, if any, are now turning young men from the close-knit religious communities of their Pakistani or Bangladeshi parents to a life of hedonistic sadism. The left wing argument of this being a result of social exclusion and feeling ‘other’ to the culture around them itself feeds into the right wing argument of whether it is wise to import large numbers of people from an alien culture in the first place, but that’s another area of debate.
The point is, warts and all, religious piety within a tight-knit and even inward-looking community is far preferable to the wasted lives I am more and more seeing seen arraigned in court and printed in the obituaries column. However much we may disagree with it, we must stop viewing the Muslim faith as a social problem.