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Gary Younge
At least in America they understand the notion of cultural difference

And so it went on, with Klein being praised or pilloried, until he finally confessed that the whole thing was a hoax to see how deep the rivers of American Islamophobia ran. "I can't believe any of you are sick enough to have agreed for one second with anything I said," he told his listeners. "It's beyond disgusting."

When it comes to popular prejudice and state repression, the Muslim experience in the US does not seem to have differed much from the rest of the western world since September 11. Klein was pushing at an open door. A Gallup poll this summer showed that 39% of Americans supported requiring Muslims in the US, including American citizens, to carry special identification. In 2005 the Council on American Islamic Relations (Cair) recorded a 30% increase in the number of complaints received about Islamophobic treatment.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the US government undertook the "preventative detention" of 5,000 men on the basis of their birthplace, and later sought 19,000 "voluntary interviews". Over the next year, more than 170,000 men from 24 predominantly Muslim countries and North Korea were fingerprinted and interviewed in a programme of "special registration". None of these produced a single terrorism conviction.

According to a Pew research survey this year, Muslims are viewed less favourably in the US than in Russia, Britain and France. There has been progress. Last month Minneapolis elected the nation's first Muslim congressman - an African-American convert, Keith Ellison. But with each advance come new challenges. There is a brouhaha over Ellison's request to swear an oath on the Qur'an.

But while many Muslims here looked to Europe in the hope that it might provide a counterbalance to America's disastrous foreign policy, they also look across the Atlantic in horror at the experiences of their co-religionists. There lies the paradox: the country that has done more than any other to foment Islamic fundamentalism abroad has so far witnessed relatively little of it at home. "Europe is not coping well with the emergence of Islam," says the executive director of Cair, Nihad Awad. "It has taken a long time for them to accept that Islam is part of its future and also part of its past."

The different experiences have emerged partly, it seems, because the Muslim communities on either side of the Atlantic are so different. The patterns of migration have differed. A large proportion of Muslims who came to America arrived with qualifications and were looking for professional work. As a result, they are generally well educated and well off. According to a recent study by the Journal of Human Resources, the wages of Arab and Muslim workers in the US fell by 10% in the years following the terror attacks; but they are still better paid and better educated than non-Muslims.

In Britain, the overwhelming majority of Muslims came from former colonies to live in poor areas and do low-paid work, and they remain the most economically impoverished. In 2004 Muslims had the highest male unemployment rate in Britain, at 13% - three times the rate of Christians. Meanwhile, 33% had no qualifications - the highest proportion of any religious group.

In the US, most Muslims had been keeping their heads down. "Before 9/11, Muslims were all too happy to be building homes and families," says Ali Jaafar, who runs a medical research company in Minneapolis. "Afterwards, they were doubly shocked. First by the attacks themselves and then to see their neighbours turn against them. After 20 or 30 years, we realised it was not the place we thought it was." To many Muslims in Britain, their neighbours reacted just as they thought they would. Bradford had gone up in flames several months before 9/11 and the BNP was already making a comeback.

Yet it is notable that when Tony Blair lectures Muslims about integration, as he did last week, the issue of economic alienation barely ever arises. How are people supposed to integrate culturally when they cannot move professionally, economically or even geographically? Just over 50 years ago, the US supreme court banished the "separate but equal" policies that segregated state schools here; it seems Britain is embracing a dogmatic version of its antithesis - "united but unequal".

"There do not seem to be many opportunities for people to integrate into the economy [in Europe]," says Fedwa Wazwaz, a board member of Minneapolis's Islamic Resource Centre. Wazwaz had arrived at al-Amal school in suburban Minneapolis to pick up her daughter, Maryam. On the wall in an office hangs a T-shirt asking "Got Islam?" - a play on a popular milk commercial - while a poster invites entrants for the Qur'an competition.

This private Muslim school is the only one of its kind in Minnesota. Wazwaz, who is originally from Jerusalem, does not regard her desire to send Maryam there as one of segregation but as one of "preserving some sense of Islamic identity for the child". "Everybody needs a sense of their identity," she says.

In a country where every national group gets its own day, complete with a parade, flags and delicacies from the home country, there is greater scope for understanding the difference between autonomy - a distinct cultural space base from which people interact with the rest of society; and segregation - where people seek to separate themselves from the mainstream. To qualify your national allegiance through ethnicity, race or religion is not necessarily regarded as diluting it (unless you're Mexican and demanding immigration rights).

The Britishness currently on offer from New Labour, however, comes in just two flavours: Anglo and Saxon. Thus are the limits of the political class's understanding of cultural hybridity, rendering Britain a racially monolithic, ethnically pure and culturally static state into which non-white and non-Christian people can either adapt, or from which they should be banished.

"Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain Britain. Conform, or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed," Blair said. Quite what one does with the hate-mongers who were born here - whether they are the jihadists or the BNP - is difficult to fathom.

Finally, American identity is rooted in something more than mythology. Blair seeks to transform "values" that are evolving and contested into those that are "essential" and "common", by the power of rhetoric alone. Americans can reach for something more substantial - the constitution. "There are built-in constitutional rights that are guarantees," says Awad. "We have to work hard to protect our rights as citizens and also to safeguard the constitution."

You would be hard pressed to find a Muslim here who is optimistic. Yet American identity is not something they are threatened with but an ideal they want the rest of the country to live up to. "There is a road map," says Jaafar "It may be difficult, but we are getting there."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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