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Gary Younge
The right to be British

In short, have your rights in this country been called into question not because of what you have done, but simply because of who you are? As Britain continues to support America in bombing Afghanistan back into the dark ages, so our racial discourse in this country is reverting to its own prehistoric era. We are moving towards a resurrected, revamped version of the Tebbit test.

Back in 1990, the defining issue was which side black and Asian people supported in cricket. Now the stakes are far higher. The right of Muslims to live in this country now hinges on which side of the B-52s they are on - the bombers or the bombed.

While the test targets a religious group, it is racial in essence and nationalist in motivation. Racial because it lays out a set of criteria for national allegiance for Muslims - who are overwhelmingly of Asian and African origin - that would never be considered for whites. When football hooligans go abroad giving Nazi salutes and clashing violently with police and foreigners, they are roundly condemned for bringing disgrace on the country, but nobody questions their right to be British.

Making no distinction, even, for those who are born here, it suggests our understanding of cultural hybridity goes no further than Robin Cook's chicken tikka masala. What those who make it or serve it might think about world events is deemed at best of little interest and at worst an act of treachery.

Moreover, it assumes a British identity that is both static and established. The word from Whitehall is that they want to move "beyond multiculturalism" to a debate about "core British values", as though those values are agreed rather than contested and fixed rather than fluid. Given the debates over Europe, devolution and the Lawrence report, this is less true now than ever.

But if the roots lie in racism then they have been fertilised by the surge of nationalism following September 11. Since then, to be a Muslim is to be under suspicion, under threat and, given the huge increase in racial violence, under attack. The fourth estate believes it has found a fifth column among British Muslims and is desperate to seek out the traitors.

There is no empirical evidence for these assumptions. The closest they have come is a Sunday Times "poll" last week which claimed four out of every 10 Muslims believe Osama bin Laden was right to mount a war against America. This was not conducted by Mori or Gallup using established methods of questioning and weighting. It was carried out by the Sunday Times itself, which interviewed people as they came out of mosques. It was not a poll but a huge vox pop. It has about as much validity as the Guardian sending its staff to stand outside Catholic churches on Sunday mornings to ask them what they think of the peace process or the monarchy and then presenting it as "Catholic opinion". Nonetheless its "findings" have informed many an ill-informed column.

In the absence of any factual evidence we are left with the anecdotal. Calls to those who work in or alongside Britain's Muslim communities suggest the overwhelming majority of Muslims both abhorred the attacks on September 11 and oppose the bombing of Afghanistan. This simply puts them ahead of a growing trend in Europe at large, where the war is proving increasingly unpopular. Then there are a handful of British Muslims who are thought to have volunteered for the Taliban and a larger, but no less unrepresentative, number who have voiced support for Bin Laden here. Organisers of a pro-Taliban march in Blackburn yesterday promised 7,000 but delivered only 150.

An attack on a church in Bradford by youths last week was troubling. But it should also be put in perspective. In June, 14,000 voters in Oldham and Burnley supported the far-right British National party. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (who make up the vast majority of Muslims in Britain) are by far the groups most likely to suffer from racially motivated attacks. Islam is not alone in attracting extremists and, arguably, poses far less of a threat to mainstream British society than white society poses to it.

Nonetheless, the number of fundamentalists will certainly grow as the war continues, for the same reason that Bush's approval ratings have grown and Ian Paisley is always more popular when the peace process in Ireland is faltering. War polarises. That indeed is the problem with this particular military campaign. It is creating more terrorists, globally, than it could ever hope to extinguish.

This does not mean that the liberal left should stand by while Islamic fundamentalism installs itself unchallenged. Fundamentalism, of any religious hue, is a thoroughly reactionary political and social current. It brooks no dissent, tolerates no debate and can rarely engage with other political forces because it is based on devotion to eternal truths. But while individuals may be attracted by its moral certainty, social movements are born from it thanks to a mixture of political, economic and social alienation. That is as true in West Yorkshire as it is on the West Bank.

In 1998 the employment rate among Bangladeshis and Pakistanis was 35% and 41% respectively - compared with 75% for whites. Women fared even worse. The average hourly wage of a Bangladeshi/Pakistani woman was around a third less than for white men. Such figures expose the hypocrisy of those western "feminists" who wish to cluster bomb Afghani women out of their burkas. They have displayed more interest in Muslim women thousands of miles away in the past two months than they have shown to those in their own country in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, there has never been an MP of Bangladeshi extraction. The first, and only, Muslim MP, Mohammed Sarwar, was suspended from the Labour party within weeks of being elected on trumped-up charges of bribery of which he was completely cleared in court. In the list of ills preventing Muslims from becoming full and valued citizens in British society, fundamentalism must take its place at the back of the queue, behind racism and exclusion.

Blair's conversion to the redeeming qualities of Islam is itself emblematic. He embraced it only days before he was about to drop bombs on Afghanistan, but several months after organised racists lobbed bricks and threw punches at young Muslims in the north. He did not venture to the depressed northern towns to tell white working-class people about tolerance then. Today, there is no finer photo opportunity than for him to stand alongside an imam, so long as the latter is explaining the inherently peaceful nature of the faith. He loves Islam. It's the Muslims he has a problem with.

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