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Gary Younge
We can choose our identity, but sometimes it also chooses us

At any one time we have access to many identities, including race, sexuality, gender, nationality, class and religion. Far from being neutral, these identities are rooted in material conditions that confer power and privilege in relation to one another.

These power relations, however, are not fixed. They are fluid in character, dynamic by nature and, therefore, complex in practice.

The decisions as to which identities we assert, when we want to assert them and what we want to do with them are ours. But those decisions do not take place in a vacuum. They are shaped by circumstance and sharpened by crisis. We have a choice about which identities to give the floor to; but at specific moments they may also choose us.

Where Muslim identity in the west is concerned that moment is now. In the abstract Islam is, of course, just one more religion like any other. Those who follow it are no better nor worse, nor more peaceful nor warlike and no more nor less deserving of special consideration than anybody else.

But in the real world Muslim identity been singled out for particular interrogation in the west. Muslims have been asked to commit to patriotism, peace at home, war abroad, modernity, secularism, integration, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, tolerance and monogamy to name but a few. Most of these things are excellent and should be fought for vigorously on principle. But Muslims are not being asked to sign up to them because they are good or bad in themselves but as a precondition for belonging in the west at all.

The fact that these values are still being contested in the rest of society is, it seems, irrelevant. No other established community is having its right to live here challenged in a comparable way.

Last week an amateur rugby league match in West Yorkshire ended in chaos after fans shouted racist abuse at a black player, brawled and then allegedly fired an airgun. The player in question, Lee Innes, was sufficiently integrated and secularised to serve his country in the armed forces and represent it at a national level. That did not stop the referee from advising him to play on the other wing away from his tormentors on the touchline.

In the end the game was abandoned. Such episodes prompt not outrage here but a resigned shrug. The fundamentalism was racial, not religious. But nobody was asking what white people should commit to if they want to remain in a multicultural country.

The truth is, Islam is no longer a religion like another, any more than Catholicism is in Northern Ireland or Judaism was in Nazi Germany. Forces both global and local have shifted its meaning beyond personal faith to a highly politicised identity. It is up to Muslims how much prominence they wish to give to this identity. They do not choose how much prominence others wish to assign to it.

It is not their choice to be disproportionately unemployed, underpaid, under attack and under suspicion in Britain. Nor is it their choice to see land and resources once owned by Muslims stolen in the Middle East, their people bombed in Afghanistan and Iraq or their young men imprisoned and humiliated in Guantånamo Bay, Belmarsh, Basra and Abu Ghraib. In all of this the terrorist attacks of September 11 - the choice of a handful of Muslims - should be seen not as a turning point but part of continuum.

So the answer to the valid question, "Why should we treat Islam any differently?" is at least in part, "Because Islam has been mistreated differently." This does not absolve Muslims or anybody else from their individual responsibility they must take for the choices they make about the role they wish to play in British society. But let us not pretend that those choices are not constrained or that those questions are asked of everyone.

This interrogation, say some, is the price Muslims must pay for living in a developed western society with secular values. And so the guardians of a mythic British identity have moved from gatekeepers to a nation of shopkeepers. But their demands beg three questions: Who sets the price? Is it non-negotiable? And if so what price do we all pay if Muslims, or anybody else, decide to pass on the offer?

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