Being a moderate Muslim must be really hard

I was sitting on my rooftop in the early hours thinking just how hard it must be to be a moderate male Muslim in Britain today.

Strange to be thinking this. (And a strange place to be thinking it in, but that’s just me.) Atheists like me resent religionistas in general, with some justification. Let’s face it, their cries for “equality” usually translate as “give me special treatment”. Every week brings a fresh parable of some random book-basher’s indignant posturing that she should be allowed to violate well-trodden statutes because some particular imaginary friend demands it. And I’m sick and tired of pandering to their endless whining. Religionistas, we’re all just folks. You. Are. Not. Special.

But I’ve travelled a bit in the Muslim world. Spent hours gazing at beautiful friezes, smiling at friendly faces and well-disciplined children. (The food’s terrific too.) And felt totally safe, even at dusk in neighbourhoods wracked by poverty and pain. (I couldn’t say the same in the chavster estates of London or Manchester.) “Real” Islam is a tolerant and rewarding way of life, and if people choose to believe in ancient stories to soothe the pain of real life, then I’ve no reason to stop them.

However, if your community – your family, your mentors, your whole life – is a pinched-off bubble separated culturally and geographically from the British mainstream, being moderate is difficult… because radicalism is a constant bubbling undercurrent among your peers, driven by the usual factors of poverty, education, limited opportunities and frustrated ambitions.

Most British Muslims crowd into the lowest-income 25% of the population. Rates of employment for women are dismal, as are rates of pay. 80% of Imams (the robed guys who conduct the sermons in mosques) are from outside the UK; most speak no English and have no intention of learning. Every Friday is a hours-long diatribe about the wrongness of Western ways and the superiority of a prophet’s ancient blog. (It’s a cracking piece of literature, admittedly.)

Consequently, any practicing Muslim who just wants to live-and-let-live as a UK citizen is caught up in an undertow of insinuation, intimidation, and outright threats for being “un-Islamic”. It’s there in aggressive looks whenever you visit the Mosque. It’s there in the street from groups of bearded young men with nothing better to do, in the fearful glances from shopkeepers under pressure to shun you.

This attack stance is straight out of the Karl Rove Operations Manual: hit your opponent where he should be strongest, so he spends his energy defending where he shouldn’t have to. For British Islamism, that chapter runs: We are better Muslims than you. There is a correct way to sit, a correct position to sleep in, a correct way to drink a glass of water. (These are actual examples related to me by a moderate Muslim.) All spoken with an undertone of menace: if you don’t do it this way, you’re not a proper Muslim. “This way”, of course, meaning “Our way.”

It’s a clever strategy, because you can do a great deal with relatively few resources. All you need is a few angry young men with a grudge, a charismatic preacher or two who’ll become a major part of their lives, and you’ve got the small platform from which you can exert leverage. Even if – as with Islamism – what you teach them deviates from the script big-time. (The Koran, beyond argument and in all circumstances, absolutely forbids suicide, for fuck’s sake.)

But for a lot of young men with the wrong type of education (many Muslim kids go straight to the madrassa after school) and not much hope of a decent job, that undercurrent – you can “right” these “wrongs” – is very powerful. Most young men will find it attractive. The feeble-minded ones will sink into its maw. A few – the angry ones – end up doing something silly. And the key factor – that it’s easier to pander to the extremists than fight them – gets stronger.

One well-known French school, known for its tolerance, had hundreds of students from various ethnicities happily practicing Islam at home. Yet it took just fifteen fundamentalist families, using their daughters as proxies to force other young women into headscarves and burqas, to practically shut the place down. Now of course its headteacher is being accused of ‘intolerance’ for banning such behaviour.

One recent UK story was celebrated as a victory of community engagement: an Imam, worried about the activities of a young male mosquegoer, had called in the police, who’d found bombmaking evidence. Great, said the press. But the extremist turns out to have been… a Western convert to Islam without extended family in the mosque. Puts a different slant on the story, doesn’t it?

There are stories of how recent immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan are shocked, shocked at how fundamentalist their British-born cousins can be.

This is how these people work. Take advantage of tolerance, show no tolerance yourself, and raise a hullabooloo if anyone tries to stop you.

These young people live in Britain and are expected to abide by British rules, yet they’re unequipped for doing so. Cloistered and corralled into a social scene that involves few people outside the family and mosque, they’ve got little stake in the nation that surrounds their ethnic ghettoes. And why should they follow the rules, when those rules seem so distant and irrelevant to their everyday lives?

And those are just the problems a moderate Muslim faces within his own community. Outside, the pressures forcing you back in are even stronger.

Just try being a spokesman for moderate Islam. The British public tends to conflate “Islamism” (a political philosophy) with Islam (a religious way of life). So if you dare to be a spokesman for moderate (i.e. real) Islam, the Daily Mail will villify you as an appeaser and your cobelievers will shun you as an apologist. By speaking up you’ve basically painted a big circular target on your chest.

And yet, despite the pressures, a fair few manage it, and are capable of living their lives as “real” Muslims: kind and gentle with a live-and-let-live attitude. The same attitude, perhaps, that let Salah-al-Din allow Jerusalem residents safe passage back to Europe, when those same residents had left the Muslim population in small bloody chunks just a few years before.

But such moderation is in real danger from the enemies within, and I see no way of stopping them.

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