Much of the fear of Islam is simply prejudice against immigrants. Dislike of Muslims is in this respect no different from dislike of any other migrant group, be it Jews at the turn of the last century, Poles at the turn of this one, Romanians and Bulgarians now, and lots of other peoples in between. Racial prejudice is always a despicable trait, especially when it hardens into hatred (though it is not to be confused with opposition to mass immigration, a view that is held by all ethnic groups). It has inflamed some of the reporting and corrupted some of the coverage of the halal meat controversy.
But there is more to anxiety about Islam among many non-Muslims, in Britain and elsewhere, than aversion to Muslims or objections to immigration. There is a belief that there is a problem inherent in the religion which Christianity and Judaism, its fellow Abrahamic faiths, don’t share, and which isn’t present in other religions either. Is it right? The best answer is that it depends which problem one has in mind. All religions, Judaism and Christianity including, produce fanatical mutations and terror. Consider Europe’s own wars of religion.
Boko Haram is as deranged as any extremist group one could name. But it is part of a wider current within the river of Islam, one that stretches back all the way to the time of Mohammed itself, and the wars between the first caliphs and the Kharijites. It manifests itself in the wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and the salafism that flows from it. Much ink has been split over whether this movement is a “perversion of Islam”. What can certainly be said is that it is not the Islamic mainstream, either historically or today, within which most practising British Muslims swim.
It is precisely those Muslims who are most threatened by Islamism. This sounds strange, since the terror of Al Qaeda, at one end of it, has targeted non-Muslims in Britain, and the Islamist movement, at the other, discriminates against Christians abroad as part of its project for religious government. Today’s Times (£) reports another manifestation of the problem: the conversion of non-Muslim prisoners to extreme forms of Islam (significantly, by white converts with no background in the religion itself). But British Muslims are particularly exposed to Britain’s Islamists.
Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph anticipated the coming Ofsted report into the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham. Whatever has or hasn’t happened in the city’s schools, or is happening elsewhere, one point is clear. Islamists have a vision for education that is incompatible with British norms. If you doubt it, read the Muslim Council of Britain’s report Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils, itself produced by one of the men at the centre of the Birmingham contretemps. The children it would be imposed on are mostly Muslim children.
This is part of the strategic aim of the British Islamist movement – to force its Salafi/Wahabi brand of Islam on other Muslims, many of whom are from very different traditions within Islam. (The biggest group of British Muslims, those who originate from Pakistan and Kashmir, are mostly Sufi in background.) Unlike Boko Haram, these Islamists don’t believe that girls shouldn’t be schooled – though their view of education is certainly restrictive. But like them, they see all Muslims as potential recruits to their political struggle.
British Islamists are among those who complain loudest about anti-Muslim hatred. They are far from being the only contributors to it, or even the most important: ordinary racism or prejudice are arguably bigger ones. But separating peoples and inflaming distrust is an essential part of their strategy – as is promoting a version of Islam foreign to most British Muslims. It follows that they are thus an integral part of the problem against which they protest. If they want to see a cause of anti-Muslim prejudice, they have only to look in a mirror.