There is some violent prejudice against Muslims in Britain today. But is there a more subtle insistence that they're really foreign?
The great thing about being in Dubai last week was being a foreigner once more. It's how I spent much of my childhood, how I grew up, and how I feel most at home; but it brings professional rewards as well as personal pleasures. I was for the first time in my conscious life in an environment where the most important thing about Muslims was not that they were Muslims. It gave me a moment of sudden awareness, like waking in a log cabin without electricity when all the background hum and tension of electric motors that you never normally hear is suddenly audible by its absence.
The people I was hanging out, and sometimes drinking, with were Muslim intellectuals whom I know and like in England. They're not in any way discriminated against in this country, as far as I can tell: their lives are not impeded by the kind of people who think that Muslims are a problem to be solved. The kind of crude and open prejudice that flourishes online – and go and look at comments on the Telegraph website, or the videos of Pat Condell, if you want to know what I mean – is very rare in liberal circles, and when we catch ourselves at it, we feel guilty.
But there is a more subtle and general sort of prejudice which holds that Condell is not an extremist outcast. Richard Dawkins, for example, has praised Condell, and used to sell his videos on his website, which reminds of the way that Oswald Mosley remained a member in good standing of the English upper classes until the outbreak of the second world war, despite his views on Jews.
What I realised in Dubai was that in England today Muslims can't escape being Muslims, any more than Jews in England in the 20s or 30s could escape being Jewish. They can't just be unremarkable, as Jews in England can be now.
In Dubai, or neighbouring Sharjah, being a Muslim did not matter in the same way. Obviously, people made a huge amount of fuss about Islam. But when you're in a room full of Muslim academics and students arguing about culture, or censorship, or why there is so little science in the Arab world, the arguments themselves make one thing wholly plain. Neither side is more Muslim than the other. None of the flaws of the Islamic world are essential or intrinsic to it. They may be widespread, and in some cases quite horrible. But they're all cultural and not just religious.
I don't mean by this that all the bad bits are cultural and all the good bits religious. That's both false and simplistic. Cultures can be both good and bad and both are still authentically Islamic. But the whole idea of an "essential" or "true" way of being Muslim makes little sense when looked at historically, no matter how important, indeed indispensable, that style of argument is between Muslims. The same is of course true about "real" Christianity, or, for that matter, "real" atheism.
We don't have any real difficulty accepting this about Christians in this country. Except for a few noisy bigots, it's accepted that nice, good Christians are just as Christian as nasty and vile ones: that Jesus would be just as much at home among the Quakers as in Ian Paisley's congregation; in fact most Guardian readers believe that he would like the Quakers more. Certainly this is true about Jews. No one really believes that Lionel Blue is less Jewish than the chief rabbi (unless the chief rabbi does).
But with Muslims, in Britain today, there is a feeling that the civilised, funny, clever ones aren't really proper Muslims at all. And don't think that these civilised, funny, clever people people don't notice it.
This is subtle and pervasive – more of a smell than a substance – and I'm not sure whether it's a very diluted version of the stench that comes off Condell or Robert Spencer or something essentially different. Either way, it is a smell of which I spend most of my life unaware, and Muslims notice much more often. I shall try to flare my nostrils a little more often.
Andrew Brown's Blog
Thanks to NewsHound for the heads-up