"Whoever is responsible for these dreadful, wanton attacks, we condemn them utterly. No cause can justify this carnage. We hope those responsible will swiftly be brought to justice for their unconscionable deeds."
This was the press release issued by The Muslim Council of Britain within three hours of the September 11 attacks last year. Within 48 hours, the council had organised a well-attended press conference where all the main Muslim leaders from around the UK signed a statement declaring that the attacks were morally indefensible and called on those who had planned them to be brought to justice - an act referred to by the Prime Minister the following day.
By the early evening of September 11, however, the MCB had already started receiving what proved to be a very long stream of hatemail. Here is a typical, anonymous, example: "The rest of the world will now join to smash your filthy disease infested Islam. You must be removed from great [sic] Britain in body bags."
The media only fuelled this fear of Islam. Large sections of it, instead of giving column inches to the mainstream British Muslim voice, irresponsibly went to a tiny fringe element with minuscule support to allow them to widely air their unrepresentative views. Out of more than 800 UK mosques, only one, Finsbury Park in London, was run by a known 'radical'. Yet this mosque received more media coverage than all the rest put together. Very little attempt was made to explain that these 'radicals' had no standing in the wider Muslim community. The situation was akin to taking a member of the racist British National Party and saying his views were representative of ordinary Britons.
After deliberately seeking out and courting fringe figures and printing their reckless and inflammatory comments, the newspapers ran outraged follow-up pieces by columnists and writers who were given free rein to demonise the Islamic faith and its followers. Indeed, there appeared to be a symbiotic relationship between large sections of the media and these 'radicals' with both sides feeding off each other. This has no doubt contributed to the pervasive feelings of suspicion towards the media in the Muslim community. Ordinary Muslims were in a no-win situation.
Daily Telegraph defence editor Sir John Keegan mused over the way Western and Muslim 'Oriental' people conducted war. Whereas Westerners fought according to "rules of honour", he said, "Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle, which they often deride as a sort of game, preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit as the best way to overcome an enemy. This war [in Afghanistan] belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals." Christian polemicist Patrick Sookhdeo alleged: "Christianity does not justify the use of all forms of violence. Islam does." This type of disparaging journalism only led to inflaming the prejudice of Islamophobia against British Muslims.
The MCB began to receive reports of mosques being despoiled. A Bolton mosque was fire-bombed while there were children inside performing their prayers. Muslim cemeteries were vandalised and desecrated. In Swindon, a 19-year-old Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was chased and hit hard on the head with a baseball bat. In London, an Afghan cab driver was left paralysed from the neck down after being beaten with a bottle and then punched and kicked by three men. In Exeter, pigs' heads were thrown into the car park of the local mosque and a banner was erected saying, "The blood of the American people is on the hands of every Muslim. Nuke 'em, George".
From all over the country, the story was the same: ordinary British Muslims were paying the price for a terrorist crime in which they were in no way involved and for which they were not responsible. Into this combustible mix now stepped the BNP advocating a "Campaign To Keep Britain Free of Islam". Its leader Nick Griffin described Islam as a religion that brings "communal conflict, civil war and death to every country in which it gets a foothold".
Unlike Jews and Sikhs, British Muslims - the UK's biggest minority community - are not classified as a race and hence are not protected by the 1976 Race Relations Act. Twenty years on, the BNP, recognising this gap in the law, has abandoned its crude racist rhetoric and has reformulated it into a more socially acceptable and wholly lawful anti-Muslim diatribe.
By the end of September 2001, in a bid to redress the imbalance in reporting, the MCB wrote to the BBC, ITN and Sky urging them to give greater coverage to mainstream Muslim voices. The MCB also met the editors and senior staff from the Daily Mail, The Times, The Independent and London's Evening Standard to convey the same message.
By this time it was evident that the US was determined to start bombing Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity. Various newspaper polls had found that around 80 per cent of British Muslims were opposed to a war with Afghanistan. Most were deeply concerned that a war would lead to very heavy losses among civilians who were entirely blameless.
Enormous media exposure was given to the news that a handful of British Muslims had decided to make their way to Afghanistan to help resist the expected US invasion. Instead of contextualising this news by pointing out that most British Muslims had chosen to express their opposition to the war through peaceful means, the coverage in some quarters seemed almost designed to stir up violence against British Muslims. Large sections of the media engaged in a deliberate and incendiary policy of exaggeration and scaremongering that was certain to contribute towards inciting a hatred of mainstream British Muslims.
Melanie Phillips led the pack: "We have a fifth column in our midst... Thousands of alienated young Muslims, most of them born and bred here but who regard themselves as an army within, are waiting for an opportunity to help to destroy the society that sustains them. We now stare into the abyss, aghast." Robert Kilroy-Silk wrote of "the Moslem problem" and of the "enemy within". Carol Sarler regretted that British Muslims had been treated with "tolerance", adding: "It is this tolerance that, I fear, is going to bite us. It is the same tolerance that allows an indigenous population to host another that hates us and says so, in loud, haranguing, roving gangs that terrorise our inner cities in the name of Allah."
In an ITN news bulletin, reporter Terry Lloyd described the Muslim cities of Islamabad, Cairo and Istanbul as the "terrorist capitals of the world". ITN later apologised to the Muslim community for the use of this offensive phrase. As Palestinian academic Edward Said once observed, malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West.
Since the Runnymede Trust published its 1997 report Islamophobia - a challenge for us all, there has been no shortage of evidence concerning the widespread extent of discrimination that British Muslims now face every day. The Home Office-commissioned report Religious Discrimination in England and Wales 2000, by the University of Derby, and this year's detailed report from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia both presented overwhelming evidence of 'Islamophobia'. Yet still we find Josie Appleton on the Spiked Online website saying there is "little sign of the predicted wave of bile, beatings and hatemail� Indeed, it is probably all the hype about Islamophobia that encouraged many Muslims to report such minor incidents in the first place."
Despite all this, there were some hopeful signs. In a supportive two-page spread The Sun declared that "Islam is not an evil religion" and urged Britons to be more sensitive to Muslim concerns about stereotyping. The Daily Telegraph published a 16-page supplement to inform its readers about basic Islamic beliefs and teachings, while The Guardian ran a week-long Muslim Britain series which was perhaps the most extensive and positive look at the British Muslim community to have appeared in a UK national newspaper. The Daily Mirror, under editor Piers Morgan, underwent a remarkable transformation after September 11 and began a move away from celebrity/trivia-driven features towards more serious journalism. This proved to be quite beneficial in relation to its coverage of Islam and Muslims in general. A further welcome step has been the move by the Daily Express to use the spelling 'Muslim' rather than 'Moslem', after representations from the MCB in July 2002. The latter perverse spelling is prevalent in a number of papers and the MCB intends to pursue the matter.
Channel 4's short season of programmes on British Muslims in March 2002 did not receive the enthusiastic welcome given to the BBC's British Islam season in August 2001. This was perhaps because the BBC, unlike Channel 4, had done its groundwork and taken time to establish links with the Muslim community to organise complementary off-air activities.
The British Muslim community has attracted an enormous amount of attention since September 11. It has had to come to terms with media and political scrutiny placing it firmly in the limelight. But the Muslim community is a resilient one and has coped pretty well with the pressure in the past year. It has taken important steps to correct misconceptions of Islam and the assumption that Islam in Britain is something of a "perennial outsider".
That the Muslim community is an integral part of pluralist Britain should by now be recognised. The British character of this community should also be recognised. Our government, by outlawing incitement to religious hatred and religious discrimination, would help to ensure that Muslims, together with other communities, assume their rightful place in the nation's future.