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Book review of ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’

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British ‘values’ or Muslim phobia?

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There’s a photograph from May 2010 of a beaming Sayeeda Warsi dressed in a salwaar-kameez and posing for photographers on the steps of 10, Downing Street after being appointed Britain’s first-ever Muslim woman Cabinet minister. It was hailed as a defining image of British multiculturalism, and David Cameron’s Tory “modernisation” programme. Ms Warsi’s appointment was a modern day fairy tale —how the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant, who came to Britain with just £2 in his pocket, had been able to break through a raft of racial, gender and religious barriers and reach the top.

Modern Britain was on the cusp of a new dawn. Racism, Paki-bashing? Islamophobia? That seemed like history.

“To be born as the daughter of an immigrant mill worker in a mill town in Yorkshire, to have the privilege of serving in Cabinet at such an important time in Britain’s history, I think it is terribly humbling,” Ms Warsi gushed. In the Muslim community, where good news is rare, there were celebrations. But the honeymoon soon turned sour and Ms Warsi resigned in 2014 protesting against Mr Cameron’s “morally indefensible” policy on Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Which led some of her Tory colleagues to portray her as a fundamentalist mole.

Now, she has written a book which could have easily turned into a tawdry kiss-and-tell story. She has avoided that temptation and instead produced a serious work on the causes of British Muslim community’s progressively deteriorating relations with “mainstream” Britain. Stripped of its British context, however, it can be the story of any liberal Muslim anywhere – India included – caught up between the “sins” of their own community, and Islamophobia. The “enemy within” of the title refers to how British Muslims are perceived: A community with “alien” values and, worse, determined to undermine “British values”.
But what exactly are these uniquely British values? And why is it that, of all immigrants, only Muslims are singled out as a threat? Ms Warsi questions the idea of a fixed set of values that define Britain to which everyone must subscribe in order to qualify as British. British values have changed from one generation to another. It was once a racist, homophobic, and xenophobic country which “didn’t much like Jews… burned and butchered them”; and couldn’t stand Catholics.

“It can be hard, therefore, to hear politicians, media types and commentators trumpeting ‘British values’… and suggesting Muslims don’t subscribe to them when we in the not-in-too-distant past have done and said things which flew in the face of our current version of British values…,” she writes.

Why is it, Ms Warsi wonders, that the debate about British values is always directed at Muslims — never at Jews, Hindus or Sikhs who also have “un-British” cultural practices? It’s insulting, she says, that she is regarded as “less British” because she’s Muslim. Indeed, some Muslims are regressive, even extremists, but to judge three million Muslims on the basis of the “actions of a tiny number of them” is unfair.

Although a strain of victimhood runs through the book, Ms Warsi is also refreshingly honest, admitting that Muslims do bear significant responsibility for this situation. There’s a whole chapter cataloguing all the “wrong turns” they have taken, and admonishing them, particularly, for their confrontational approach. To my pleasant surprise, she is unequivocally critical of their “over-reaction” to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, an issue on which even left liberal Muslims tend to play safe. Given that it remains a sensitive subject, she shows courage in speaking out. She describes the Rushdie affair as “the first political moment in my lifetime when religion became a point of difference”. Until then, Muslims had been part of the larger South Asian community fighting for common causes. Suddenly, they became Muslims — “British Muslims rather than British Asians”. They also began to identify with Muslims around the world on the basis of a common faith abandoning the secular notions of racial, cultural and class solidarity. From then on, it all went downhill, setting off a process of radicalisation whose consequences are still being felt.

But the book is really about the approach of the British state towards Muslims: A failure to engage with them either in helping them to integrate; or when dealing with extremism. Instead, they are routinely lectured; even threatened. Ms Warsi opposed aspects of Mr Cameron’s counter-extremism programme. She found the use of macho language by responsible politicians – such as Mr Cameron’s call for “muscular liberalism” – deeply troubling, and offensive. Since the 2005 London bombings, carried out by men of Pakistani origin, Muslims have effectively become outcasts. And told to sign up to “British values” or go home.

The overtly racial Britain of the 1970s and 1980s in which Ms Warsi grew up has vastly changed, but racism still exists, though in more covert forms. For all her angst, however, she says it is her home and urges fellow Muslims not to retreat in the face of Islamophobia but to “step up and step out”. Her own success story defies the stereotype of a British Muslim, but – alas – exceptions don’t prove the rule.

Hassan Suroor

( credits: Business Standard) 

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Book review of ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’
Sayeeda  Warsi
Allen Lane (Penguin)

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