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Perception of reality

Perception of reality

Author: Sunanda K Datta-Ray
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 4, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/220214/Perception-of-reality.html

BBC radio suddenly broadcast a programme on Vande Mataram the other morning. If that was surprising, the angle the BBC chose was even more so. The theme was why Indian Muslims find Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's patriotic song objectionable, encouraging a speaker to complain that Muslims have suffered discrimination in India ever since independence.

That sense of victimisation extended this week to the placid pastures of Switzerland where mosques can no longer flaunt minarets. US President Barack Obama's promise to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan will undoubtedly aggravate Muslim grievances. Operation Enduring Freedom was supposed to be the civilised world's united effort to stamp out terrorism. Instead, it seems to be turning into a war between Muslims and the rest. One had only to be in the small English town of Luton this week to get a taste of the passion with which some seemingly ordinary British Muslims identify with the Taliban.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of Dewsbury, a personable young woman of 38 who is regarded as the most prominent Muslim in the British establishment (she is the Conservative shadow minister of community cohesion), felt the brunt of their hate. Luton Muslims jeered at her as she walked down a road and spattered her with eggs. Initially, the Yorkshire-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants, a criminal defence lawyer by training, tried to ignore the "extremists", as she called them. But as they became more raucous and violent, she fled into a sari shop.

The protesters probably belonged to the Al Muhajiroun organisation which wants Christian Britain (the monarch is supreme governor of the Church of England) to introduce sharia'h law. They accuse Baroness Warsi of being anti-sharia'h. They also complain that by supporting the war in Afghanistan, she is helping to kill Muslims.

That's what it is all about. Afghanistan is becoming the touchstone on which believers judge non-believers. No wonder America's West Asian allies dare not send troops to join Operation Enduring Freedom. The ruling elites in these countries hate and despise Al Qaeda and forces like the Taliban as much as the US does. But many ordinary Arabs look on fundamentalists as defenders of their faith. That also explains US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's belief that only the Army in Pakistan is fighting the terrorists. Also British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's demand - sharply made to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari whom he telephoned and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani whom he met yesterday - that Pakistani leaders back their promises with action. Militant Muslims might choose to see his bluntness in urging them to catch Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as colonial bullying.

Current revelations about the other Western-Muslim war, the one in Iraq, are making it easier to criticise Operation Enduring Freedom. Two British parliamentary inquiries and two specialised investigations had already established that Saddam Hussain was not making weapons of mass destruction, as claimed. Now, senior mandarins testifying at the high-powered inquiry ordered by Mr Brown confirm that President George W Bush was raring to destroy the Iraqi leader from the moment he was elected, and that Mr Tony Blair promised him military support at their tête-à-tête at the Crawford ranch. Neither needed evidence of Saddam's wrongdoing.

Not that such evidence would have made any difference to Luton folk. When 200 men of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglia Regiment, paraded through the town after a stint in Iraq, they were greeted with catcalls, "Butchers of Basra" placards and accusations of murdering Muslim women and babies. The reported horrors of the Abu Ghraib detention centre reinforced the conviction that any war where the adversary is Muslim is unjust. The return to Britain of an ethnic Somali (also Muslim) prisoner from Guantanamo Bay with tales of torture at the hands of American and Pakistani investigators, the latter acting under US orders is further fuel to the jihadi fire.

The 2001 Census listed 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, accounting for three per cent of the population. They have been in a demanding mood for some years, taking full advantage of Britain's social welfare services while sympathising - sometimes secretly, sometimes openly - with the British state's enemies. The authorities tread with caution. When Mr David Cameron, the Conservative leader, accused the Government (mistakenly as it happened) of funding extremist Muslim schools, thereby prompting the screaming newspaper headline "£113,000 aid to fanatics who want to kill us", one of Mr Brown's Ministers warned against making "false accusations which smear every Muslim with the same extremist brush". The damage had been done by the time Mr Cameron apologised.

As the Swiss referendum showed, the dichotomy extends far beyond Britain. Switzerland's 400,000 Muslims (four per cent of population) are mostly Bosnians and entirely European in looks and lifestyle. Switzerland has only four mosques with minarets. Nevertheless, the populist Swiss People's Party pressed for the referendum to ban minarets, its Mr Ulrich Schluer citing the European Union court's proscription of crucifixes in Italian schools to argue that Muslims should not display totems of their faith either. SPP posters of a veiled Muslim woman against a background of missile-shaped minarets recalled Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan referring to minarets as the bayonets of Islam.

With European intolerance and Muslim bigotry feeding on each other, 57.5 per cent of respondents supported the SPP. Though the ban must be framed into law, it does not really hit out at Islam. For, as Mr Taj Hargay, chairman of Oxford's Muslim Educational Centre and imam of the Summertown Islamic Congregation, points out, minarets are "not integral to contemporary mosque design." Thanks to today's sophisticated communications technology, muezzins no longer need lung power to summon the faithful to prayer. Minarets are no more than a form of ornamentation like pointed arches. In any case, Swiss laws on noise pollution rather defeat the minaret's original purpose.

But tradition makes prisoners of men, and no one will admit that customs and practices that were desirable in the boundless sands of 15th century Arabia are not so in a busy 21st century European city. The real damage is psychological. As the president of the Zurich-based Federation of Islamic Organizations, Mr Taner Hatipoglu, warns, the ban will have a negative impact on Muslim relations with and "social integration" in mainstream society.

As with Vande Mataram, it's the perception that matters more than the substance.


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