Monday, February 7, 2011

On losing a country

I was contemplating something recently, something I think of from time to time. A few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion on the Daily Telegraph's website. The article was on comments made by Muslim Conservative party chairperson Baroness Warsi about how bigotry against Muslims has become 'normal' in the UK. She made some fair points, among them how doing things like labeling Muslims as either 'moderate' or 'extremist' just made the situation worse and so on. It's worth a read and can be found here.

However, that's not what I want to talk about today. As I said, I participated in the discussion in the comments section of the article and guess what I found? Ms Warsi was, unfortunately, correct. In the hour I spent 'discussing' during which I made it clear that I was a) a Muslim and b) happy to talk to people about whatever their problems were with my choice of faith, I was shouted down, insulted, called a terrorist, received threats against my wellbeing, called a liar and above all, accused of not wanting to 'assimilate' or take part in 'British' life, said that I was the problem. Well excuse me, but I don't think some people get the idea of irony...

After over an hour of having everything I said either ignored or shouted down, I left, downhearted and a little upset. My thoughts returned to something I have been thinking about a lot, namely, if I were to return to the UK tomorrow, would I be welcome any more? Would I even recognize the place? The UK I grew up in was a nice place, it doesn't seem it now.

About three years ago I left the UK. I was on a high. The past month had be spent with and enjoyable week or two in some God forsaken military base near the coast, where the nights shook to the sounds of artillery and gunfire as the army carried out maneuvers nearby, on an exercise and then spent an even more enjoyable week receiving my glider training at an airbase near London. And above all, I'd just been awarded my gliding wings from my beloved Air Training Corps, the culmination of over 5 years hard work and service. One of the officers from the airbase dropped me at Heathrow airport and I went for lunch at the brand new Terminal 5, which still is the worlds most advanced airport terminal, cost £4 billion and took 19 years from conception to completion, including the longest public inquiry in British history.

Typically British then... a wonderful idea ahead of it's time, built over cost, late, broke frequently when it opened by the Queen and was badly received by the public but was still the best. That's Britain for you, or at least how it used to be, not afraid to throw a load of money at a dream, something that people say is impossible and manage do it anyway. Even if it costs an extraordinary amount, is a bit useless and Britain could probably have done fine with a 'normal' version of whatever it was trying to make. As they say, you don't make an omelet without breaking eggs and you don't become a leading nation without taking risks, spending money, doing things outside the box and just going for it (pay attention Malaysia!). So that was that, I flew out like millions before me. I adjusted reasonably well to 'the sandpit' and life as an expatriate in the Middle East. This isn't the place to talk about that really, but let's just say it went well and could have been worse. Certainly, it insulated me from what was happening in my homeland. Things were changing.

It all really started when some bonehead 'Muslim' called Anjem Choudary decided to take it upon himself to make a fuss. Mr Choudary is an out of work lawyer who used to be a partyboy but then 'reformed' himself and became an ultra strict 'wahhibi' type 'Muslim'. In other words, just the sort of person I really hate. As you know, the UK was involved, and is, two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won't discuss in detail my views about these little 'adventures' (in a nutshell, it was wrong to do them, but now we are there we have to sort them out) but it irked Choudary who set up a little street gang called Islam4UK, comprising of about 40 people. As a true attention seeker, Choudary decided to hit the British public where it hurt to get some attention, after all he was not worth paying much notice too, he had a handful of followers and was widely denounced by Muslims. So he announced he would lead a protest in Wootton Basset.

Wootton Basset is a small market town in the south of the UK with a population of around 11,000. It is in every way, ordinary. Except for one thing. The town is near RAF Lyneham, the transport hub of the RAF, where equipment going off to Afghanistan passes through. When I was there, they were loading everything from bullets and bandages into the backs of giant USAF and RAF transport aircraft ready for the frontline, I recall that some lucky officer had been allowed to take his car with him, so that was there too, strapped down onto a pallet next to an assortment of motorbikes for some pathfinder regiment, awaiting the attention of the RAF loadmasters. It is also where the bodies of any servicemen or women that are killed are 'repatriated'. They arrive two times a week, on Monday and Friday, in simple coffins draped with the flag and are carried in a simple ceremony to waiting hearses. These hearses then drive in convoy to John Radcliff Hospital where they are inspected by the coroner before being released to families. They pass through Wootton Bassett on the way where the whole town holds a silent memorial to the fallen. 

So, the number one way to piss off British people? For an extremist 'Islamist' group to hold a 'protest' there. Choudary made a lot of noise about how he was going to get 500 supporters and hold his own 'parade' of empty coffins to represent all the Afghans that have died. Let me get this straight here. Whatever your views about the Afghan war may be, such disrespect to the men and women who fight in it, especially the ones that died, is not on. Disrespect of *anyone*, the dead especially, is wrong. It's un-Islamic as well, might I add. If you have problems with the war, take it to the government, the ones who ordered it, they are to blame.

So, Choudary and his merry gang made all this noise to provoke people. And man, did some people respond. The long of the short of it is this, British people were not happy, they were angry. And who did they vent their anger on? Muslims of course. Despite the fact that Coudary's little gang are only about 50 people strong (if that) and that the actions they were talking about were widely condemned, years of simmering hatred came to a head. The upshot of this? Groups like the English Defense League (EDL), a conglomeration of football hooligans, ex-National Front supporters and other right wingers were formed to 'defend' the UK against 'Muslim extremists'. To begin with I had no problem with this, in fact I was invited to go and speak at an EDL rally as a 'representative' from the Muslim community (unfortunately I couldn't) but over the years, groups like this have stopped being against 'Muslim extreimsts' and are now just against 'Islam' and 'Muslims' in general. They have in effect become the replacement for the old fascist street gangs that we used to have in the UK. I'll say right now that I think it is a great shame and that I wish the EDL hadn't been taken down that path, but that's life. We must move on. 

The reasons behind this are vast and complex, but what it all boils down to is lack of communication between Muslims on the one side, and non-Muslims on the other and vast amounts of propaganda, for instance the belief that Muslims are trying to take over the world, fed to non-Muslims. This of course is not helped by the handful of fanatics on the Muslim side who no doubt do want to take over the world and it is this handful that is held up as 'proof' by some on the non-Muslim side of what Muslims really think (one of the other pieces of propaganda is the lie about 'taquiya', the false belief that Muslims are allowed to lie to non-Muslims, this is wrong).

The upshot of all this is what Ms Warsi was speaking of, bigotry towards Muslims is no longer a fringe thing, lies and mistrusts about Muslims are abound in the public sphere. It is now quite acceptable, sometimes expected, to call a Muslim a liar, terrorist, traitor, accuse them of wanting to take over the world, that they have sex with goats, live in a cave, are responsible for all crime and suchlike. It is acceptable and sometimes normal to institute discriminatory practices against them. And a political party can win votes on bashing Muslims.

This is why I lost my country. It used to be a place where everyone was pretty much accepted. After the bombings in London and the 9/11 attacks, it was quite readily accepted that this was nothing to do with Muslims and Islam. I'm sure in many places it still like this but I don't get that impression reading the news and hearing the views of people still in the UK. As someone who messaged me following the Daily Telegraph fiasco, 'the UK I left 15 years ago is not the UK I see today'. I feel the same.



PS: Choudary never carried out his 'protest'. After being interviewed a number of times on TV, getting loads of coverage for his little gang and becoming one of the most hated men in Britain, Islam4UK 'called off' their march with no reason given, though the Police revealed that they had never even applied for permission to do so. Subsequently Islam4UK was banned in the UK but the damage had been done and he got what he wanted, attention. His little stunt also lead to the Mosque in his hometown being firebombed in anger by non-Muslims while Choudary himself was attacked on the street and apparently chased out of town by the Muslim community. He hangs around though and keeps popping up from time to time whenever 'proof' that Muslims are 'evil' is needed. What a silly little man...

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