We are up against 20 years of planning
Saira Khan recalls the moment she met relatives in the hijab for the first time and one of them told her: 'We are not British, we are Muslim' 1 n July 1989 I had an experience that scared and alienated me, but also made me realise who I was and, more importantly, who I was not — and would never be. I was 18 and in my first year at Brighton University, where I was studying for a BA in Humanities. I was meeting new people — people of different religions, cultures, ages, sexual orientation, experiences and interests. I was growing up, realising for the first time that there was a world other than the one my parents talked about constantly — the world of Long Eaton (where I lived) and Pakistan. I was discovering that I had a lot more in common with British nonMuslims than I had hitherto realised.
That summer two relatives of my mum's — girls of my own age — came to stay with us, as they had done often in the past. Like me, they were in their first year at university, but they had changed completely. To my horror, the girls I'd known so well — who were fun, happy, easy-going — arrived at our house wearing hijabs. I'd never seen them dressed like that before, and it was totally alien to me — and to my family and to mainstream Pakistani culture. The two girls I'd know for years, who used to talk about boys, clothes, fashion, music and films, were now wearing Middle Eastern outfits and claiming that this was their new religious identity and it was the true way to dress for any woman claiming to be Muslim.
They told me that they had joined an Islamic group at their university and that there would be daily lectures about Islam. They said that most of these lecturers were from the Middle East. Their key message was that they had to create an Islamic State, which meant that Muslims from all over the world had to unite. These people believed — and believe — that there is no Islamic state and therefore one must be created where all Muslims can live according to the true laws of Islam.
One of girls told me that the ways her parents had brought her up as a Muslim was not the true way and that her parents were misguided and she was trying to educate them through what she had learnt from her Islamic group at university. 'People like you, Saira, are not Muslims because you are confused with religion and culture,' she said. 'There is no culture, there is only religion, and until you accept that you cannot call yourself a Muslim.' She went on to state, 'We are not British, we are Muslim.'
My two former companions were extremely well-rehearsed in presenting their arguments. To support a certain line of debate they would recite chapter and verse from the Koran. It's impossible to argue with someone whose get-out clause is always, 'It is written in the Koran. We can't argue with God's Word.' The sad thing was that these girls had worked so hard to get to university to study medicine and enable themselves to get a great job. Their mother was just as shocked as I was at their transformation, and at the way they spoke and despised Britain so much. As she put it, 'I sent them to university to study and become doctors and they've come back telling me that I'm not a proper Muslim and that I need to wear a hijab.' Back then, however, nobody really seemed to take much notice of this very obvious transformation and change in attitude in these two young women.
My point here is not to say that women who wear the hijab are extremists — far less that they will at some stage be involved in some terrorist activity — but to suggest that this is how, in many cases, extremism starts.
It dawned on me after the 717 bombings that the seeds of extremism were sown all over Great Britain well before 1989 and that indeed it had been allowed to flourish undeterred in this country for more than 20 years. We in Britain are not fighting a new phenomenon that raised it ugly head in 2005; we are fighting more than 20 years of planning and preparation by those who want Britain to be an Islamic state.
Of course, most British Muslims won't become violent extremists, but most will endanger society — albeit unwittingly — by supporting and condoning the actions of extremists. Very few will admit this in public, but many will say behind closed doors that they are sympathetic to the bombers' cause and that they can understand why they are doing it. These things are said in front of young children and justified by various conspiracy theories which nearly always involve Jews, America and the CIA.
But it is not all doom and gloom. In last weekend's Observer Hassan Butt, once a member of the radical group AlMuhajiroun, wrote a very open and honest account of his experience. He said: 'I believe that the issue of terrorism can be easily demystified if Muslims and non-Muslims start openly to discuss the ideas that fuel terrorism. (The Muslim community in Britain must slap itself awake from this state of denial and realise that there is no shame in admitting the extremism within our families, communities and worldwide co-religionists.)' It is people like Hassan Butt that the government must engage with and give priority to, because they can make a difference; it is they who should be heard over the Muslim Council of Britain and many of the Muslim MPs who think they know the community and who in my opinion are too scared to tell the whole truth in case they lose Muslim votes.
There are too few moderate voices among the Muslim community. As a result, the extremists have their say, and are not opposed. This gives the non-Muslim population the impression that all Muslims are either extremists or agree with radical Islamic principles.
The war against terror cannot be won without moderate Muslims coming out and standing up for British values — the values of integration and living peacefully in a secular society. We should not be scared to shout this out, loud and proud: we should not be intimidated by a few hotheads into thinking we are any less Muslim if we say we are British and don't want to go around blowing up innocent people in the name of Allah.
British Muslims have to realise that there is no 'but' after a sentence like, 'I wholeheartedly disagree with the terrorist actions and the killings of innocent civilians.'