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New Year’s Resolution

New Year’s Resolution

Issue 3 Jan / Feb 2004

“I have decided not to put up with such monumental-not to say racist-stupidity. This year I am making a choice of my own. I am choosing democracy! And I am asking the Muslim community to galvanise itself.”

This year it is going to be different. I know I say that every year- but this year I am really going to stick to my New Year resolution. No, will not be giving up what my children describe as my ‘obnoxious cigars’. No, I will not foreswear my insatiable desire for puddings and Ambala sweets, even though the bulge around my waist has reached unsightly proportions. And no, I will not be exercising. Watching cricket from my comfortable sofa is exercise enough, thank you! I am going to resolve on something I can actually fulfill: I will refuse to answer stupid questions.

Muslims, it seems to me, are fair game for daft questions. Do I go around with ‘I am a Muslim, ask me a dim question’ written on my forehead? It certainly feels as if I do. On Radio 4’s Moral Maze the other day, presenter Michael Buerk asked me, ‘Is Islam compatible with democracy?’ This earnest inquiry followed two previous speakers, an admirable spokesperson from the Islamic Commission on Human Rights and a right-wing pundit, both of whom had already made it clear that there was nothing inimical between Islam and democracy. ‘Why not?’ I shot back. Buerk got shirty. As is my custom, I proceeded to annoy him further.

So, why did Buerk feel compelled to repeat the question again and again? Because both the assumption on which the question is based and the expected form of answer is that Islam, being so inalienably Other, can never de democratic. Therefore, no matter how many times one says ‘there is nothing in Islam that outlaws democracy’, the answer just does not register.

Many of the questions asked of Muslims are based on inherently unsavory assumptions. They are of the ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ variety. As every first year student of philosophy knows, this question has no real answer. If you answer ‘No’, you are a swine even if what you actually mean is that you have never beaten your wife. If you answer ‘Yes’, you are still a swine: because the answer suggests you used to beat her. The question frames the answer. And to answer the question is to accept the framework, question and all, as well as the demonization that goes with it.

Immediately after the horrific bombing of the British Consulate in Istanbul, Dennis MacShane gave British Muslims two choices. Frankly, I have never heard of Mr MacSahne; but he is, I am reliably informed, the Europe Minister. In a speech to his Rotherham constituency, Mr MacShane declared British Muslims ‘have to make a choice’ between ‘the democratic rule of law, like the British or American way’ or ‘the way of the terrorists’. The proposition is, of course totally stupid and could only come from the mind of someone in need of urgent psychiatric help.

The underlying assumption in this ‘choice’ is that British Muslims actually support terrorism. To clearly and unequivocally say ‘we want to follow the democratic way of Britain and America’ actually amounts to an admission that up to now we have been following ‘the way of the terrorist’. And, if we answer ‘we do not want to follow the British and American way’ – because of its increasing injustices and exploitation around the world that are actually proliferating terrorism – we are doomed! Furthermore, the ‘choice’ does not permit us to suggest that the way America and Britain have behaved since the declaration of ‘war on terrorism’ is anything but ‘democratic’.

Nor does it offer the possibility of declaring we prefer another model of democracy, something other than the American way where you need $20 million to get a seat in the Senate or the Congress. The ‘choice’ actually frames British Muslims as an inferior people incapable of distinguishing between terrorism and peaceful political engagement.

Well, I have decided not to put up with such monumental – not to say racist- stupidity. This year I am making a choice of my own. I am choosing democracy! And I am asking the Muslim community to galvanise itself for forthcoming elections. We have a substantial electoral presence in certain constituencies where we can swing the vote and make a difference. Witness the by-election in Brent East where the Muslim vote played an important part in overturning a 13,047 Labour majority and electing Sarah Teather, the Liberal candidate. It is time to do the same in other constituencies to ensure folks like Mr MacShane, the increasingly paranoid Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and other members of this authoritarian Labour government, lose their seats.

The only way we are going to make a difference, and thereby require people to address the Muslim community with sensible questions, is to tackle them where it really hurts – at the ballot box. And next time you are asked a stupid question, do what I do. Expose the sods as imbeciles and laugh at their foolishness.

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