How to Tell I'm Not a Terrorist
So it turns out that the 12 Muslims arrested two weeks ago - you know, the ones who, according to Gordon Brown, were planning a "very big terrorist plot" - were doing nothing of the sort. The arrests and subsequent release highlight how, in a time of heightened concern, anyone who is male and Muslim - and, even worse, happens to have Pakistani heritage - can get mistaken for a potential terrorist. It isn't just the police who have a problem telling the difference. The trouble is that it isn't obvious who is a benign, peace-loving Briton who happens to be Muslim, and who is a rage-filled Islamist intent on causing mayhem.
It used to be simple to spot the fundamentalist: they would have tell-tale signs such as metal hooks and carry a charred copy of The Satanic Verses or a "Death to Israel" placard. It isn't so easy now. What does a moderate Muslim look like? How to tell if a bearded neighbour is a pious believer or plotting to blow up the local shopping centre? How to distinguish between the student who is taking photographs to send to relatives and the jihadist on reconnaissance?
If only these were theoretical dilemmas. Last week I was detained at JFK airport in New York. At the end of a lengthy grilling the officer turned to his colleague and said: "We have a 37-year-old male who has been to Pakistan in the past three years - shall I deport him?" The fact that the Pakistan trip was for a Radio 4 documentary, or that I had written a book which devoted a chapter to my fascination with the US was irrelevant. I was Pakistan-born and had a funny name so I was suspicious. It isn't that I don't understand the concern, or that some of it isn't legitimate; I wish I knew what I should say next time to prove I don't want to blow anyone up, and just want to spend a few days visiting galleries.
British Muslims are constantly called upon to denounce the extremists, to distance themselves from their ideas and actions. This leaves them forever on the defensive, having to react to the actions of the militant minority. So perhaps it's time to get proactive. That in itself is controversial: the standard response from British Muslims is to say that they shouldn't have to apologise for the actions of the extremists, that those Islamists are as Muslim as the KKK are Christian. But that theory doesn't help much in practice.
So here are a few suggestions for how to help the police, airport immigration and anyone else who finds it hard to differentiate between liberal and extremist Muslims. All Muslims who consider themselves liberal and tolerant could apply for a special card which when presented would show the holder was a "pre-approved Muslim", thus saving time at airports. Sure, some may say that such a card would represent a gross violation of human rights but I think it could be marketed like a credit card: membership has its privileges - in this case not being indiscriminately arrested or held up when travelling. Those who feel uncomfortable carrying a card could be offered an alternative - a white girlfriend perhaps, someone to vouch for the fact that they have successfully integrated into society and have no immediate plans for a holy war.
Perhaps I could carry a sandwichboard with the slogan "I ❤ John Stuart Mill". That may prove too subtle, maybe something more permanent is needed to convince the sceptics. How about all moderate Muslims having "Don't panic - I'm Islamic" inked on their forearms by a government-approved tattoo artist. That way, the next time extremists march in Luton against returning British soldiers, the moderate Muslims would only have to walk around in a T-shirt and everyone could breathe easy knowing they were not the bad guys.
There is one other possibility: that Muslims are presumed innocent, unless there is evidence to the contrary.
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