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Shahid Malik on the hope that has sprung from despair


London, The Times:

A couple of days after the attacks I was walking around a shopping complex in Fleetwood, Lancashire. Everyone was still in a state of shock but there was a radio transmitting and suddenly the Prime Minister was speaking. I stood there listening as he stressed how important it was that everyone understood that the individuals who had done this did not reflect Islam. Muslims, he said, were peace-loving, law-abiding citizens. The hairs on my neck stood on end. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me because it felt like, for the first time, that the real you had been accepted in this country and the majority of British Muslims were being given a fair crack of the whip. I’d never heard it said by a senior politician so publicly before and at no juncture in this country’s history was it more needed.

We even had The Sun saying that it was nothing to do with Islam. A day later Bush, who had previously been talking about only “crusades” against terror, said exactly the same thing to the American nation. A lot of people, me included, often feel uncomfortable about the relationship between Britain and America but that was an example of how we can use our influence in a positive way.

Obviously those terrorist attacks were appalling beyond belief but, in terms of race relations, both bad and good has come out of them. Early on it liberated a lot of Islamaphobes across the world and the right wing in this country used it as a weapon against Muslims. An Afghan man in Bristol was run over, mosques were burnt down. There was a real climate of fear among Muslim communities.

The classic claim by sensationalist journalists and extremists was that thousands of British Muslims were going to go and fight for the Taleban. It was nonsense, of course, but the media’s willingness to collude was shocking.

But there has been a real effort by most decent people to stand back and look at what impact their comments might make. It seems to me that there is a better understanding and more sensitivity between the various faiths and cultures in this country now.

I occasionally get these gems of letters and postcards from people saying things like: “Our hearts are with you. We are not all like that”. When you get something like that from a Christian woman in Dunfermline it inspires you. I don’t think people realise how powerful those letters are when they send them.”

I was in a board meeting at the Commission for Racial Equality when the first plane struck. The head of press came in to tell us and I remember thinking how strange it was that she’d interrupted the meeting. Planes crash all the time, I thought. It wasn’t until I checked the news and saw that 50,000 were feared dead that it began to sink in. You always fear that it’s terrorism, some kind of extremist group that believes it’s Muslim.

In the days afterwards I honestly thought we were on the brink of a new world order — what better tribute could there be to those who died? There wasn’t a single continent that wasn’t touched by this. But unfortunately our prime partner is probably one of the least regarded US Presidents ever, both intellectually and diplomatically, and this new order has failed to materialise.

The Palestinian situation is more dire than it ever was. Kashmir is worse and the US seems to be retreating into splendid isolation. We had hoped that “right is might” would be the new world order mantra but the US is openly saying that might is right.

There was a brilliant opportunity there to deliver justice, to implement UN resolutions, but it just didn’t happen. Sadly the focus is only on the “war on terrorism” — the symptoms — yet this will prove futile unless we have a war on injustice and oppression, which is at the heart of these conflicts.

The media still gives too much publicity to the extremists. I use the same analogy with them as I do with the BNP. The media should not be giving them the oxygen of airtime. It’s disproportionate, it doesn’t serve democracy and it normalises them.

You have a large non-Muslim community here which is completely illiterate when it comes to Islam. If their only education is these extreme voices then what chance do we have? But in general, I feel more optimistic and stronger than I have ever felt before about the future. I have spoken across Europe about the far right and I thank God that I am English and British. We are light years ahead of many countries when it comes to integration.

Words can’t describe how appalling the attacks were, but they have provided a profound wake-up call for this country and the world.

Shahid Malik, 34, is vice chairman of Unesco and the only ethnic minority member of Labour’s NEC. He lives in Burnley, Lancashire.

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