How war has brought an unexpected boost for community integration
By Fareena Alam, The Observer, 23 March 2003
And so the war has finally begun. Watching the initial scenes over Baghdad, I felt fearful of what the onslaught will mean for us here in Britain. There is much anxiety across the Muslim community. There has also been a great deal of anger. Over the 18 months since September 11, our Angry Young Men have felt they have more and more to be angry about. In many ways, I understand their frustrations. But I also feared that the outbreak of the war would see their anger boiling over.

Would the talk of 'shock and awe' and surgical strikes trigger the machismo of our own disaffected youth? Bravado could prevail over brains. As a Muslim woman, I have felt alienated by the maleness of it all. How many new extremists will emerge from these volatile young men, teetering on the brink of militancy?

But perhaps I was wrong. As the war against Iraq goes into full swing, the mood of the Muslim community is reflective. Yesterday at the anti-war demonstration there was a resilient sense of hope. British Muslims once again featured prominently among the tens of thousands of faces, confident that this is still the way to bring sense and peace.

One young man asked me if Robin Cook would be speaking to the rally. I wondered if, a couple of weeks ago, he would have known who Robin Cook was. Amas Altikriti from the Muslim Association of Britain told me that many people had asked the same thing. He said: 'Cook is almost like a hero. It's very unusual for British Muslim kids to be drawn to a British politician. That's obviously changing.' He felt that this could only help inspire the Britishness in young Muslims here.

More young British Muslims know the names of their MPs and political figures. When Diane Abbott was introduced at yesterday's rally, a group of young women shrieked with pride. I heard one of them tell a friend this was 'her' MP.

And the streets of Bradford, Birmingham and east London have been peaceful since the war began. This doesn't seem to have come from apathy or resignation at the inevitability of this war. It may have more to do with a change in British society. Could it be that, even as war rages, we can find something to be hopeful about?

There is a new buzz among British Muslims - there are few calls for violent retaliation or slogans of hatred, even from groups of young men. Instead, the anger is being channelled into the broader movement of Britons who oppose this war, and which we British Muslims have come to respect and trust. We are re-engaging, mobilising and, by the looks of it, being thoroughly British.

Where else, except at peace marches, would one find stern-looking old men in turbans and sarongs clapping in unison with anarchist musicians, or Bangladeshi mothers in traditional headscarves linking arms with gora women from Middle England? Cucumber sandwiches are eaten with pakoras and washed down with hot cups of masala chai. In between these odd bedfellows are thousands upon thousands of ordinary Britons, trade unionists, students and teachers, politicians, rock stars - the young, the old, men, women and children. United together with passion for a common cause.

We might not have stopped the war but we have won a battle: the anti-war movement has done more for integration and assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities than any government funded community 'cohesion' programme.

Edgy Muslim youth from up north - the sort of young men once involved in the Oldham riots - are bringing their energy to the streets in a new way. I met one in Hyde Park and, like so many others, he had been a demo virgin before these protests. Yesterday, he told me he had put up with a half-day bus ride to 'check out' one of London's famous anti-war marches. I had to press him further to find that, at least for one day, the customary prickly cynicism and streetwise swagger had given way to a belief that this is how he could make a difference.

Muslims, who have long been isolating themselves at the margins, are now part of the mainstream. Palestine and Iraq are more than Muslim problems and this has convinced so many Britons to come on board. This is a movement that is grounded in making the link between the local and the global: poverty and deprivation will always lead to an unstable world. We all see how global injustices directly affect local injustices.

I sense a real effort among British Muslims to set aside anger and replace it with civic action and hope. Our voices can finally be heard and amplified amid the cries of our fellow citizens for justice both here and abroad. So as this senseless war takes off, let's be sure our burgeoning civil society does not become one of its many casualties.

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