'All Muslims are now terrorists and, it seems, fair game. So we brace ourselves again for a period of bile and beatings and hate mail'
"Anything done in the name of Islam by self-seeking Muslims must concern British Muslims, but we cannot be held responsible for these actions." This is what I wrote in my column on Monday. How was I to know that, barely 24 hours later, Muslims around the world would be swept up in a fireball of fear, confusion, shame, anger, pity, sorrow and loathing for those who have again put us in this position where we are all now suspect, judged as terrorists or sympathisers of terrorism, as depraved curs who are determined to tear out the heart of modern civilisations?
And this is before we have any proof that the grotesque attacks on key American buildings were carried out by Muslim fanatics. If they were, we know we will all stand accused in the hearts and minds of millions of non- Muslims. The wave of sympathy we feel for the victims and their families (innocent Muslims may well be found among the many victims) and the fury rising in our communities against these violators of life and faith will not be noticed. Instead Islamophobia will once more erupt worldwide and be legitimised by some political leaders.
It is OK to hate a Muslim again. Already Russians are strutting about claiming vindication for their inhumane destruction of Chechnya and Israel is looking decidedly smug, expecting no more condemnations of its increasingly ruthless actions against Palestinians. Hindu fundamentalists have started e-mailing their anti-Muslim messages around the world and I have just heard that here a group of young Sikhs spat on and threw stones at some Muslims girls walking home from school. They were shouting abuse and accusing them of giving Asians a "bad name".
What will make the next months even harder is that the lunatic and murderous factions who call themselves Islamic will be encouraged by the power of their methods, and those who are brought up to hate the West (a hatred that too often works against them) will rejoice, and this, too, will add to our burdens. Living in the West we will be seen as the enemy within by both sides, and we now know just how this will press in on our lives.
Jewish and Irish Britons will understand what a difficult balancing act it is to walk that tightrope where you are furious and indignant for being held responsible for the evil actions of others, but you know you cannot claim absolute disconnection. Every time the IRA bombs mainland Britain, Irish Britons find themselves under suspicion. Jewish Britons these days are frequently asked to pronounce on Sharon as if they have to make constant pledges in order to remain on the left side of liberalism. None of us caught in this can avoid thick and steady guilt that soon overwhelms, especially in the aftermath of truly horrific events.
It is far, far worse if you are a liberal Muslim or a Muslim whose faith lives comfortably with the values of the West. Most American and European Muslims would say this about their lives. They have many justifiable complaints about discrimination and the hatred that they face, but many of us now see ourselves as people of Europe not just Muslims who happen to be in Europe. That is not how we are perceived by the West, and there are many Muslims who abhor this integrationist position.
I have already heard from young Muslims who defend the Taliban and burn with anti-US sentiments. I share some of these. US policy in Iraq and Israel upset the mildest of us, but, no, we would not kill American citizens to avenge these, nor would we make excuses for those who do. But who cares about these distinctions? All Pakis are now terrorists and so fair game. So we brace ourselves again for a period of bile and beatings and hate mail and furious writers who will take no time to reflect but will decry Islam and Muslims. Remember the prophetic pronouncements of Bernard Levin after Oklahoma? "Do you realise?" he thundered. "In half a century, no more, fanatical Muslims will be winning wars around the world and Oklahoma will be called Khartoum on the Mississippi." The newspaper Today had a picture of a fireman holding a baby with the headline "In the name of Islam". It turned out to be all-American white boys who had plotted this barbarism but the prejudices remained intact.
I presented a documentary for Channel 4 in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing. In the US, Senator Dave McCurdy and Jeff Kaymen, a Washington writer, were both responsible for careless and emotive outbursts against Muslim extremists they say plot and live in the US. They were unrepentant when they found that they were wrong. In that time and space between blame and truth, Muslims in the US lived through hell. Their children were abused and attacked in schools, homes were stoned and mosques shot at. One Iraqi woman I interviewed, a refugee, had a miscarriage at seven months in front of her three-year-old after she had to barricade herself against a mob throwing stones outside her small house. It will be much worse this time because it looks as if it just may be "Muslims" who carried out the atrocities.
It has begun here too, although there is a real shift in unexpected places. In The Sun yesterday, there was a "map of evil" giving information about Muslim regimes and troublemakers around the world. But, and this is astonishing, the editorial across two pages said that it is wrong to malign Islam and Muslims every time such evil actions erupt. Quite right too. We don't say that Christianity is to blame for the ugly scenes outside the Holy Cross school in Northern Ireland. The Mail, too, was surprisingly measured. Tony Blair has been brilliant, using his emotions and language with care and precision so that he doesn't appear to be condemning all Muslims for what has happened. But people don't always take much notice, and, anyway, you can't undo years of demonisation with a sudden outbreak of reason and caution among the influential classes, welcome though it is.
Muslim women friends of mine have today stopped wearing hejab and my mother has told me not to wear shalwar khameez but saris over the next few weeks. People have been phoning saying they are too terrified to go out. One mother in Halifax says that her child was kicked in the playground and called a terrorist. Muslims at university tell me that they are being picked on by their peers and accused of being members of militant groups.
I was in Newtown, in Birmingham, on Tuesday at a conference on gender equality. The Muslim mothers left early because they were worried about getting their children indoors before sunset. One of them, a youth worker, said: "What can I do to show them that I am not a killer of Americans? Can I give them my blood, can I write to somebody, what can I do so they don't hate me and think I hate all white people?"
On the way to the station from this impoverished area, I saw graffiti that had already gone up to strike at anyone who might try and comfort themselves that these were phantom fears: "Go home fucking terrorist islames (sic) or die. Revenge is coming." It was signed "BNP".