Salman Rushdie's recent knighthood has once again led to protests across Pakistan and Iran, yet British Muslims have remained largely silent. Salma Yaqoob explains why.
The recent controversy over the award of a knighthood for Salman Rushdie brought back memories.
I was a teenager when Rushdie's book Satanic Verses came out. Unlike most of those calling for a ban I had read it. I found it an ugly work. Not because he chose to ridicule my faith.
I believe God is big enough to handle mockery. But because Rushdie was seeking to provoke. And he knew exactly what buttons to press. It was for that reason I chose not to participate in protests.
My attitude then, as now, was Muslims should ignore him.
I was very much a minority voice in my family. At the time British Muslims felt weak, powerless and insulted. When other Muslims around the world protested, many drew strength, felt pride and found the experience of publicly asserting their identity an empowering one.
Whatever the positives for the community as a whole however, the negatives soon outweighed them.
A fundamental principle got lost in all the emotion. Freedom of speech is at the cornerstone of a democratic society. And it is just plain wrong that somebody should be threatened with death for expressing his or her opinion, however odious one might find it.
The consequences of the protests were to be profound and far-reaching. In a society with strong collective memories of the struggle against fascism, the symbolism of book burning by a few reinforced prejudiced assumptions of Islam as a reactionary religion and deepened the isolation of the Muslim community.
What has been interesting about the reaction this time is British Muslims' determination to avoid a repetition of the past.
In contrast to the much publicised protests in Pakistan, Muslims here have been determined to not allow themselves to be manipulated and provoked over this issue whether by religious zealots or unscrupulous politicians.
Notably, the Muslim Council of Britain did not rally a protest, but sent out a message of calm (which duly received very little interest in the mainstream media). This reflected the fact that most Muslims were not particularly bothered by or interested in Rushdie's knighthood. Even those who viewed the bestowing of a knighthood as a cynical political gesture designed to provoke Muslims thought the best response was simply to ignore it.
The scenes of angry protests abroad were therefore met with weary frustration by Muslims living in Britain. We were painfully aware that no distinction would be made between them and us and we would be tarred with the same brush of fanaticism.
Reading much of what passes for commentary on Britain's Muslim communities, especially from political commentators like Melanie Phillips, Conservative MP Michael Gove and New Statesman editor Martin Bright, you would be forgiven for thinking the spectre of a Taliban-style Islamic radicalism is overtaking Britain.
This viewpoint is simply not borne out by the facts which reflect a far more reassuring and optimistic reality.
Rather than Muslims of South Asian origin having a sense of identity at odds with broader British society, recent studies suggest the exact opposite.
A Gallup poll of Muslims in London found that Muslims' loyalty to Britain is greater than the general public. A national poll conducted by Populus found "only 33 per cent of the general population said they had Muslims as close personal friends" while "almost 90 per cent of Muslims said they had close non-Muslim friends".
A new study by the London School of Economics found Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are quicker to develop a strong sense of British identity than many other groups - including migrants from the US or western Europe. And a study commissioned by the Home Office comparing 'tolerance' among boys at a predominantly white school in Burnley with boys in a predominantly Asian school in Blackburn concluded "it is the Asian-Muslim students in both the mixed and monocultural schools of Burnley and Blackburn who are in fact the most tolerant of all".
These are positive signs. But one of the difficulties in preaching live and let live is that it can sound pretty hollow when most of the contemporary discourse on 'community cohesion' has shifted away from multiculturalism, tolerance and anti-racism to an alarmist dis-course of division and fear - especially in relation to Muslims.
Hardly a week goes by without Muslim culture, dress, and religion and lack of 'integration' being problematised. Indeed there seems to be a growing strand of secular fundamentalism, dressed up as liberalism, which takes pleasure in berating and baiting Muslims. Furthermore this ugly intolerance is elevated into a virtue. Some of the chest-thumping over the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie seems very much in this spirit.
It is difficult to see what, if anything, constructive is to be attained from this knighthood. I defend the right of Salman Rushdie to publish material Muslims may find offensive and hurtful.
It does not follow however that I think the establishment is right to reward him for doing so. The vast majority of Muslims have quite consciously chosen to ignore Rushdie's knighthood.
Unfortunately what is more difficult to ignore is that in granting this award the Government is sending a clear message of disdain for the feelings of its own British Muslim citizens.
Also, considering Britain's dangerously strained diplomatic relations with Iran at the moment, this award does not seem exactly designed to improve matters.
Hopefully this is the final chapter in the Rushdie affair. Its lesson of the need for genuine tolerance and respect, even to those whose viewpoints or beliefs you don't share, is not only relevant to the Muslim community.
* Salma Yaqoob (Respect, Sparkbrook) is the only British Asian woman councillor in the UK.