When discussing the topic of British values only a few days ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke in a manner that had much more to do with cultural nuance, political freedom and an independent judiciary than about values - however seemingly secular – which are quite reasonably derived from Britain’s Christian heritage.
But I was most struck by Cameron’s very British ability to clearly address his words to a particular person or group without ever naming or identifying the subject of one’s concern.
Sort of like the first time I watched a serious, indeed quite earnest BBC television panel whose members were sitting on a stage set that quite plausibly looked like a pleasant living room, with everyone talking about a particular controversial issue, in what would seem, to an American (in other words, to me) to be a polite and certainly not intense manner. And then to suddenly realize that the panellists would saying quite nasty things, in a matter-of-fact manner, to each other.
So too David Cameron, who, for the record, was not at all nasty, never mentioned Britain’s Muslim community by name in a column that he wrote for the Daily Mail last Sunday.
Indeed, Cameron’s spokesmen would later say that his remarks were addressed to all sections of society – even though he was , in fact, clearly addressing British Muslims – with direct references to a controversy over the alleged infiltration by Muslim extremists of a handful of state schools serving predominately Muslim students in the city of Birmingham; as well as the ongoing problem of individual imams in some of the many UK mosques, who praise Muslim extremists and foster sectarian hatred.
The response was predictable. A number of British Muslims commented on social media, in what at best was a sarcastic manner; all but mocking the idea of “British values.” As for Cameron I wondered if he had watched, as I had more or less about the same time, an Al Jazeera special report in which several individual British Muslims who could be treated as community spokespeople, dismissed the idea of labelling individual Muslims committing this or that misdeed, as a Muslim or as “an Islamist.”
America’s success as an immigrant society, was that as willing as America was and still remains a multi-religious society, it was insistently not multi-culturalAbdallah Schleifer
As one spokesman said, when an ordinary Englishman is arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife or child, he is not described as a Christian, or his crime in any way connected with his religion if he has one.
But that is to totally miss the point, or perhaps totally intended to evade the truth.
Whenever an old-stock Brit is arrested for murdering a family member, they are never reported to have justified his deed as a defence of Christianity - whereas when two Afro-Caribbean converts to Islam killed a British soldier in London a little more than a year ago, they hung around at the scene of the crime, boasting they were “soldiers of Islam” avenging the Muslim countries invaded or attacked in recent years by British armed forces.
So too in the case of the suicide bombings in London some years ago, staged by young militants in the name of Islam.
Seemingly religious extremism, be it manifest in violence or not, is the great plague in much of the modern Muslim world, and among Muslims living in the West - and we, as Muslims - must acknowledge that it exists and fight it, rather than defensively trying to evade the issue or suggest that for a non-Muslim to observe the problem is to be some sort of racist.
There are also other undercurrents at work. That there are large immigrant neighbourhoods in a few British cities in which dress and the prevailing language recalls a street scene in Pakistan or Bangladesh - that one would never think to be in England - something that older-stock Brits quite reasonably would view as an alien and discomforting scene.
Cameron in his column hints at this problem - a cultural problem that undermines the possibility of Muslim immigrants becoming truly British, when he noted the government was now “making sure new immigrants can speak English, because it will be more difficult for them to understand values and the history of our institutions if they can’t speak our language.”
And it is fair to say to those taken back by Cameron’s remarks and my observations, that it is only reasonable to assume when someone immigrates, acquires citizenship and the benefits of citizenship, they are ready - indeed more than ready – to blend into the culture of that society, to adopt those public manners and dress that do not directly contradict one’s religious beliefs, but can be adopted and if not, then to seek out ways to adjust whatever must be divergent from the native norm, to be less conspicuously so.
I am thinking in particularly of Orthodox Jewish males, who are religiously bound not to be bare headed, and who upon immigrating to America or the UK would adopt the fedora to cover their heads.
I don’t think anyone can dispute that America has been the most successful of all societies in receiving and integrating wave after wave of immigrants - many or even most of whom upon arrival at dockside or now airport, look and sound most alien. Indeed we are a nation of immigrants and everyone, save the most truly native sons - the Native Americans - know exactly where their ancestors came from, be they immigrants from the 20th, 19th, 18th or 17th century.
And that is because American reality has always been that of a multi-religious society. So William Penn, an early 18th century founder of the state of Pennsylvania, could not only reject the prevailing confrontation and mutual discrimination in Europe between Protestant and Catholic Christians, but went on to add, there would there no be discrimination “against Jew or Muhammeden.”
But America’s success as an immigrant society, was that as willing as America was and still remains a multi-religious society, it was insistently not multi-cultural, and that assumption was shared, even if unconsciously, as much as by the immigrant anxious to integrate, as by the native son.
Above all that meant learning English with fervour, quickly discarding the dress and later, but soon enough, adopting the manners of the native son and daughter and inevitably participating in the nation’s political life and thus acquiring the nation’s broad political values.
So it would be said that any native-born child of immigrants, regardless of religion, race or ethnic-origin could aspire to be President. And so it could be, that a country founded and first peopled by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, would in time have a Catholic as president and now a Black American, and sooner or later a Jew.
And when atrocities are not committed on a frequent or even a daily basis, as those that are at this moment in Iraq, or Somalia, or Syria, or Pakistan, in the Name, in Arabic, of God and His Prophet; then that day will come when an American Muslim (which is quite different than being a Muslim in America) will make the White House his home.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.