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Must Read

Opinion

July 21, 2015

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The way we view the world

Perceptions of international politics are hardwired. And by and large they are predictable. Much as we all like to think that we reach our own conclusions, more often than not, we tend to go with the flow. Faith and the attitudes associated with it tend to be passed down from one generation to the next. Most tend to share the views of those around them.
Westerners just know that democracy is the best possible system of government on offer. And that’s virtually all westerners, whether they be President George W Bush’s most hardcore neo-con acolytes or committed leftists who devote their lives to fighting the military industrial complex. And both groups are baffled when some people don’t seem to agree. Look at the confusion and bewilderment that reigned in Washington after the Iraqis failed to react to the US invasion of 2003 by becoming a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.
Muslims also tend to share views. They just know that the world is against them. While neo-cons and leftists can agree on their enthusiasm for democracy, so non-believing cultural Muslims and devout zealots can share a sense of victimhood. There are lots of suggestions on offer as to why Islam is under attack. Some talk about oil and post-colonialism while others cite a hatred of Islam dating back to the crusades. But such explanations are really second order details: the fundamental point is the shared perception that Muslims are under siege.
These fundamental views are not just a feature of the conflict between the west and Islam. The Chinese just know they have a great civilisation and the rest of the world is uncouth, backward and slovenly. And the Israelis know that the rest of the world, either through wilful blindness or because of anti-Semitism, doesn’t understand the extent or nature of the threat they face. I could go on. None of these groups really have to think about it – it’s all so blindingly obvious, they just know.
These fundamental shared views have

profound implications. Once you are certain about something, everything you see is filtered through that prism. Take, for example, the question: why is Somalia such a hopelessly, irredeemably failed state? For most westerners it is obvious – tribal affiliations, with a bit of warlord-ism and radical Islamism thrown in, have held back democratic development. But for many Muslims it’s equally obvious: Somalia has been a victim of colonialism, exploitation and intervention by western powers and has never been able to flourish as a result.
These kind of almost automatic analyses crowd out many other arguments and considerations.
Many westerners see western hostages being beheaded and become angry. But they view the death of all those people in Iraq as an unfortunate, unavoidable consequence of war. Many Muslims, by contrast, are more moved by the great numbers of dead Iraqis and think the relatively small number of western victims is blown out of proportion.
The same goes for the civilian victims of drone strikes. What many in the west see as unfortunate collateral damage, many Pakistanis see as the murder of innocent rural folk, who threaten no one, going about their rather pure, uncomplicated daily lives.
These prisms are relevant to the war on terror. Such filters help explain the much discussed process of radicalisation in western countries. It’s all about hard-wired shared assumptions which relate to identity.
Many British people have wildly different views of the world depending on whether they come from the Muslim community or not. First of all, take British Muslims. When asked to integrate more fully into British values many keep their thoughts to themselves. Privately many might think that too many Brits are drunken, uncouth, promiscuous; insufficiently respectful of their elders and too unconcerned about their daughters’ honour.
On top of that, of course, they might think that most Brits are so hopelessly misguided in matters of religion as to be essentially inferior.
They have fully imbibed the sort of sermons that are based on the, often unstated, assumption that Muslims are inherently superior to Christians and Jews.
Such views rarely get a public airing. Instead, asked about the need for integration, many British Muslims are more likely to express themselves in terms of a defensive position complaining about the exclusionary attitudes and statements of fringe far-right groups such as the English Defence League.
Britain is used to handing immigrant populations. It has been at it for centuries. The method generally adopted has been to allow the newcomers to get on with life as they see fit. They can set up synagogues, temples or mosques and believe in whatever they like. By the time you get to the third or fourth generation, assimilation progresses and the prisms and filters become more aligned with the mainstream.
But in the case of many in the British Muslim community today this is not happening. Outward signs of group identity – headscarves and drinking orange juice in the pub – are becoming more widespread. Second and third-generation British Muslims are more assertive about their Muslim identity than their parents and grandparents. Indeed, many Brits of Pakistani origin hold more extreme views that their counterparts in Pakistan.
Increasingly the hardening of group identity is happening on both sides of the divide. While British Muslims feel increasingly victimised, much of the rest of the UK is increasingly concerned about the lack of integration. To some extent it’s a vicious cycle and the ‘us and them’ mentality is becoming more marked on both sides.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone

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