In Birmingham, where Islam is more practised than Christianity, the clash of civilisations can be witnessed in microcosm. It may be that, now, only Christian believers have the ability to build bridgesby Bruce Clark / May 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the heart of Britain’s second city, where there is no spiritual or cultural force that compares in importance with Islam, people have all but forgotten that time when George Bush and Tony Blair devoted themselves to maintaining good relations with the Muslim world.
In fact, it wasn’t that long ago. For a few months in late 2001, the prime minister travelled with a pocket edition of the Koran. In Washington, the White House doors were thrown wide open to any imam or Islamic scholar who wanted feelgood meetings with George Bush. Bemused American Muslims received the heartiest of presidential congratulations on the completion of Ramadan; and Bush-minded advocates of “faith-based solutions” to crime and poverty became careful to add the word “mosques” whenever they lauded the efforts of churches and synagogues.
Some Muslim leaders reacted to this courtship in a positive spirit. They readily agreed that the attacks of 11th September had been an outrage, not only on grounds of commonly-agreed morality, but for specific theological reasons. As an indirect consequence of this courtship, much of the Muslim world gave some benefit of the doubt to the US war effort in Afghanistan. It helped that the victorious Northern Alliance included some respected mujahedin, veterans of the anti-Soviet war; and that the defeated Taleban were unpopular in many Muslim quarters.
But those moments seem a world away in Birmingham, where the practice of Islam exceeds that of Christianity and up to a quarter of the school population is of Muslim heritage. In central districts like Sparkbrook and Ladywood, where the culture, atmosphere and concerns of Pakistan and Bangladesh feel much closer than the adjacent English shires, reaction to the war in Iraq is not so much angry as stunned and traumatised. Whatever is going on here, it is not a mere spasm of wrath, of the sort that can be assuaged by soothing rhetoric or an artful switch of policy. It would be nearer the mark to speak of a collapse of trust, a sense of collective injury and an estrangement from Britain’s authorities. The political and social consequences could be felt for many years to come.