I knew what he meant. Whether it be France, Germany, or liberal smaller nations such as Holland and Denmark, no other country in Europe comes close to the UK in its proportion of Muslims who are bankers, doctors, lawyers, writers, elected officials, or television personalities. This is not because the UK has a greater percentage of Muslims in its population, but rather because of immigration policies, labor laws, and attitudes towards social inclusiveness.
In fact, the only other predominantly non-Muslim country where I have seen Muslims do so well is the US. Granted, I moved from New York to London in the summer of 2001, and sentiments towards Muslims in America have since changed, but there are still many prosperous Muslim immigrants living in the US.
Given the relative success of their Muslim minorities, why do so many people in the UK and US seem so frightened of the Muslims in their midst? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the foreign policies of both countries, such as their roles in the war in Iraq. But surely a fear of retribution for actions taken abroad cannot be the entire answer.
Terrorist acts on home soil provide another part of the explanation. The 7/7 bombers of London’s public transport system were Muslims born and raised in Britain. The 9/11 hijackers were Muslims who had for the most part been in America for some months. Both atrocities fuelled concerns about "an enemy within." But how justified are those concerns?
Let me take the example of someone who fits one of the "typical" terrorist profiles we read about here in the UK. He would be a young Muslim man, born in this country. He would be a second- or third-generation immigrant, descended from Pakistani laborers brought over to work in the now-idle factories that constitute the rust-belt of northern England. Raised entirely in Britain, he would feel culturally disconnected from his parents. Visiting Pakistan, he would not understand the language and would feel even more estranged. Seeking an identity of his own, he would turn to a politicized form of Islam far more common among his generation of immigrants than among his parents or his relatives in Pakistan. Seeing himself primarily through the lens of this self-selected version of his faith, he would grow deeply angry at perceived injustices towards Muslims around the world. Finally, he would turn to bomb-making and carry out a catastrophic attack on his fellow-citizens.
My own experience suggests that much of this narrative is not uncommon. The angry young Briton, descended from immigrants and embracing a politicized form of Islam, is a person I have often encountered at protest marches, university lectures, and on radio talk show call-in lines. But I believe that the final step, going from anger to actually killing someone, is an enormous leap – and one that only a tiny minority of people are able to take when their cause is based not on personal suffering but on an abstraction.
Yes, Britain has produced a handful of Muslim terrorists. But life for Muslims in Britain, even in the deprived regions of the north, has very little in common with the lives of people in the West Bank or Iraq. In those countries, civilians regularly die in incidents involving the occupying army. Their deaths set in motion a cycle of rage among their families and friends that breaks through the human inhibition against murder, spurring acts of violence that lead to retribution and ever more death.
In Britain, this element of personal loss is missing, and with it the trigger to cross that threshold which allows one human being to take the life of another. It is not just because of the efforts of the security agencies that acts of terrorism in Britain are so incredibly rare. It is also because very few people, Muslim or not, actually want to kill other people for political reasons.
In the US, the risk is even smaller. The Muslim community in America is on average even more middle-class and well-integrated than in Britain. The US never imported large numbers of Muslim workers for its factories (the Arab immigrants who came to work in Detroit’s automotive industry were largely Christian), and American culture tends to wean younger generations of immigrants away from the traditions of their parents far more thoroughly than British culture does.
Muslim friends of mine in America have experienced considerable harassment and intimidation since 9/11. But by and large they do not speak of feeling culturally torn. They say they are Americans, just Americans who disagree with their government’s policies and worry about their phones being tapped. The form of politicized Islam that is relatively common among some Muslim immigrants in Britain is far less common in America.
Both Britain and America should feel more safe from terrorism than they do. Some 3,000 Americans were tragically killed on 9/11. Another 3,000 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq. In total, around 6,000 have died so far in the five-and-a-half years of the war on terror. By comparison, 42,000 Americans die every year in automobile accidents. In Britain, the ratio of war on terror deaths to automobile deaths is even lower. But in both countries, rather than being terrified of the car in our driveway, we are frightened of the man with a beard and a backpack on the subway.
The main reason our sense of threat is so skewed is that a disproportionate amount of news coverage goes to trying to scare people about the wrong things. A headline reading "Muslim immigrants doing pretty well" will not sell newspapers; one reading "Warning over Muslim sleeper cells" will.
This is unfortunate. Malaria kills people. Cholesterol kills people. Immigrants with beards rarely do. In both Britain and America, our fear and resources would better be directed where they could do more good.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke. His writing has also appeared in Time, the New York Times, and other publications. He lives in London. Visit www.mohsinhamid.com and www.reluctantfundamentalist.com