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AGENDA: 'Don't give the oxygen of publicity to the extremists' Today Birmingham will host a celebration of the best of Muslim writers. It's an opportunity to communicate the virtues of British Muslims, says Junaid Bhatti, Baron of Ballencrieff.

This week, the tabloids again ran with front pages that sent ripples of murmured concern through Britain's Muslim community. We're now well-accustomed to being the 21st century "Goldstein" in an Orwellian New World Order. The Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestion that Muslims should be able to marry, divorce and divide inheritance according to their religious beliefs prompted an angry, ignorant and hate-filled media response. This didn't just cause consternation among the socalled "radicals" and "extremists". Professional, educated, broadsheet-reading and patriotic British Muslims were also taken aback by the knee-jerk, venomous outpouring of tabloid hysteria.

It made us question what the future holds for Islam in Britain. There are historic parallels that anyone with a history GCSE can see.

Sadly, the journalists living in middle-class areas are protected from the world they impact upon, and so have no incentive to consider the moral implications of their words.

Muslim communities have been here for centuries. The first UK mosque was opened in Cardiff in 1860. We've even been represented at the highest levels since the 17th century, when Henry Stanley, Baron of Eddisbury converted to Islam and became the first Muslim member of the British nobility. Today we have thousands of mosques across the UK, hundreds of local councillors and more than a dozen representatives in Parliament.

Clearly, we've come a long way in the past 150 years, much further than our counterpart community in France, for example, where, despite there being seven million Muslims, there is a not a single Muslim representative in local or national government, and applications for establishing mosques are, more often than not, rejected.

For as long as I can remember, I've believed that Britain is the best place in the world to live. Admittedly, for most of my life it was through mindless patriotism. However, my belief was only strengthened as I began to understand the wider world, and was privileged enough to meet European, African and Middle-Eastern Muslims - many of whom envy the religious freedoms that we enjoy here in good ol' Blighty.

However, the recent tabloid tirades have shaken me out of my complacency. This week, I was dismayed to see national newspapers giving front-page coverage to critical comments by the now-exiled cleric Omar Bakri about boxer Amir Khan proudly waving the Union Flag.

Articles declaring Amir a shining role model for Muslim youth have my full support.

However, I question the motives of those publishing such articles. Is their intent simply to condemn preachers of hate? Or do the tabloids actually revel in using the word "Islamic" in as negative a context as possible? There are plenty of hate-preachers venting their prejudices on the internet. Yet I don't recall ever seeing front-page condemnation by The Sun and their ilk for online neo-Nazis promoting violence against minorities living in the British Isles.

For decades the British press have agreed that the white-supremacist movement should be deprived of the oxygen of publicity. Yet extremists within the Muslim community are given ample exposure by audience-hungry hacks, who gleefully dedicate thousands of column inches to the ramblings of a radical clerics living outside the UK.

To me double-standards in any sphere ring alarm bells, because their existence suggests a lack of principles. The double-standards of the media, when it comes to white extremists versus non-white extremists, causes me concern because an unprincipled media chasing ratings and audiences is unlikely to be truthful.

So what can we as a community do to change the situation? The incessant tabloid obsession with negative stories about Muslims will continue unabated unless Muslims themselves make an effort to ensure we aren't misrepresented.

And when we are misrepresented we have to ensure that we respond in an intelligent, eloquent and honest way to the unfair depictions made by those who would slander us.

The greatest generations of Muslims - the disciples of the Prophet - communicated the beauty of Islam through their honourable actions, modest behaviour and beautiful words. An admirable tradition that is continued today by Muslim writers who eloquently communicate with their own communities, and wider society, in a bid to facilitate understanding between generations, cultures and ideologies.

Today, Muslims are under-represented in the arts and media, and that's no surprise. Historically British Muslim parents have actively discouraged the pursuit of creative expression, and obsessively dreamed of boasting to their friends "My son is a doctor/engineer/lawyer."

This cultural albatross must be abandoned.

There can be just as much honour in being a journalist or an artist as there is in being a lawyer - and probably more if truth be told.

It's a message that is starting to get through - albeit slowly - thanks to the work of numerous dedicated campaigns across the country.

In 2007, Birmingham City Council helped launch The Muslim Writers Awards initiative.

The objective was to encourage and develop the talent that will give artistic expression to the voice of future Muslim generations in Britain. The Awards have grown beyond the dreams of the organisers, and today at the ICC more than 1,000 people will attend a gala dinner to celebrate the work of a new generation of communicators.

The 2008 initiative attracted 10,000 entries across six different categories, which clearly demonstrates that British Muslims are passionate about creative expression. The body of work that the judges reviewed this year includes heart-felt poetic compositions, educational children's stories and compelling fiction pieces. The 26 nominees represent the cream of British Muslim literary talent, and the awards have attracted big-name advocates like Gordon Brown, Jermaine Jackson and James Caan.

However, the initiative has a wider objective than the awards themselves. The Muslim Writers Awards exist to encourage talented British Muslims, of all ages and backgrounds, to develop their powers of creative expression.

This is a vital tool for encouraging integration and cementing community cohesion.

Initiatives encouraging Muslims to make an active contribution to the social and cultural fabric of the country deserve our support.

It's only through communication that we can understand each other, and overcome the misconceptions and deliberate misrepresentation that we currently suffer.

Junaid Bhatti is a communications consultant, and director of the Birmingham-based Marketing agency Ballencrieff House.

"The incessant tabloid obsession with negative stories about Muslims will continue unabated unless Muslims themselves make an effort to ensure we aren't misrepresented.


Junaid Bhatti was dismayed to see newspapers giving front-page coverage to critical comments by the exiled cleric Omar Bakri about boxer Amir Khan waving the Union Flag. He says Amir is a role model for Muslim youth but questions why newspapers thought the comments of an extremist cleric were worthy of so much coverage
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 29, 2008
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