We should not expect Muslims to be specially law-abiding

Quite out of the blue, we are told that 4,000 Muslims, mostly young men, are in prisons in the UK. Not Asians, not Bangladeshis, not Pakistanis, please note, but Muslims. This is supposed to be new, surprising and alarming.

I suspect some strange thinking at work here. No one comments on there being nearly 26,000 Anglicans or 11,000 Roman Catholics in prison. Indeed, the number of prisoners who claim a religion of one sort or another far exceeds those who say they have none.

When I spent a week in Pentonville in the 1970s, having been found guilty of assaulting a lawyer, his wife and a ticket collector, I was one of the latter. I signed up as an atheist. The only prisoners anxious to state their religion - those who would meet the padre instead of watching a film - were Irishmen caught up with their concentrated repetition of "Hail Marys". The rest of us watched the first sequence of a movie that went as follows. A woman is sitting in a bar crying her eyes out. A man enters, makes advances to her and she takes him back to her place. He sees male clothing in the makeshift wardrobe and asks her the whereabouts of her husband. "He is in prison," she replies. This was naturally guaranteed to create uproar, whereupon we were ushered back to our cells.

But I digress. My point is that it is foolish to expect Muslims to be any more law- abiding than the rest of us. We are not surprised at the numbers of Anglicans or Roman Catholics in prison. I have long known that young Pakistanis are seriously involved in a whole range of crime, from heroin to pimping, particularly in the north. They are no different from their Caribbean counterparts in the inner city. There is no magic, no abracadabra from Islam that can make the wills and wiles of inner-city life disappear.

Throughout the United Kingdom, there are large Asian communities, part Muslim, part Hindu, part Sikh. There are West Indians from a whole range of religious backgrounds. Nigerian Christians abound. So why the expectation that, by virtue of their religion, Pakistanis are somehow cleansed?

It must be some racial myth created by white authority, with the willing co-operation of the various imams who want to establish that Pakistanis are special. For the vast majority, the mosque is as far from their consciousness as the cathedral is from the West Indian youths'. They consume alcohol in large quantities and chase after skirts like all youngsters do.

Some of us who followed the World Cup cricket witnessed the social attitudes of the thousands of young Pakistanis who attended. They have broken from the old patterns established by their parents and are making their way into the mainstream of British society, like so many of us have done and are continuing to do.

Now we hear that a Muslim counsellor for those in prison is to be appointed. To do what? Not to look after spiritual needs, because these will be dealt with, where necessary, by the imam, just as the padre will deal with committed Christians. Will these counsellors be armed with the Koran, pointing out that the way of the transgressor is exceedingly difficult? That Muslims are so special a social type that to commit a crime is the ultimate defiance of Allah? This seems to be religious fanaticism at its worse. Let me put it another way. What of the young women who wish to break out of this severely restrictive way of life? Are they, if they end up in Holloway, as some of them surely will, to be coaxed back into arranged marriages and all that goes with them?

I once interviewed a leading Muslim intellectual on television and he boasted of Islam's superiority, pointing out that it was a way of life that led to few criminal offenders, divorces, runaway children and so on. I knew he would have to eat his words one day. Some people would be happier if there were 50 Muslims in prison for terrorist offences rather than 4,000 for common crime. But if I had to make the choice, I would prefer the latter as the healthier social alternative.