Every now and again, Khurshid Ahmed, a leading figure at the Commission for Racial Equality, has encounters with strangers which border on the surreal. Men and women who appear to be well-informed and well-intentioned stop him in the street or in shop queues and ask in a polite manner if he and his fellow Muslims want to kill them.
Ahmed replies with equal politeness that, no, neither he nor anyone else he knows supports al-Qaeda or applauds suicide bombers, and he walks away wondering and worrying.
It takes time for an immigrant group to establish itself. The gap between their numbers and the status society accords them is usually expressed as complaints about disproportionate rates of unemployment or accusations that there aren't enough MPs from group X or newscasters from group Y. The popular imagination is as important as racial discrimination. A new culture is a little bit more secure when it presents to the rest of the population a benign face, even if that image is a stereotype.
The latest group to carry off this essential assignment with aplomb are British Indians. People who have never met an Asian will still watch Goodness Gracious Me, and are cheered by the comforting sight of fantastically competitive mothers, hen-pecked husbands, and children trying and failing to be cool. I'm sure that in the future, the children of today's Indians will dismiss this humour as patronising and dated, but they would be fools if they denied that it had broken down the barriers and helped British Indians establish themselves as British.
And British Muslims, what images do they have in the national imagination? Abu Hamza, the Finsbury Park Mosque, the shoe bomber and precious little else. At the beginning of the Kenneth Bigley affair, the government's crisis command unit, Cobra, warned that his murder could trigger attacks on Muslims. At the same time, the Muslim Council of Britain told the Guardian that it had received 2,000 threatening e-mails. Ahmed is as apprehensive as any of them. He can see an Islamist attack, leading to a backlash, leading to riots and "civil war" in the cities.
It may be of help to bear in mind that the country has been here before. Jonathan Coe's Birmingham novels, The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, brilliantly recall the last time an immigrant culture was held guilty of terrorism by association. The plot turns on the consequences of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Anyone who remembers the slaughter will also remember the wave of anti-Irish violence that hit the West Midlands. The National Front was screaming at the top of its voice, and incitement to hatred against the Irish followed naturally from incitement to hatred against blacks.
Fewer people remember how the fascism of the time was fought. Coe brings the struggle to life through the character of Bill Anderton, a militant shop steward at the Longbridge car plant who finds racist propaganda in the factory. "Refuse to work with IRA bastard murderers," reads a scrawled notice. Black immigration is bringing in the dirty, stupid and lazy who threaten "the jobs and homes of the white Englishman", announces a pamphlet doing the rounds.
Bill did not bother to read any further. He already spent too much of his time organising lectures and meetings to counteract this sort of nonsense, making sure the union put out its own anti-racist pamphlets, most of which he ended up having to write himself (and he was no writer). Today, taken together, the scribbled message and this putrid leaflet served to depress him profoundly. It was so easy, so stupidly easy, for the workforce to find reasons for hating each other when they should be uniting against the common enemy.
Immigrants always face prejudice. They are always accused of being aliens who steal the natives' jobs and benefits. But from the 1880s through to the 1980s, there were Bill Andertons to help them. Not always successfully and not always with great enthusiasm, Britain's socialist movement provided an argument against racism in working-class communities. The new arrivals were not the invading Irish, Jews, blacks or whatever, but fellow members of the working class, comrades in the struggle against the "common enemy" - capitalism and its bosses.
For better, but mainly for worse, the world of Bill Anderton is dead. The faults of the postmodern, multicultural ideology that replaced socialism are familiar enough by now: universal values are trashed; the human race is divided and stored in the sealed boxes of mutually uncomprehending cultures; there is no answer to the racist or the godly misogynist, because postmodernism in its extreme form disputes the existence of truth and thus has to say that the "narratives" of fascism and fundamentalism are as valid as any other. With even the Commission for Racial Equality now accepting that multiculturalism may isolate the descendants of immigrants and stop them being seen as full British citizens, we can guess that the postmodern world is slowly going the way of its predecessors - and not before time.
But before postmodernism vanishes, it is worth considering the awfully exposed position in which it has dumped British Muslims. To put the question bluntly: how did British Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Kashmiris, Arabs, Somalis and others become "the Muslims" when, say, British Indians never became "the Hindus"? Why is their religion meant to be the basis of a common identity that supersedes all differences of background, interest and class?
Those who favour intellectual rigour have always been cagey about treating religion as if it were an unavoidable biological inheritance. Racism, sexism and homophobia are foul because you cannot choose your skin colour, gender or sexual orientation. A religion is a system of ideas that is, or should be, as freely chosen as one's politics. Thus the only two religions covered by race relations legislation are Sikhism and Judaism - closed faiths inherited by the offspring of the devout, who would still be seen as Sikhs or Jews even if they stopped believing. Members of a global proselytising religion, such as Christianity or Islam, stop being Christians or Muslims when they lose their faith. Yet 1.6 million people in Britain are now indelibly classified as "Muslim". It is as if the government, the BBC, the CRE and all the institutions of respectable opinion had decided that the residents of the Home Counties should be classified as "the Tories"; that there should be an etiquette to say they should be referred to as Tories at all times, and laws to prevent the incitement of hatred against Toryism.
You have only to raise the possibility to see its absurdity. Most people in the Home Counties may vote Tory, but it is not a lifetime commitment. They may vote another way at the next election, and, in any case, spend months or years without displaying the remotest interest in the Conservative Party and its works. To say that they are Tories is to say something about them, but not very much.
To make the case of British Muslims all the stranger, in the wars during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, which was the great crisis before 11 September 2001, the victims of oppression objected ferociously to being described as "the Muslims". The Serbs weren't called "the Orthodox" and the Croats weren't called "the Catholics". The decision of most diplomats and commentators to call the Bosnians "the Muslims" was a tacit endorsement of Serbian claims that they were a faction fed by ancient hatreds, rather than citizens of a nation recognised by the UN and facing genocidal assault from the agents of a foreign power. Exiles still remember the priceless moment on Newsnight when Kirsty Wark insisted on describing a member of the Bosnian government as a spokesman for "the Muslims". His protestations that religion wasn't the issue, and that he was, if it was any of her business, a Catholic in his private life, got him nowhere.
In Britain, however, it is clear that a religious identity hasn't been forced on British Muslims by their enemies. To be sure, a history of ethnic identity in Britain would look at how establishment figures in the Tory party and intellectuals who ought to have known better, such as John le Carre and John Berger, fanned fundamentalism by making excuses for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (British Islam's greatest ornament). But there aren't angry demands from Bradford and Birmingham for the Muslim Council of Britain to change its name. Most Muslims are content to be "the Muslims" - which is in itself a small sign of the fundamentalist wave that has swept all the world's religions.
Yet their acquiescence cannot disguise the confusions and dangers of setting religious identity above all others. The most obvious is that it hands power to the priests. They decide who is an authentic Muslim, Christian or Jew, and set the rules that the faithful must obey. The most backward-looking elements in a culture have their authority bolstered, while the secular and the open-minded become phoneys.
Every now and again, well-meaning multiculturalists have run into a contradiction, that the higher you elevate an exclusive religious identity, the more difficult becomes the peaceful integration in which they profess to believe. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust produced an influential report: Islamophobia: a challenge for us all. Its unstated assumption was that British Muslims had to be seen first and foremost as Muslims, not British Pakistanis or British Bangladeshis or members of the Pakistani or Bangladeshi working class - or just Britons, for that matter. The discrimination that hurt these people the most was the result not of their skin colour or economic position, but their religion. Jack Straw, who was then home secretary, launched the report, and its authors included many members of the great and the good. Their aim was to combat the view that Islam was "a single monolithic system, without internal development, diversity and dialogue", and to promote Islam as a "diverse and progressive religion".
What they said was true, as far as it went: as do all religions, Islam exhibits vast diversity and can be progressive or reactionary according to the time and place. The problem the authors refused to confront was that, to the devout, a single, monolithic system is precisely what their religion is. Co-religionists who abandon their faith are apostates who, according to the Muslim Association of Britain, co-organisers of last year's great anti-war march, should be executed.
To make matters more perilous, British Muslims have the bad luck to be stuck with a religious identity at the very moment when a terrorism fuelled by religion threatens Britain. To grasp the danger, imagine if, in 1974, the Irish in Britain had acquiesced in being pigeon-holed by everyone from the home secretary downwards as "the Republicans". I think it is fair to say that the backlash after the pub bombings would have been far nastier.
That there will be fresh bombings and a backlash is pretty much beyond doubt. Everyone is waiting for a disaster. Senior police officers predict it. Ministers mut- ter that they are losing the battle to keep Muslim youth on side. Ricin is found in north London. British suicide bombers blow up waitresses in Israel.
A few weeks ago, reporters in Najaf found two Iraqi-born Londoners who had joined Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army to fight the Americans. "I don't know if you have been to Golders Green," said one. "It's full of Jews. We had many chances to go there and kill people. I even had Jewish friends. I could easily have got them home and killed them. I might have got away with it, I might not."
Sooner or later, people like them will turn similar words into action in Golders Green, Westminster or Whitehall. That it will be civilians who suffer is all but guaranteed.
For many Muslims, the backlash is already here: it has been going on since 11 September 2001. Britain has ducked out of its commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and interned enemy aliens. The intelligence that has led to their being held indefinitely is scarcely of the highest quality, as a trickle of releases has proved. The number of stops-and-searches of Muslims has gone through the roof, and once again, the tactic is scarcely an unvarnished success, as the number of releases without charge shows.
The government is undeterred. We already have a good idea how it will react to an outrage. On a trip to India this year, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, made it clear in what direction he would like to go next: "pre-emptive" trials of terrorist suspects with the presumption of innocence removed so that potential suicide bombers could be convicted before they committed a crime. He has had to back down for the time being, but my guess is that an attack on Britain would remove the obstacles in his path.
The urgent task is to prepare for the worst. Three steps could be taken now:
1. Those who believe in civil liberties must be ready to argue that they are not only right in principle, but effective in prac- tice. If they can't, then a terrified British public will give the security services everything they want.
2. When Khurshid Ahmed and every other sane Muslim leader is saying that internment and rough police tactics are driving young men towards Islamism, it is time to ask if either tactic can be safely abandoned. Are they counter-productive, or the only shots in the police locker?
3. If people wish to define themselves by their religion, there is nothing a free society can do to stop them. When paranoia and rage are infecting all the world's religions, however, it is frankly perverse for the government, race relations quangos and the other pillars of liberal society to lend a hand. It would be better to forget about more faith schools and laws against religious hatred, and concentrate on the long-overdue task of creating a fair country where creed, as well as class and gender, mattered less.