Fascism in a soundbite

As with 7 July last year, I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing and how I felt, as a British Muslim, when I heard the news. On this occasion it was Thursday 10 August, just past 7am, when the calm, emotionless voice on the radio explained how the security forces had foiled a plan by British Muslims to blow up transatlantic flights.

The newsreader's words had an immediate and sobering impact. At first I willed the news to go away. "Please, God, don't let it be true," I muttered as I lay in bed listening.

I felt shame, bewilderment and anger at a very real hijacking of an entire people and faith by yet another group of nihilistic young men acting in its name. Then I began to imagine, with considerable dread, what the media reaction would be - frantic coverage of the lives of the accused, their neighbourhoods and families and the mosques in the area. A week or so later, the pages of newsprint and hours of footage and live coverage would all but disappear.

That, I suspect, was how most British Muslims reacted to the news. Many of us shared in the national shock and incomprehension that this could have happened, and the realisation that we are still far from finding an answer to the extremism swaying small, but increasing numbers of our young people.

Several hours later I heard words on the radio, again out of the blue, that shocked me. President George W Bush had walked down the steps from Air Force One to give his first public comments on the discovery of the plot.

In a soundbite that was to be replayed across the world, on the dozens of popular Arabic satellite channels that simultaneously were providing live footage of the bombardment of Lebanon, Bush spoke of Britain and the US fighting a "war against Islamic fascists".

I'd only ever read that phrase used by a small and predictable list of columnists who share an unyielding belief that it is impossible to be western and Muslim. But outside this absolutist-minded circle of neoconservatives and left-wing intellectuals, I had never heard it spoken by a prominent western politician.

I am no longer sure if Bush's successor, Democrat or Republican, would use different rhetoric about Muslims.

What is Bush's point? Does he believe that it is Islam which is fascist, and not simply the in dividuals who wanted to blow up thousands of people, including fellow Muslims?

I'm not sure that Bush's remark was unthinking. Remember the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, when he described the war on terror as a "crusade". Yet, even though the outrage was fresh in the mind, those days seemed different. There appeared hope, even amid the bloodshed. The world with its different faiths and identities stood far more united back then, more optimistic about a common desire to overcome the forces behind such horror.

With each crisis since then - Iraq, Madrid, the London bombings, Afghanistan, the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, and now Lebanon - we grow more afraid of each other, feel more threatened by each other.

I have a profound and growing sense of pessimism. At this stage, I feel there is less of a future for people like myself, western Muslims who see no contradiction in such an identity. We can try to reassure ourselves that much of this is just down to a shared belief by Bush and Blair of a black-and-white global struggle between "good and evil", and that somehow when they leave office so will this vision, which they have sometimes expressed in pseudo-Messianic terms.

I am no longer sure. There has been too much damage, over too long a time, in too many places around the world, to ascribe this just to the beliefs and policies of two western politicians.

On 12 August, a number of Muslim politicians and figures published an open letter, essentially arguing that British foreign policy in Iraq, and the government's position over Lebanon, is fuelling the extremism and violence behind those British Muslims who want to attack the UK. The Home Secretary, John Reid, described the letter as a "dreadful misjudgement", arguing that no British government could allow men of violence to hold its policies to ransom.

How much longer will ministers deny that foreign policy is a factor in the motives of the bombers? It is quite clearly acting as a recruiting sergeant for extremist Islamist groups. Whether one gives in to such blackmail and changes one's policy is another question - but saying that what is being done in Britain's name in places such as Iraq and Lebanon does not motivate the bombers is a dereliction of public duty.