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Ten years on, sit next to a British Asian Muslim on the bus

I was sitting on the Tube with my six-year-old son. I'd bought him a bag of crisps and he was munching them while I read some boring periodical. Then: "Dad, Dad . . ." He pulled at my elbow. "Shush!" I admonished him. "I'm reading." Then again: "Dad, Dad . . ." He pointed towards the only other person in our carriage: a young man of Asian appearance wearing a shalwar kameez, a prayer cap, sporting a wispy beard and with a small rucksack on his back. I realised what my kid was driving at - but shushed him again. Once we were off the train, I asked: "What? What is it?"
He stared back at me with the triumphant expression of the junior spy: "That man," he said authoritatively, "was a suicide bomber."

This happened a couple of months after the 7/7 attacks in London, and while as a general rule recounting the precociousness of one's children is the dernier cringe, I think it worthwhile setting down here as an example of how far this malevolent syllogism had sunk, by then, into the collective consciousness: the suicide bombers were Muslims, that man was a Muslim, QED, that man was a terrorist. It doesn't matter how elegantly this fallacious "reasoning" is gussied up, or how it is tied in the rhetorical ribbons of politicians, policymakers and the leaders of the other two big monotheisms, the conclusion always remains the same: an entire group of people is damned by association with the crimes of a handful of individuals.

To understand just how crazy this is we have only to observe that we do not treat all men as if they were wise simply because Socrates was a man - the men who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks are dead, so are those who killed London commuters on 7 July 2005, so they cannot be punished any further by pulverising peasants in Afghanistan, let alone by shunning British Muslims who live and work in this country.

This morning, I was musing on the tenth anniversary of that grotesque spectacular, which, even before the dust had settled on the streets of Manhattan, was already being employed as a handy historical way-marker - musing and organising a car rental in a small Scottish city. The man doing the paperwork was a British Asian Muslim - not that you'd have been able to tell if you couldn't see him: his accent was as broad as any urban Scot's. I him if he minded if I asked him a personal question, and he said he didn't, so I said: "Did you experience any problems, personally, after 9/11?"

It was as if I'd released a valve - for out it gushed. He had been studying in Glasgow at the time, and his friends were so worried for him that they formed a scrum around him and conducted him home like that. Even so, he was spat at in the street.

Domestic abuse

This continued for four or five months after 9/11: verbal abuse, spitting, people automatically moving when he got on public transport: "I had no problem getting a seat on the bus for ages . . ." he quipped ruefully. What he found most difficult was that the shouters were by no means the usual suspects but "educated-looking people, y'know, all suited and booted". He told me that when his sister-in-law asked two police officers to stop a group of men following her and taunting her, they merely shrugged their shoulders.

With the first anniversary it all started again, and so it continued, year after year, like a bizarre addendum to Ramadan, as if it were the lot of every English or Scottish Muslim to suffer collective punishment. The man in the car-hire place spoke not as if personally aggrieved - because he understood there was nothing personal about these assaults.

There are many state-sanctioned ways of honouring those killed during the 9/11 attacks, but I have a novel suggestion: why not, on the tenth anniversary, express some sympathy towards the living victims. If you see a young man in shalwar kameez and with a wispy beard sitting on a train or a bus - go and sit next to him, strike up a conversation even. Individuate him just as you yourself would wish to be individuated. This is the sane thing to do.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11