The Dewsbury teenager Talha Asmal is "UK's youngest ever suicide bomber". Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Remember – just 0.02 per cent of the British Muslim population go to join Middle East conflicts

British Muslims should be celebrated, not demonised due to the very few, like Talha Asmal, who go to join conflicts in the Middle East.

I woke up this morning on the eve of Ramadan to news stories about two young British Muslims who chose to get involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Somalia. I am deeply saddened by the choices they made, and I can barely imagine the suffering their actions have caused.

However, it is important to say that the British Muslims involved in the conflicts in the Middle East represent just 0.02 per cent of the British Muslim population – that’s one in every 4,500. The vast majority of British Muslims are peace loving people who make a hugely positive contribution to British society and the wider world.

Unfortunately and not surprisingly, it’s the news stories about terrorists that stick in people’s minds. Today sees the publication of a YouGov poll showing that much of the UK public have a hugely negative view of Muslims, with perceptions of terrorism and extremism to the fore.

The results of the poll also suggest a decline in public sympathy for refugees, and a particular disregard for refugees from Syria and the Middle East.

In 2014, only 31 per cent of those surveyed believed the UK should not provide refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution around the world – compared to 40 per cent in favour. In this month’s poll that has been turned on its head: those against offering refuge outnumber those in favour – 42 per cent compared to 34 per cent.

Only 29 per cent of people agree that the UK should welcome refugees from Syria and the Middle East, compared to 34 per cent who would welcome refugees generally.

These findings are extremely worrying. If negative public perceptions about Muslims and Middle Eastern refugees go unchallenged, global sympathy and support for those caught in conflict will decline at a time when humanitarian needs are enormous and UN budgets are chronically underfunded.

Over 30m refugees and others in the Middle East are in need of humanitarian aid, and the British Muslim community that is perceived so negatively gives with huge generosity to charities like Islamic Relief as we work to deliver that aid – particularly in Ramadan.

Isn’t it time we celebrated the role British Muslims play as part of the solution, rather than the Muslim community being demonised again and again as part of the problem? Coming from Birmingham, the city that Fox News described as a Muslim-only zone, and living through the Trojan Horse saga, I know only too well how that feels.

You seldom find them on the front pages, but Islamic Relief UK is blessed with an army of 4,000 grassroots volunteers who bring out the very best in our communities and embody the faith-inspired action that Islamic Relief is all about.

In the run-up to Ramadan, British Muslims have been beavering away at different fundraising activities around the country – from the #Cakes4Syria campaign to the numerous fundraising challenges from the Great North Run to the Great Wall of China.

These kind of stories should be heard much more, and these are the kind of choices I want our young people to make.    

The holy month of Ramadan that starts tomorrow is a time when Muslims reflect on their blessings they have received and commit to helping those less fortunate. British Muslims donate more than £100 million to charity in Ramadan alone.

The poll shows that people are less inclined to give to victims of conflict in the Middle East. I can’t help noticing that fundraising appeals for areas in conflict consistently raise less than those for natural disasters, as if some people in need are more or less deserving than others.

Whether or not people give, should not be determined by ignorance and prejudice. Every life is precious.

And in line with our message for Ramadan this year I would encourage people to: "Share your relief with those who need it most."

Jehangir Malik, Islamic Relief’s UK director

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism