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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle