Since last week, I have been trying to remember the last time I sat at a dinner table and we talked about the UK's Muslim population – and I can't. Which is probably why, when I read excerpts of a speech given by Baroness Warsi at the University of Leicester, during which she said that prejudice against Muslims in this country has "passed the dinner table test", I initially found myself thinking: er, what test? Whose table?!
But the co-chairman of the Conservative party said she was merely saying publicly what many Muslims feel privately: that it has become acceptable – normal even – for people in this country to prejudice against Muslims, almost in passing, and as a matter of course. Islamophobia, according to Warsi, has "crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability."
Perhaps because I live in London, where approximately 7.5 million people of numerous faiths and races (including an estimated 38% of the UK's Muslim population) live side by side, street by street, casual discrimination against Muslims is not something I am personally familiar with. But let's be frank, Islamophobia exists. In its most obvious form, we have groups like the English Defence League (EDL) popping up, claiming to be protesting against the presence of Islamic militants when actually they're just sitting on a building site to prevent a new mosque being built for a local community in Dudley. More sinister though, and harder to mentally weed out is a gentler form of discrimination taking root in people's day to day perceptions.
Warsi holds the media largely to account for it, suggesting their constant references to either 'moderate' or 'extreme' Muslims only fosters more prejudice. Naturally there is the need to make the distinction between citizens going about their daily lives, and the tiny minority who plan violent attacks, but a British-Arab friend, Sakhr, enlarged for me: "If it's only okay to be a 'moderate', then by extension it means being anything more than 'a little bit Muslim' is unacceptable. Obviously, someone can be very pious without being a militant."
His point is a valid one. And I think there exists among some a bizarre and irrational fear, not helped whatsoever by sensationalist tabloids (the Daily Express issued an apology last year to the East London Mosque after blatantly inferring it was 'radical' and promoting terrorism), that the more a Muslim man holds to his religion, the more likely he is to 'tip over the edge' and start plotting bombs. It's ridiculous and quite unintelligent of us to allow it to seep into our consciousness.
In many faiths there are people who deliberately incite hatred – US pastor Terry Jones, for example, who was denied entry to the UK last week because of his suggestion in 2010 to start an 'International Burn a Koran Day'. That was a helpful suggestion wasn't it? But the very, very great majority do not.
Am I incredibly naive to think that the key to it all is education and understanding? Religious leaders and theologians are currently making waves about the government's decision not to include religious education on a list of GCSEs that will make up the new English baccalaureate. And, agnostic that I am, I totally agree with them. Perhaps older generations, who remember a very different country of decades ago, find the changing face of British culture alien, and they are unlikely to ever take it upon themselves to learn about their neighbours. But my children are growing up in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society and I want them to – in fact, I think is essential for them to – learn about the people with whom they share their road, their town, and their school.
In a world where there are more believers than non-believers, understanding each other better can only be a good thing. Whether they practice a faith or not, shouldn't everyone (atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus...) teach their children a willingness to also learn about other people's? Perhaps I am wishing for some sort of utopia, where knowledge replaces fear and suspicion and everyone simply has respect for different ways of life. For now, I'll just know that prejudice has no place at my table.