Last November, on the steps of Tate Britain, I witnessed a scene that troubles me still.
A furious Asian father was shaking his young son and tearing up the picture his child had drawn.
The boy kicked and cried. Recognising my face from TV appearances I had made as a commentator on current affairs, the father came across to say ‘hello’.
So I asked him what his child had done that had made him so angry. He explained that according to his Islamic mentors, drawing pictures of people was forbidden.
I was flabbergasted. After all, this was in the middle of Britain’s multi-cultural capital – a modern metropolis, not some dusty backstreet in Kabul.
What harm can there be in a picture?
So I asked the man if he owned a camera. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘And a video camera.’
So why, I asked, was it acceptable for him to take pictures, but not for his child to draw a stick figure?
‘The madrasa teacher told me children are not allowed to,’ he said, referring to the places of religious instruction for Muslim children, which are the equivalent of Sunday schools for Christians.
‘I am not an educated man, so I must listen to them.’
You might think this encounter was a case of an ill-educated parent misinterpreting the teachings of his elders.
Alas, in the past year I have come to realise his attitude towards his child is far from unique.
Such fundamentalist beliefs about parenthood are not uncommon. In private, teachers, lecturers, community, youth and social workers have told me many more such stories of the suppression of simple childhood pleasures in the name of Islam.
Teachers, community, youth and social workers have told me many stories of the suppression of simple childhood pleasures in the name of Islam
An investigation by the BBC revealed one London school where more than 20 Muslim pupils had been removed from music lessons because their parents felt such teaching to be anti-Islamic.
Another one- off? No, the Muslim Council of Britain confirmed that music lessons are likely to be ‘unacceptable’ to 10 per cent of Muslims.
What should be a simple pleasure is instead seen by thousands of families as a symbol of moral decadence.
In my role as chair of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), which campaigns against fanaticism, many inner-city teachers have told me they feel paralysed by extreme demands.
Brainwashed Muslim parents ask school librarians not to lend their children storybooks. (Jacqueline Wilson, the former Children’s Laureate, is targeted for ‘leading children astray’ with her stories that deal with contemporary social issues, such as single motherhood.)
Some Muslim children have been kept away from school visits to temples, churches and art galleries.
Teddy bears and pets are also branded un-Islamic.
How about the daughter of a relative of mine, who was having a birthday-party and invited all the girls in her class.
The Muslim pupils organised a boycott because she had invited ‘unbelievers’.
In one secondary school, a talented Muslim pupil was cast in the leading role in the George Bernard Shaw play Caesar And Cleopatra.
Her parents didn’t seem to object, and all was going well until the dress rehearsal, when she turned up at school with bruises on her face, crying and refusing to go on stage.
The local imam had summoned her family and warned them that acting in plays was ‘worse than whoredom’.
The father, an engineer, refused to be cowed, but the mother, scared of what people would say, beat her daughter and threatened to take her out of school (which she duly did).
In my role as chair of the BMSD, I am advising young people in such hard situations.
Take 13-year-old Femida, who lives in a refuge with her Jordanian mother, a wedding singer.
Her father, a convert to Islam, had become more and more authoritarian.
Mother and daughter fled after he took a hammer to the CD player and TV set, and tried to throttle his wife.
‘He was screaming that he wanted to kill my voice so I could be a good Muslim,’ says Femida.
I am also helping Sana, a beautiful, 20-year-old Somali woman. Her family was happy once. Her father, a teacher, believed in female emancipation.
They had books, radios and threw parties.
‘I dress modestly, but I could buy nice clothes, wear earrings, dance,’ she says.
Five years ago, her father died and her brother became head of the family.
Vulnerable as they are, children and young people cannot be expected to resist the rules and new order to protect their futures
At university, he had joined a radical Islamic society and Sana and her mother had to submit to his fanatical interpretation of Islam.
Sana has since had a breakdown.
I have met Muslim lawyers and academics who have turned to Taliban-style beliefs.
These men propagate Wahhabism – the joyless and backward Saudi belief system followed by Al Qaeda and espoused by hate preachers such as omar Bakri and his successor Anjem Choudary.
In 2003, Bakri told a journalist that their brand of Islam would get to increasing numbers of young minds and hearts.
It has – and to their parents, too.
The rapid spread of rigid, diehard Islam is deeply worrying. Yet those in power, focused on terrorist cells, seem oblivious to this other peril.
For many of us Muslims, this creeping Talibanisation of childhood is unendurable.
On September 10, 2001, in a newspaper column, I condemned the brutal Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, where girls and women, shrouded in full burkas, were beaten and denied health and education.
Joy was banished, as it was in China during the Cultural revolution. Unless stopped, I wrote, the Taliban would extend their reach beyond Afghanistan.
The very next day, Taliban-backed Al Qaeda operatives hijacked planes and brought down the Twin Towers.
The U.S., Britain and other allies went into Afghanistan to fight a war that goes on and on. Two reasons were given: to stop Al Qaeda and liberate the people from the oppressive regime.
I could never have imagined, nine years on, that the Taliban would be claiming to have ‘won the war’ in Afghanistan.
Or, much worse, that our politicians and Muslim ‘leaders’ here would allow their twisted ideology to spread across Britain.
Make no mistake, Taliban devotees are in our schools, playgrounds, homes, mosques, political parties, public service, private firms and universities.
And if we are to have any hope of combating them, we need to stop this attitude of appeasement and understand why so many Muslims are attracted to the most punishing forms of belief, suppressing women and children.
Eye-watering amounts of Saudi money goes into promoting Wahhabism.
They fund mosques, religious-schools, imams, conferences and trips to Saudi Arabia.
They are our wealthy allies and so are never questioned or stopped.
Free-thinking Muslims have lacked courage to oppose what is going on, while politicians do nothing for cynical reasons – best, they think, not to antagonise possible voters.
Meanwhile, the liberal position is to let people be and do what they wish within the law. Liberals tolerate the intolerable because they don’t have to live with the consequences. Yet the problem is in part caused by liberal values.
Appalled by our excessively consumerist and permissive societies (as are many non- Muslims), Muslim families are trying to find ways to protect their children.
Samad Hussein, who runs a corner shop near my home, speaks for many when he says: ‘When I first came to England, it was a nice country – polite, respectful.
‘People knew good behaviour. My older children had English friends, no problem.
‘Now these girls, nearly naked in the roads, drinking and swearing, sex everywhere. I can’t let my young daughters be like that.
‘So I send them to Muslim schools. I don’t want to, but it is bad out there.’
The Wahhabi crusaders step in, exploit these fears and promise salvation.
They are as canny and persuasive as other cult leaders, and use modern technology to get to young people.
Here, curtailed and deficient education endured by many Muslim children is seen as a religious entitlement, which, if opposed, apparently confirms Islamophobia. Tolerant Muslims who fear and loathe the propagators of Bin Laden’s Islam can see where this will lead
And then there is the connection with Muslim homelands, all of which are getting more Talibanised, Pakistan most of all.
The result is utterly corrosive, in particular for women and children who are paying the social price for fundamentalism.
Invaluable educational activities and ordinary pleasures are considered haram – sinful – by fathers and husbands.
Vulnerable as they are, children and young people cannot be expected to resist the rules and new order to protect their futures.
If this was happening in any other nation, we would be condemning it loudly.
Yet here, curtailed and deficient education endured by many Muslim children is seen as a religious entitlement, which, if opposed, apparently confirms Islamophobia.
Tolerant Muslims who fear and loathe the propagators of Bin Laden’s Islam can see where this will lead.
Young British Muslims – too many of whom are way behind in educational achievements and at the bottom of the job market – will be affected unless we can find a way of stopping the ideologues.
The full burka has been banned in France (where the hijab – a headscarf – is also not allowed in schools) and other European nations will follow.
In Britain, where personal liberty is sacrosanct, such state actions would appear authoritarian.
To me, that hands-off approach makes no sense.
Why are we fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and indulging Taliban values here?
Even if it offends liberal principles, the powerful must find a way of stopping Islamicists from promulgating their distorted creed.
If they don’t, the future is bleak for Muslims and the country. Many of us British Muslims care deeply about both.