Sometimes it takes so long to figure out what's wrong with a question that you never quite get to the answer. At the forum on being British and Muslim organized by the Guardian last week, participants argued that some of the questions and issues being raised would never be put to white Christians, for example. These included: "do you have a duty to vote and/or participate in British political life?"; "do you have a responsibility to inform on political or religious groups who use violence to achieve political ends?"; and "do you want integration into British society or parallel lives? Why?"
The reluctance to confront these particular questions didn't stifle debate, but it raises broader issue of how and when to withdraw from problematic dialogues.
Sometimes, though not in this forum, questions can be so pregnant with assumptions that they are, arguably, better left unanswered. Not because they do not relate to important issues, but because they are so loaded with prejudice and crippled by ignorance, thoughtless in tone and reckless in content, that the manner in which they are put renders them incapable of addressing important issues. To engage with them would be to legitimize their bias.
Terms of reference
This is not an issue confined to race or religion. The victors in every battle do not just write history (and then rewrite it continually until the vanquished have either been disappeared or demonized beyond all recognition), they also frame the terms of reference for the present. Questions, and those who pose them, are never neutral, but are both informed and misinformed by the received wisdom of place and time.
Nobody ever asks: "when did you first realize you were straight?" or "how do you balance fatherhood and work?" One day, hopefully, they might. But in the meantime some identities will be subject to relentless examination, while others coast by with eternal presumption. Those who ask the questions of others without interrogating themselves are effectively saying: this is our world, you're just living in it.
So we inquire in our own image with all the limitations and prejudices implied. The point is not that we should ask tough questions of others -- our best and only hope is that we all keep talking. But if you want a substantial answer, you must ask a substantial question. The respondent may meet you half way, but if the person asking the questions hasn't moved an inch, half of nothing will not take either of them very far.
One of the most distinguished members of the panel at the Guardian forum, academic Tariq Ramadan, argued that turning their backs on the court of British public opinion, like a republican detainee before a Diplock judge, was not an option for British Muslims.
Not an answer
"Just because they are not asking others does not mean that the question is not legitimate," he said. "You cannot get rid of perceptions by saying that your question is wrong. It's like saying to someone who says to you `I'm scared. I feel that you are a threat to this society'. And you say `No, It's not good to be scared.' If I am scared, I am scared. Now try to help me to put it in another way."
Mr Ramadan has a point. If you are interested in conversing with the world around you, then you cannot simply ask people to change the subject every time a subject you do not like comes up. Such pre-emptive defensiveness stands little chance of winning over potential support and shows every sign of a lack of confidence in your ability to make yourself understood. We cannot choose the terrain on which these battles are fought; nor can we dictate the rules. These are subject to negotiation.