The Blog

Let's Be Honest About Britain's Islamophobia

'Muslim' vs. 'non-Muslim' distinctions are irrelevant to the biggest problems facing Britain and many other countries, such as economic inequality and global warming - the same crises caused and exacerbated by those who seek to distract us with fear and division.

It's happening again. It never really goes away, but, for different reasons, it tends to come in periodic bursts.

What am I talking about? Britain's latest frenzy of Islamophobic incitement.

The familiar elements are all present. Demands for communal apologies, for explanations and justifications. Come on, the crowd shrieks, convince us that you belong here! Assure us that we're safe with you in our midst! Deny links to the Taliban, condemn Boko Haram, and publicly renounce Al-Qaeda for us all to see!

Just over a century ago, the Conservative MP for Stepney complained that East London was like "a foreign town", while his constituents' bishop warned that immigrants were "swamping whole areas once populated by English people". Then, it was the arrival of Jewish immigrants fleeing waves of anti-Semitic persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe - but the rhetoric and racism are familiar.

In 1901, a journalist wrote that the "island of aliens in the sea of English growing", and "rule by foreign Jews is being set up". The same year saw the formation of a 'British Brothers League', who campaigned for changes to immigration law (remember, nothing racist about 'just' opposing immigration!). Another MP told the House of Commons in 1904 that the Hebrew and Yiddish language press "advocated...all kinds of revolutionary doctrines".

In a recent article in The Jewish Chronicle, a UKIP supporter dismissed any modern parallels with Jewish immigration in the early 20th century. He commented:

In Hendon, there are loads of women dressed in burkas. You feel like a foreigner in your own country, it's very uncomfortable. People might say the same about Jewish men with black hats and beards, but they don't go round blowing up British soldiers.

Make no mistake: the drip-drip bigotry of a thousand newspaper stories, speeches, and earnest demands for serious 'conversations' fed the rise of the EDL in our streets, and it has fed the rise of an 'anti-immigration' political party which allies with the far-right in a European parliament it purports to despise.

"How can you be racist against a multi-racial religion?" goes the line. So said Paul Golding, leader of Britain First, to Vice journalists last month - "I don't dislike Muslims themselves", he continued, "They've been led astray". Outside the Old Bailey, as Lee Rigby's killers were jailed, participants at a demonstration called by Golding and others turned on a random Muslim family, who cowered terrified in a doorway.

Dutch agitator Geert Wilders too once assured us that he doesn't "hate Muslims" - just Islam. He found defenders in Britain, of course. In March this year, Wilders told cheering supporters he would ensure there were "fewer Moroccans" in the Netherlands.

You can't say anything about Islam these days, whines yet another 'brave' non-Muslim being paid to write their opinions. You "can't say" anything about Muslims, complains widely-read journalists like Rod Liddle, in his column for The Spectator, a national magazine of which he is the associate editor.

No one is fooled - not the cynical Westminster inciters, nor the street thugs, and certainly not Britain's Muslims themselves, who dread the morning's front pages and wonder if they will get to work and back again today without being shouted at in the street, without the 'joke' by colleagues.

So let's tick them off - the 'threat' posted by young men returning from fighting the Assad regime in Syria, extremism in schools and the 'Trojan Horse' plot, the 'scandal' of halal meat, the investigation announced by Cameron himself into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK.

These are but the latest battle cries in a list already including, as Nesrine Malik has pointed out in The Guardian, the niaqb, grooming, Sharia courts and Islamic banking. Then there's the numbers game, the paranoid hateful delusions about the 'Islamisation' of Britain, of Europe, of the entire West.

Note, by the way, that it somewhat undermines the (shamelessly disingenuous) plea that the enemy is 'radical Islam', not 'ordinary Muslims', when the same groups and individuals are throwing around statistics for the Muslim population in general.

The differences and diversity you would expect to find in any group of people - of class, political ideology, theological interpretation, culture, national origin, history - all these, for 'Muslims', are collapsed into one, growing, threatening 'community'. Moreover, groups that represent a few hundred British Muslims are thrust repeatedly in front of the cameras in a way that would be the same as asking Nick Griffin to speak on behalf of the White British.

Speaking of Griffin, he has been candid about the logic of going after Muslims. "We bang on about Islam", he said, "because to the ordinary public out there it's the thing they can understand. It's the thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with."

Griffin and the BNP as an organisation may be spent as a political force, after well-organised resistance to their efforts and infighting. But he is unlikely to be the only power-hungry petty demagogue to come to the same conclusions.

Take a look at how issues to do with Islam are covered in the media (where you can't say anything about Muslims these days, remember). The discourse is dominated by conquest, treachery, and violence, isolation and oppositional values. Journalists and editors happily sensationalise accomplices of the right-wing lobby groups and politicians. Some are more obvious culprits, but there is also complicity in the 'anti-extremism' industry, which provides a cover for the more sophisticated 'discussion'.

The "open and honest discussion" that does not take place, of course, as Gary Younge noted in 2006, "about white people". We, writing as a White British person myself, are not expected to speak on behalf of Ukrainians or apologise for arson attacks on mosques.

The question facing British Muslims are numerous, profound, and complex. One of the issues is indeed the role of reactionary, exclusionist theologies, but the people most affected - and best equipped - to confront this particular challenge are British Muslims themselves.

'Muslim' vs. 'non-Muslim' distinctions are irrelevant to the biggest problems facing Britain and many other countries, such as economic inequality and global warming - the same crises caused and exacerbated by those who seek to distract us with fear and division.