Socialist Worker

Islamophobia: How the new racism is fuelled by old prejudices

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 2239

Is it any wonder that so many Muslims in Britain feel under siege? For 30 years they have faced a growing tide of Islamophobia.

Gutter press tabloids and respectable broadsheets are filled with lurid stories of bomb plots, radical preachers, and Muslim men “grooming” young white girls.

Muslim homes, mosques, and even graveyards are regular targets for attack.

And now the prime minister has joined in the bashing.

The Tory leader’s assault is part of a much wider phenomenon of Islamophobia—a form of racism that suggests that Islam is incompatible with European “Enlightenment values” such as democracy, human rights, and women’s and gay equality.

Muslims, the racists say, simply cannot adapt to living in Western societies.

They are naturally intolerant of those who do not share their views and are, therefore, driven to separate themselves off from the rest of society by living in ghettos and wearing garments, like the veil, that mark them out as different.

The growth of this Islamophobic thought is the combination of two trends.

First, state-sponsored racism against Muslims that builds upon older prejudices. Politicians are keen to scapegoat what they see as Islamic culture for their own failings.

Humiliation

When Muslims find themselves pushed into particular areas of a city, either by council policy or by the need to defend themselves against attack, they are chastised for “failing to integrate”.

When education services are cut, it is said that Muslims are unwilling to learn the language of their “hosts”.

Since the end of the Cold War, these slurs have been combined with a justification for imperialism’s projects in the Muslim world—a process that dramatically intensified with the beginning of the “war on terror” in 2001.

Now the state offers those who follow Islam a choice—either you can be “good Muslims” and accept Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.

Or, be prepared to be cast as the “enemy within” and subjected to endless persecution.

Last year 100,000 people were searched under the Terrorism Act—yet none were charged with terror offences.

The second trend, is the way that much of the liberal left has failed to challenge this.

They go along with the bigotry that claims there is something uniquely backward about Islam that makes it incompatible with “British” values—though exactly what is rarely specified.

They have therefore decided that their anti-racism does not extend as far as Muslims.

Some have gone so far as to equate Islam with fascism. As far back as 1984 there were already signs of a new racism directed particularly at Muslims.

That year, Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford used the pages of the hard right Salisbury Review to say that a “race lobby” was supposedly stopping people speaking out about “family traditions” that caused ethnic minority children to fail at school.

More than 90 percent of parents at Honeyford’s school were Pakistani or Bangladeshi in origin. They were rightly livid and organised a campaign to get him sacked.

The Tory press tried to turn him into a folk hero, and reverse the trend of multiculturalism in schools.

The attempt largely failed, and Honeyford never again returned to the classroom.

But the depiction of Asians in general—and Muslims in particular—as “semi-literate” and “backward” became popular racist stereotypes.

These notions were to be given greater respectability in the crisis that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1989.

The book caused great offence among Muslims and led to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini condemning Rushdie to death.

To many Muslims The Satanic Verses came to symbolise the humiliation and discrimination they suffered, both in Britain and throughout the world.

The angry response included protests and burnings of the book across the world.

A racist backlash against Muslims took hold. The liberal left was sent into a tailspin.

Some liberals became unable to separate Rushdie’s right to publish his book from the need to defend an entire religious minority being painted as intrinsically intolerant and violent.

When in 2001 outrage at racist attacks, discrimination and police harassment exploded in riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, the way that some former anti-racists had abandoned Muslims became clear.

Julie Burchill, for example, used her Guardian column to lambast Islam. She concluded, “We have reason to be suspicious of Islam and to treat it differently from other major religions… While the history of the other religions is one of moving forward out of oppressive darkness and into tolerance, Islam is doing it the other way round.”

This notion of the Islamic East as medieval barbarism and the Christian West as “Enlightened” has proved useful to governments in the period after 9/11.

It provides a useful distraction for the real reasons behind the growing conflict in the Arab world.

Rather than the “war on terror” being concerned with imperialist control, we are told that it is being fought to keep the Middle East and Asia free from Islamist oppression—and us safe from Islamic terrorism.

Since the start of the war a new wave of Islamophobia has spread across Europe.

Mainstream

The rapid growth of anti‑Muslim sentiment in Denmark and the Netherlands are examples of this.

So too is France’s law banning Muslim school girls from wearing headscarves, the banning of minarets in Switzerland and the racist rants from Germany’s chancellor Merkel.

In each country mainstream politicians have engaged with ideas that were once relegated to the margins—and more traditional fascist organisations have been encouraged.

The stakes are incredibly high—and this puts a huge responsibility on the left.

Beneath the surface of British society there is a simmering anger.

If the right are successful in turning it against Muslims and other minorities it will be a major blow to the prospect of a working class revolt against the Tories and the economic crisis.

But a strong anti-racist movement that successfully blocks Cameron’s attempt to stoke Islamophobia will boost the coming fight over who will pay for the crisis.


Myths

Muslims cut themselves off from others, creating “self segregation”

Racists like to say that there are “no-go” areas where white people are not welcome, while liberals often wring their hands about “integration”.

Yet one survey found there are no areas in Britain where more than three quarters are from an ethnic minority—while two thirds of areas are 98 percent white.


Muslims are “backward” on women’s rights

To begin with, Muslims don’t all think the same thing. Some are left wing, some are hard conservatives.

We’re told the veil oppresses women—and that this means we must ban it. But the most prevalent pressure on Muslim women in Britain is not to wear Islamic dress.

A woman should have the right to choose what she wears rather than being told by anyone—especially a hypocrite like David Cameron.


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