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After Woolwich – beating back the racist backlash

This article is over 10 years, 8 months old
Attacks on Muslims are on the rise in the wake of the murder of a soldier in Woolwich last month. Politicians may be quick to urge calm but it’s their policies that are the main drivers of racism, says Yuri Prasad
Issue 2356
EDL thugs have been drawn from football terraces into a fight against Muslims and the left

EDL thugs have been drawn from football terraces into a fight against Muslims and the left (Pic: Guy Smallman)

There has been a major step change in racism since the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month.

The number of racist attacks on Muslims has risen sharply, according to monitoring organisations. Many victims say there is an even greater mood of intimidation than after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005.

The Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks group, Tell Mama, received 162 calls in the week after the killing—a 15-fold increase on last year’s average. Incidents ranged from anti-Muslim graffiti to physical assaults on people.

A typical case occurred in the Dixie Chicken takeaway run by a Muslim family in Newham, east London. Two men entered and banged on the counter, shouting, “You killed one of our soldiers. We’ll kill you,” before vandalising the shop.

The English Defence League (EDL) mobilised some big protests in the wake of Woolwich.

Anti-racist mobilisations had inflicted major setbacks on the EDL in recent years. Now it, and the Nazi British National Party (BNP) are trying to relaunch themselves.

The EDL tried to march in more than 30 towns last weekend and Unite Against Fascism mobilised against them. The far right’s attempts to revive is likely to feed into the escalating number of attacks. 

In the past year 54 percent of attacks Tell Mama recorded were linked to supporters of such groups.

Politicians have been quick to call for calm and urge “unity”, but the state is the biggest driver of racism in Britain. The demonisation of Muslims became government policy during the “war on terror” that followed 9/11. 

Tony Blair blamed domestic terrorism on those he accused of failing to integrate into British society. He would not accept that British foreign policy or the ongoing slaughter of imperial wars could cause anger among Muslims. 

Security services, the police and the media joined the never-ending search for “Muslim extremists”. 

They have enthusiastically persecuted many innocent people. Some of those convicted were lucky enough to be freed when evidence turned out to be just tittle-tattle.

Others were less fortunate. Brazilian Jean Charles De Menezes was shot and killed in 2005 by police who suspected he was a Muslim terrorist. Mohammed Abdul Kahar was shot by anti-terror police raiding his house in east London in 2006.


Neither man had anything to do with terrorism, but their shootings showed that Muslims—or people who might be mistaken for them—would be presumed guilty.

David Cameron was quick to follow Blair’s lead. He urged European leaders in 2011, to support his “muscular liberalism” that was strong enough to take on a “warped interpretation of Islam”.

But his tone made it clear that all Muslims were in the spotlight. Hearing senior politicians talk in this way legitimised views that were previously thought unacceptable. 

With the liberal media acting as an echo chamber for Islamophobic politics it is no surprise that surveys began to show increasing hostility to Muslims.

As the recession started to bite this became linked with more negative attitudes to all people from immigrant backgrounds. 

Islamophobia fits well into existing patterns of racism. And the ruling class and the state are the most significant driver of this wider prejudice too.

The first decade of the new millennium was the peak of the “war on terror”. It was then that the rate of police stop and search among black and Asian people rose by 120 percent. For white people the increase was just 7 percent.

Movements against war and racism have brought Muslims and non-Muslims together

Movements against war and racism have brought Muslims and non-Muslims together (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Politicians from all the main parties still claim that migrants drive down wages and overrun public services, despite all evidence to the contrary.

They are united in the hope that by repeating this lie they will divert anger away from themselves and their austerity.

Their efforts have led to both newly arrived migrants, and those whose families have been here for generations, being targeted by racist laws and sometimes racist gangs.

Health workers say that the immigration status of even those needing emergency treatment is now routinely checked at many hospitals. The effect of such measures is to demonise anyone designated “foreign” and reinforce the impression that they are the cause of social problems and deprivation.

One result of this racism has been rapid rise of the far right party Ukip.

By threatening to take votes from its mainstream rivals, the party has been able to set the terms of the immigration debate. 

Labour leader Ed Miliband tried to outbid Ukip by telling the Sun newspaper about his plans to “deal with people’s concerns” on immigration. 

But this only gave racists more credibility among those who look to Labour. 

The emergence of a right wing populist party, built largely on hostility to migrants, puts Britain into line with many other countries in Europe.

But there are ways in which this country differs from the continent. So far, there have been no moves to further demonise Muslims by banning the veil in schools and public places.


And, thankfully, there have been no significant movements to tear down mosques or prevent the building of new ones, as there have been in some parts of Europe.

This is not because racist politicians here would not go that far, but because they know they would face massive opposition.

Millions of people in Britain have had the experience of working and living alongside each other.

Radical mass opposition to fascism—in groups such as the Anti Nazi League, and later in Unite Against Fascism—has been part of political life in Britain for generations.

During the anti-Iraq war movemen, many people learned how to counter Islamophobic prejudices and organise resistance. 

This means that the racist right must always fear being challenged by militant opposition. 

And, the collective experience of fighting back over economic issues means that the British working class is more united than some suggest.

A massive 84 percent of people told a YouGov survey last week that they would “never” consider joining a group like the EDL—a 7 percent rise on last year. 

Even among those who want immigration reduced there are contradictions. Of the same group, 64 percent also think immigrants had a good cultural impact on Britain in the past decade, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.

Anti-racists can resolve these contradictions in our favour if we continue take on the arguments.

We can convince people that immigration is not to blame for the economic crisis, and Muslims are not to blame for terror. Part of that process is mobilising big numbers against the far right.

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