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Islam and racism

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Bush and Blair’s wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have helped to fuel a rise in Islamophobia, says Kevin Ovenden
Issue 1910

“Fanatic”, “terrorist”, “fundamentalist”, “extremist”, “suicide bomber” or just plain “evil”. Those are some of the terms placed next to the word Muslim in the media in the last few days alone.

Painstaking analysis of many thousands of articles and reports over the last few years shows how Muslims and Islam are identified with a violent threat to freedom and civilised values.

A major study published this month by the respected Runnymede Trust found a surge in Islamophobia – prejudice against and hostility towards Muslims.

The chair of the Trust’s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, Dr Richard Stone, was an adviser to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

He says, “On 15 February 2003 the biggest public demonstration ever in British history took place.

“But within weeks the wonderful solidarity shown on 15 February seemed to be unravelling.

“There is now renewed talk of a clash of civilisations and mounting concern that the already fragile foothold gained by Muslim communities in Britain is threatened by ignorance and intolerance.”

He added, “The government has not taken on board, in a deep way, the anti-Muslim prejudice in this country.”

On the contrary, government ministers, who took us to war, have gone along with anti-Muslim scapegoating.

During his visit to India – then governed by the Hindu chauvinist BJP – home secretary David Blunkett called on Muslims “to do more to condemn terrorism”.

He was standing next to politicians who had allowed an anti-Muslim pogrom in the state of Gujarat, which left 2,000 people dead.

Over 600 people have been arrested under his “anti-terror” laws – almost all of them Muslim. But only five of these arrests led to terrorist charges.

The number of Asians stopped and searched by the police has rocketed.

People who supposedly “look Muslim” are harassed when entering government buildings or airport terminals.

Those who turn the media’s Islamophobia into violence and abuse do not distinguish between Asians who are Muslim and those who are not.

Islamophobia is part of a more general racism.

That’s clear from police stop and search figures. Black (Afro-Caribbean) people are even more likely to be stopped and searched under routine police powers than Asians and are eight times more likely to be stopped than whites.

Black children suffer similar levels of educational disadvantage to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (who make up over 90 percent of the 1.8 million Muslims in Britain).

Unemployment rates show the same pattern, which has persisted for decades.

Black people, largely from the West Indies, and Asians, largely from the Indian sub-continent, came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s to meet the demand for labour. Both were thrust into the worst jobs.

All faced anti-immigrant scapegoating, particularly when the economy was thrown into recession in the 1970s.

Blacks were slandered as lazy and criminal. Asians were stereotyped as backward and sneaky.

Both groups faced institutionalised racism and popular racist attitudes dressed up by mainstream politicians as demands to accept “British values and the British way of life”.

Racist discrimination was, and still is, the main obstacle to integrating, not some desire by immigrants to remain separate.

The clearest case is in the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire where mill owners segregated the workforce – with Asians on the night shift and whites on the day shift. Housing was also segregated.

Asians stood out in the 1970s and 1980s as obvious targets for harassment by organised racists or the police.

The same is true in areas of Newham and Tower Hamlets in east London.

Asian people living in these areas are largely Muslim. Until recently they faced harassment as Asians – just as Hindus or Sikhs did in places like Southall in west London.

Now Muslim communities are more likely to be attacked as Muslims. Older anti-Asian, anti-immigrant racism is fused with racist myths about followers of Islam.

What fuels this refashioned racism is the imperialist assault on the Middle East, particularly following 11 September 2001.

The war on Afghanistan and on Iraq is not the product of some hatred of Islam by George Bush, Tony Blair and those who run the US and British states.

It is true that George Bush is a Christian fundamentalist.

But the same fundamentalist right in the Republican Party backed Islamist forces – including Osama Bin Laden – in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Russian occupation.

The US State Department and British Foreign Office presented an image of moral, devout Muslims fighting the “evil, godless empire” of the Soviet Union.

Five years ago Blair and US president Bill Clinton said they were “protecting Muslims” in Kosovo by bombing Serbia, whose main religion is Orthodox Christianity.

The rise in Islamophobia today is a result of the wars, occupations and attempts to crush all opposition to imperialism.

A certain form of racism goes hand in hand with any imperialist war.

The Vietnamese were labelled “gooks” during the Vietnam War.

A hundred years ago children’s books would portray black people as savages or as “childlike”.

If the US and Britain are to get away with bombing wedding parties and torturing prisoners they have to present the victims as less human than people here.

The alternative is for both states to admit they are responsible for a greater slaughter than on 11 September.

So Iraqi deaths are not even officially counted. Iraqi and Afghan people are dehumanised.

But the war on Iraq is not a one-off. It’s part of a century of imperialist intervention in the Middle East and, for the neo-conservative warmongers, a stepping stone to reorganising the whole region under strict US control.

How can you justify imposing a new political order on the people of the Middle East? Only by claiming they are too backward to run their own affairs.

If neo-liberal capitalism enforced by the Pentagon is supposedly paradise on earth, how can you possibly explain why anyone should oppose it? Only by claiming they are irrational.

The US and British governments have tried to draw a distinction between “bad” Muslims, who oppose the West, and “good” Muslims who can be accepted as proper citizens.

Their problem is that most Muslims, while wanting nothing to do with terrorism, rightly oppose imperialism in the Middle East and its support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

So, despite visiting a couple of mosques, Bush and Blair still portray Muslims as being on the opposite side of a “clash of civilisations”.

The phrase was coined by the US imperialist propagandist Samuel Huntington. He identified possible threats to US power and divided the world into “civilisations” that were either friends or enemies of the West.

Tellingly, he wrote of a supposed “Islamo-Confucian” civilisation, conveniently lumping together the Middle East (hostile to US dominance) and China (potentially a rival to the US) as joint enemies of all that is good in the world.

Confrontation with China or another non-Muslim state may happen in the future.

War in the Middle East is happening now and the “war on terror” is also being directed at the significant Muslim population in the West.

It means Muslims face scapegoating like previous generations of immigrants for social and economic crisis at home, and at the same time are held up as a threat from abroad.

In this respect Islamophobia is similar to the anti-Semitism that took root in the early decades of the last century.

Jews were simultaneously accused of corrupting society from within and forming an international conspiracy from without.

Similar rubbish about cultural backwardness and religious fanaticism was hurled at Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia into Britain and western Europe.

As with Muslims today, bigotry dressed up as a defence of “British values” was common in even liberal, respectable circles.

Some Jews understandably reacted to rising hostility by clinging closer to their religion.

But many were drawn to left wing opposition to racism and capitalism. Jews played a disproportionate role in the socialist movement in places like the East End of London.

Two generations later Muslim immigrants to Britain also backed Labour more strongly than voters in general.

Until recently 85 percent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who are overwhelmingly working class, voted Labour.

Over the last decade there has been a rise in the number voting Liberal Democrat or even Tory, which partially reflects the growth of a Muslim middle class.

The last seven years have seen a fresh splintering of Labour’s vote.

Muslims in poor working class areas feel at the sharp end of not only Blair’s warmongering and scapegoating, but also privatisation, job insecurity and all the other assaults working people face.

The left faces a choice. It can fall for the Islamophobic myths peddled by the likes of Robert Kilroy-Silk and regurgitated by “liberal” newspaper columnists.

Or it can resolutely oppose this new respectable racism.

It can build on the tremendous anti-war mobilisations to welcome working class Muslims who are looking for radical answers into a multiracial left.

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