By Chris Bambery
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2088

Sharia row triggers wider racist backlash

This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture last week on the Islamic tradition of sharia law and its relationship to the law in Britain.
Issue 2088
Campaigners united in Glasgow in October 2006 at a protest following a brutal assault on an imam in the city (Pic: Duncan Brown)
Campaigners united in Glasgow in October 2006 at a protest following a brutal assault on an imam in the city (Pic: Duncan Brown)

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture last week on the Islamic tradition of sharia law and its relationship to the law in Britain.

His comments were unremarkable as these things go – but they triggered a week long racist backlash in the press.

The Sun’s readers are now being asked to ‘Bash the Bishop’ – though the paper’s current campaign would perhaps be better titled ‘Bash the Muslims’.

For what began as an attack on the archbishop of Canterbury has shifted rapidly – and with grim inevitability – into a yet another assault on Britain’s two million Muslims.

Former home secretary David Blunkett joined the fray on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He laid into ‘well-meaning liberals’ who ‘believe that we have to accommodate something which is external to our country’.

The logic of Blunkett’s position is chilling. If Islam is an ‘external’ religion then Britain’s Muslims – who are overwhelmingly from ethnic minority backgrounds – do not properly belong in Britain.

This is only a breath away from the old racist slogan of the 1970s, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’.

Kelvin McKenzie, the Sun’s former editor, appeared on a Sunday morning BBC show denouncing Islam as a ‘medieval’ religion and slating its mistreatment of women – this from a man who introduced topless darts to our television screens.

The subtext to much of this argument is that Christianity is more ‘enlightened’ than Islam.

Except that while the Catholic church was burning people at the stake for the outrageous suggestion that the earth might rotate round the sun, Islamic Europe in Spain and Sicily helped establish science and medicine.

Another common argument from the bigots was the fate that would allegedly befall the archbishop if he were to preach in Saudi Arabia. This ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the US and Britain.

Our leaders defend its royal rulers to the hilt, lavishing arms on them and greasing their palms with dollars and sterling to secure contracts.

Tony Blair went so far as to describe Saudi Arabia as ‘a friend of the civilised world’ and justified its ban on trade unions and use of judicial torture as ‘their culture, their way of life’.

The media hysteria was quick to branch out from sharia into a wider attack on anything deemed ‘Islamic’.

Last weekend the Independent on Sunday ran a front page headline claiming there were 17,000 ‘honour’ crimes against women in Britain each year. The picture was of a Muslim woman in a veil, just in case anybody missed the point.

The sources for this tale were some highly dubious extrapolated statistics provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers – an institution hardly famed for its unflinching support for women’s rights.

The Independent’s story focused solely on Muslim cases of domestic violence. Nowhere did it mention that two women are killed each week in Britain by a current or former partner – and the vast majority of these are non-Muslims.


Then came the Sunday Times headline, ‘Minister warns of ‘inbred’ Muslims’. This followed Phil Woolas, the environment minister, claiming that arranged marriages between first cousins in the Pakistani population were responsible for creating ‘genetic problems’.

This whole furore is not about theology or the judicial system. First and foremost, it’s about racism. The powers that be have proclaimed Islam to be an ‘inferior’ religion and civilisation. And the constant tirade of Islamophobia they unleash translates into everyday bigotry and daily attacks on Muslims.

Behind this outpouring of hate is the ‘war on terror’ led by the US and Britain. And some of the Muslim-bashing commentators are at least explicit about this link.

Matthew d’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph writes, ‘We are at war with fundamentalist Islam… British troops are risking their lives against Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Afghanistan… Could [Williams] have chosen a worse geopolitical context in which to call for the official incorporation of sharia rules into the law of the land?’

Ever since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were first posed as a ‘clash of civilisation’, as a decades long crusade of Western ‘democracy’ against Muslim ‘totalitarianism’, Islamophobia has slowly dripped into the body politic of the US, Britain and other countries.

Here in Britain this means longer detention without charge or access to a lawyer, the bugging of defendants, increased stop and search under terror laws and constant demands on the Muslim population to prove their loyalty to a state that treats them like dirt.

We see constant US and British wars and occupations, unflinching support for oppressive regimes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, the demonisation of Islam paraded endlessly through our media. All this is guaranteed to breed simmering anger across the globe.

The alternative is to demonstrate that Muslims and non-Muslims stand together in rejecting this ‘war on terror’, the assault on our civil liberties and the Islamphobic slanders.

The anti-war demonstrations on 15 March should be a showcase for our response to George Bush, Gordon Brown and their ideological crusaders.

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