There has been an increase in Islamophobia since the killing of soldier Lee Rigby. Talat Ahmed looks at the role played by the state in fostering Islamophobia and at the potential for resistance.
The arson attack on the Harlow Islamic Centre in August was the latest in a worrying spike of violence directed against Muslims that was triggered by the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last May.
The Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) project recorded 212 Islamophobic incidents in the week after the killing, compared with 532 incidents in 2012, while Metropolitan Police commander Simon Letchford admitted that recorded attacks against Muslims in London alone increased eight-fold following Woolwich.
These attacks came against a background of heightened Islamophobia. The press labelled the Woolwich culprits “Islamic fanatics wielding meat cleavers”. Politicians of all parties demanded that Muslims unequivocally condemn the murder and for “good” Muslims to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain. Given this, it’s not surprising that a YouGov poll found that one in three people thought Muslims were “a threat to democracy”.
In the decade following 9/11 the conflation of Muslims with terrorism, fanaticism and intolerance has become part of everyday language. The “normalisation” of Islamophobic attitudes demonstrates how this has become the cutting edge of contemporary racism in British society.
So although the Nazi British National Party (BNP) could distribute a leaflet entitled “The truth about I.S.L.A.M.” – an acronym for “Intolerance, Slaughter, Looting, Arson and Molestation of women” – these attitudes have seeped deep into mainstream consciousness.
In July the Daily Mail newspaper ridiculed Channel 4 TV for broadcasting the daily call to prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, claiming it was “divisive”, “bad taste” and part of the “anti-Christian bias of the intellectual establishment”.
Casual anti-Muslim comments have become so mainstream that the former Manchester United manager, Ron Atkinson, asked a fellow contestant on the Big Brother TV programme, “You’re not carrying a bomb with you?” after she put a jumper over her head.
The rise in Islamophobia is not confined to Britain. The ban on building mosques, erecting minarets and the wearing of the veil or Islamic headscarves has institutionalised an anti-Muslim narrative based on the supposed fear that Europe is becoming “Islamified”. Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage in Norway 2011 that left 77 dead was the most extreme expression of this anti-Muslim hatred.
The rhetoric of Islamophobia is based upon the belief that Muslims refuse to integrate, their children do not speak English, and they live in segregated communities and adhere to a faith and way of life that are hostile to British, European and “Western” values. These ideas place the onus on the victims of racism rather than a society that has racism deeply enshrined within it.
Faced with this it is understandable why many Muslims see Islamophobia as representing a distinct form of racism. Though contemporary racism is dominated by anti-Muslim overtones it would be a mistake to view it as something unique or new. This is not that different to the way that African-Caribbean men are labelled “lazy, workshy, feckless”. Anti-Muslim racism could not exist without older forms of racist ideas being present.
Islamophobic attitudes also present Islam as a monolithic creed. Muslims are as heterogeneous and varied as any other “faith” community. The Muslim presence in Britain stems from India and the subcontinent, from West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East as well as Turkey and Eastern Europe.
The traditions that these communities are shaped by stem from the national and ethnic characteristics of the societies they came from. Islam, like every other religion, is fluid, subject to change and comprises multiple influences in its development.
More fundamentally, British Muslims are also shaped by class. Those who are seen as “community leaders” invariably represent middle class interests, based in the hierarchy of the clergy and Muslim businessmen. In June Mayor Boris Johnson invited the World Islamic Economic Forum to hold its conference in London. One aim will be to explore the possibility of establishing Islamic banks across the capital.
These bourgeois interest groups are a million miles away from the majority of working class Muslims who work in offices, shops, schools, hospitals and live on estates. These are the people who are the most likely victims of Islamophobia, wider racism, police surveillance and harassment.
Good versus bad
The tendency to talk of “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims is not just confined to our rulers. Many liberal commentators and some on the left regard Islamists as the same as, if not worse than, the extreme right wing or fascist groups. So when the comedian Russell Brand said that the blame for Lee Rigby’s murder lay with the madness of individuals and not Muslims, it was a welcome attempt to challenge Islamophobia. But Brand went on to add that he thought Lee Rigby’s killers were as mad as the EDL and the BNP fascists.
This tendency to view Islamicism as equal to fascism is not new. The late Fred Halliday, former editor of New Left Review, described the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as “Islam with a fascist face”. During the First Gulf War in 1990-91 Halliday and liberal commentators such as Michael Ignatiev declared they would support Western imperialism against “Islamic fascism”.
Similarly in 1989 the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses led many on the left to attack Muslims being akin to “Nazi book-burners” for their opposition to Rushdie’s book.
As socialists we understand why people can look towards religious ideas either as a form of faith or as political ideology in the face of oppression. As such we never equate Islamists with fascism. Fascism is a movement of the petty bourgeoisie, which ultimately presents itself as a viable tool to the ruling class to destroy all forms of working class and trade union organisation. Islamist activists, whatever the weaknesses of their politics, pose a challenge to the system albeit in a distorted and inconsistent manner.
Co-option and repression
Islamophobia as a form of racism comes from the top of society. It is used by our rulers to witch-hunt and scapegoat, but it is also designed to foster divisions within the working class. The constant whipping up of an “Islamic threat” goes hand in hand with draconian measures to restrict immigration, to impose curfews and control orders on anyone deemed a threat to “British values”.
The Woolwich tragedy led to calls for the law to be tightened up on radical preachers, extremist websites and Islamist organisations. Boris Johnson has demanded that universities “monitor” Islamic societies, while home secretary Theresa May has expanded her powers to censor “extremist and radical” messages on the internet.
In June six Asian men were sentenced to 18 years for planning an attack on an EDL march. This is in contrast to the kid-glove approach of the police and the state to both EDL and BNP demonstrations despite their violence, racism and calls for anti-Muslim pogroms.
The policy of coercion is combined with a strategy of co-option. The pressure on mosque leaders and community activists to demonstrate their commitment to British values and assimilation has been most pronounced since Woolwich. Similarly, after the London bombings of July 2005, many Muslim activists were pushed onto the defensive and into retreating from any public opposition to war and imperialism.
This tactic is not new. In the 1980s a whole raft of policies were introduced by the then Thatcher government to incorporate some sections of the black community following the nationwide riots. Many activists were drawn to the Labour Party’s Black Sections in the hope of reforming the party into a mass anti-racist activist organisation.
In this endeavour the main vehicle for pushing anti-racist policies was so-called “municipal socialism”, spearheaded by Ken Livingston’s Greater London Council (GLC) as a policy to provide community resources. However, this top-down approach encouraged different sections of the community to apply for funding on the basis of ethnic, religious and linguistic identity. The fragmentation of that era is something we are still living with today in terms of Muslims seeing themselves as a distinct entity.
Faced with Islamophobia the response of some Muslims has been to go on the defensive – a form of “quietism” or retreat whereby people withdraw from society in the hope of avoiding its worst excesses. This level of disengagement can lead to identify with overt Islamic “symbolism” – adopting a certain type of dress code, not eating pork, abstaining from alcohol, having traditional marriages and observing certain religious ceremonies.
Though understandable, this approach lends itself to a certain form of “lifestyleism”. This dovetails with an electoral politics that seeks to represent distinct “Muslim interests” within existing institutions. The main weakness with this approach is that it can safely incorporate genuine concerns and grievances of all Muslims in a strategy of reform, rather than challenging the roots of Islamophobia.
Others have been drawn to radical Islamist ideas that led to the Woolwich killing or 7/7 bombings. But it does not matter how many soldiers are killed, planes hijacked or people kidnapped, the state will always be able to overcome such diffuse armed threats with heightened levels of repression.
Fighting Islamophobia has to be at the heart of fighting racism, as its roots are deeply embedded in a society that is organised for the benefit of a minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority.
Capitalism has always used racism and xenophobia to drive a wedge within the working class in order to cement, sustain and strengthen its rule. In this sense Islamophobia is a class weapon in the same way that racism in general is. We cannot talk about Islamophobia without talking about the material conditions of a class-ridden society. Therefore for socialists the necessity to overthrow the society that is based upon racism and class division is of critical importance.
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