Saturday, September 22, 2007

Islamophobic Britain?

This onslaught risks turning into a racist witch-hunt

The renewed anti-Muslim media campaign is partly driven by a political agenda which seeks to justify war

Seumas Milne

Britons are now more suspicious of Muslims than are Americans or citizens of any other major western European country, including France. According to an international Harris poll last month, nearly 30% of British people believe it's impossible to be both a Muslim and a Briton (compared with 14% who think you can't be French and a Muslim); 38% think the presence of Muslims in the country is a threat to national security (compared with 21% in the US); and 46% believe that Muslims have too much political power in Britain, far above the level of any other surveyed country. You might think that these findings, reported in the Financial Times, would have been the occasion for some soul-searching about where British society is going, the state of community relations, and a new self-restraint in the way Muslim stories are covered in the media.

Not a bit of it. The fact that a large minority of Britons have some of the most Islamophobic attitudes in the western world has passed without comment. Instead, we have since been treated to a renewed barrage of lurid and hostile stories about Muslims which can only have further inflamed anti-Muslim opinion and the community's own sense of being under permanent siege. This isn't just a problem of hate-filled tabloid rants, such as the Express's denunciation of Muslims' "alien and threatening outfits", or Richard Littlejohn's Muslim-baiting in the Mail. For the past three weeks, there has been a stream of hostile coverage in the heavyweight press and on TV current affairs programmes.

This week it is was an hour-long Channel 4 Dispatches about attacks on Muslim converts to Christianity; last week it was the BBC Newsnight programme's 20-minute interview with the latest defector from the non-violent Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir; the week before that it was a Newsnight special on radical Islamist books in east London libraries, complete with sinister music and a round-table debate. The same week there was a Times front-page splash about the "hardline takeover of British mosques", focused on the deeply conservative Deobandi religious movement which has long had a strong presence among British Muslims of Pakistani origin. For both Newsnight programmes, it was apparently felt that Patrick Mercer - the Tory MP sacked by David Cameron for making racially inflammatory remarks and appointed a security adviser by Gordon Brown - was the ideal person to comment on Muslim issues. Meanwhile, the novelist Martin Amis denounced "liberal relativist appeasers" of a "racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitorial, imperialist and genocidal" doctrine.

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The problem isn't necessarily with the stories themselves. There are obviously legitimate issues to report about jihadist or anti-Jewish strains within the Deobandi school, the agenda of a group like Hizb ut-Tahrir that the government originally wanted to ban, or intimidation of converts to any religion. But in a climate of anti-Muslim prejudice, their disproportionate and sensationalist treatment can only feed ethnic tensions ("Christians in Britain are under attack", this week's Dispatches programme began, even if the numbers were tiny). Nor is the record of these kinds of reports impressive - an earlier Dispatches programme on the preaching of hate in British mosques was recently found by the police and Crown Prosecution Service to have "completely distorted" what speakers had said.

The level of Islamophobia highlighted by the Harris poll is obviously partly a response to the July 2005 bombings and later failed terror attacks. But given the fact that most British people have little contact with Muslims, some are bound to be swayed by the media campaigns of the past couple of years - which have not only focused on jihadist groups but also the niqab and multiculturalism. What has given the anti-Muslim onslaught particular force is that many secular liberals have convinced themselves that since Islam is an ideology rather than an ethnicity - and because they see themselves as defending liberal values - they are on the righteous side of racism. In reality, of course, religion isn't only about beliefs, it's also about culture and identity and, as the British National party has worked out, Islam has become a toxic racial proxy.

The relentless public invective against Muslims and Islamism is also clearly fuelled by a political agenda, which seeks to demonstrate that jihadist violence is driven, as Tony Blair and the US neoconservatives always insisted, by a socially disconnected ideology rather than decades of western invasion, occupation and support for dictatorships across the Muslim world. That is certainly the view of Richard Watson, the reporter behind Newsnight's Muslim coverage, who recently wrote that extreme Islamism and terror are the product of a "seductive cult", not western foreign policy, and demanded that British Muslims find new leaders. And the co-author of the thinktank report which formed the basis of Newsnight's programme on Islamist books in Tower Hamlets libraries is the self-proclaimed neocon Douglas Murray.

Gordon Brown is said to want to mimic the clandestine methods used by the CIA against communism during the cold war in the cultural field to win Muslim hearts and minds. If the government's sponsorship of the pliant Sufi Muslim Council is any indication of the way he wants to go, that won't work - nor will any approach that tries to load responsibility for jihadist violence on to the Muslim community while refusing to take responsibility for the government's own role in fanning the flames by supporting aggression and occupation in the Muslim world.

None of this is an argument for refraining from criticising Muslims or their organisations - but it does highlight the need for context and sensitivity in a climate in which Muslims are under a crude assault that would simply not be accepted if targeted on any other community. The relentless media onslaught in Britain on Muslims, their culture and institutions risks turning into a racist witch-hunt. On the ground, it translates into violent attacks - and Crown Prosecution Service figures show that 82% of convictions for identified religiously aggravated offences last year involved attacks on Muslims. Those attacks reportedly spike not only after terrorist incidents but also in response to media feeding frenzies. Some pro-war liberals like to argue that Islamophobia doesn't exist - try telling that to those at the sharp end.


At 5:21 AM, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Very balanced post.

The accusation of Islamophobia, is at tomes as laughable as when those who disagree with Zionism get called anti-Semitic.


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