The rise of Islamophobia

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Anti-Muslim racism is on the increase. Dave Weltman looks at how Muslims have been scapegoated in Britain and across Europe.

The trend towards making anti-Muslim racism "respectable" continues to grow relentlessly throughout Europe. There is the success, for example, of those who look likely in the next few months to win a ban on Muslim women wearing garments to cover the face - whether citing "security" concerns in Belgium or "defence of national values" in France. In Switzerland the recent outlawing of minarets through a referendum is being looked upon by reactionaries across the continent as a step towards normalising the arguments that portray mosques as "alien" and threatening cultural impositions.

The Tory general election manifesto did not go as far as that of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which called for a ban on the burqa. But it did employ a certain type of double-speak around the issue of "community relations". On the one hand, it resolved to "tackle all extremism which promotes violence or hatred and challenge racism and bigotry in all its manifestations" as part of "building stronger, more integrated communities". But, a few lines later in the manifesto, the "unacceptable cultural practices" mentioned as dividing communities were those which the right wing press has repeatedly associated with Muslims.

Thus it promises "classifying khat [the narcotic bark chewed by many from the Somali and Yemeni community, but also by many other people], closing polygamy loopholes, tackling forced marriages, and ensuring religious courts act in accordance with the Arbitration Act". We can reasonably suppose that it was not the Beth Din Jewish religious courts, in daily use for centuries in Britain, which were being referred to.

A worrying illustration of these "community relations" in practice came when Tory education minister Michael Gove came out against the building of a mosque in his Camberley constituency. According to Gove's 2006 book, Celsius 7/7, he believes that suicidal violence is integral to political Islam.

It is entirely possible to make the most stereotypical and derogatory attacks on Islam, and Muslims in general, and still be taken seriously in public life. The same could certainly not be said for someone who becomes known as anti-Semitic. Even the BNP recently attempted to put forward noxious justification for why it no longer has such a big problem with Jews. This is reflected in the fashionable rebranding of the West as resting on Judeo-Christian roots. By contrast, prior to the Second World War when it was mainly a Christian heritage which was cited, it was the British credentials of all "Semites" (Jews and Arabs) which were regularly questioned.

One of the big recent discoveries, asserted across the political spectrum, is of how Islam is uniquely predisposed to the oppression of women. Again the double standards are quite blatant, with the failure to mention the various Christian communities which advocate extremely conservative views on the family, motherhood and reproductive rights, for example.

The fixation with the head coverings of Muslim women involves a refusal to see them as part of a complicated historical process of identity formation. Instead they are seen simply as some eternally fixed element of "Islamic religion", rather than meaning different things at different times. Indeed, most of the debate has been characterised by a lack of interest in the varied meanings which such things are given by the women themselves. Such women are often criticised for refusing to accept that their independence can only come as part of affirming the inferiority of their culture.

Women's bodies

It is interesting to compare the commentary around Muslim women with that of the commodification of women's bodies. The market-driven pressure to aspire to an extremely restricted range of body shapes and sexual personas is seen as somehow liberating. In this context, one rarely hears the same doubt over women's accounts of their actions relative to their "real" interests and needs. This is restricted to dealing with Muslim women, who are simply instructed that the veil always has and always will represent servitude.

In addition, we could also mention the case of cuts affecting adult education, including English for Speakers of Other Languages courses. For example, 250 jobs are under threat in Bristol due to £2.4 million in government funding being cancelled. In many areas of the country such cuts will disproportionately affect Muslim women, at the same time as they are being pressured to "integrate".

The issue of women and Islam illustrates the fact that much Islamophobic racism trades heavily off a slippage between "Islamic extremism" and "Islam". It is often claimed that it is not Muslims in general who are being attacked, but only the "extremists" or Islamists.

Yet most of the time ordinary Muslims do end up being targeted - whether because Islam is conceived as uniquely predisposed to extremism and violence or because they are conceived as forming the pool in which the "real baddies" swim and attempt to recruit. The view that Muslims and political Islam are the same thing has remained central here. One of the many examples of this was seen in March, when Channel 4 screened the Dispatches programme "Britain's Islamic Republic". The programme was presented by the Daily Telegraph's London editor, Andrew Gilligan.

It claimed to have exposed a conspiratorial attempt by an organisation called the Islamic Forum of Europe - which is linked to the Bangladeshi Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami - to use "front" organisations such as the East London Mosque and the Muslim Council of Britain to infiltrate political parties and gain positions of power in Tower Hamlets' local government.

In this way, we were asked to believe, it aspired to impose its vision of an Islamic social and political order on everyone else. Gilligan was not interested in the long and complex history of political clientelism and opportunism in British local government, such as in the deals between the Labour Party and key figures in religious and ethnic communities. Most importantly, the programme suggested that the gravest threat to ordinary Muslims in the borough was from other Muslims - whether through Islamists' inherent incompatibility with British democratic traditions or through a creeping imposition of moral structures on Muslim women.

Yet this was in a period of unprecedented levels of generalised anti-Muslim abuse and intimidation, from members of the public, the media and the state, in a borough that in 2007 ranked third out of all 354 local authorities in average deprivation. It has some of the highest levels of youth unemployment, crowded housing and poor health in Britain.

The portrayal was a typically crude attempt to lump highly diverse religious and political agendas into a single, sinister, all-determining "Islamist" ideology.

Along with the movement to confront the English Defence League (EDL) on the streets and to stall the BNP's electoral strategy, another recent positive development has been the campaign to resist the torrent of security measures targeting Muslim communities.

This concerns the previous government's Preventing Violent Extremism ("Prevent") agenda. This has been presented as aiming to win "hearts and minds" to community-led campaigns on behalf of the government to "challenge violent extremist ideology" and "isolate apologists of terrorism".

At the end of March the cross-party Parliamentary Communities and Local Government Committee vindicated the array of critics of the Prevent scheme. Despite sanctimonious denials from ministers, Prevent was confirmed to have unfairly singled out the Muslim community for suspicion. It was also shown to have continuously blurred the boundaries between community development work and counter-terrorism police work and surveillance - often prioritising the latter.

This included a situation where funding was often made conditional on support for the counter-terrorism agenda. Furthermore, the committee explicitly condemned the failure to take socioeconomic factors of exclusion into account. It also recommended that violent far-right activity should attract a proportionate amount of attention. This important step forward in setting the record straight was the result of concerted lobbying from Muslim and non-Muslim organisations, a number of whom made powerful critical submissions.

But some problems remain. A key recommendation was that in order to rebuild trust with Muslim communities the Prevent agenda should be decoupled from local authorities' "community cohesion" work, and that the latter should be a "much sharper tool in the long-term fight against violent extremism". The vital issue here is the vague term "community cohesion". Its origin lies in the period immediately following the summer 2001 riots in Bradford, Oldham and Barnsley (triggered by the far-right) involving Pakistani and Bangladeshi youth.

Coercion

Out of this came the rationale that cultural diversity was a dire threat to social cohesion. It was euphemistically asserted that Muslims had to be "integrated" into the "shared values" of what was implied to be a superior civilisation. In this way, it formed part of a coercive nationalism, in which the state ascribed to itself the right to determine what such values should be. This task could be nothing other than an extremely hollow exercise within a class-riven society.

But some were able to detect in official documents faint signs of a more progressive meaning in terms of an emphasis on a "shared future", rather than a common culture. This involved the possibility of an inclusive notion of citizenship with a foundation emphasising material equality and decent public services for all.

Arun Kundnani of the Institute of Race Relations describes how some figures within local government were able to use funding in a way which ignored the security-obsessed focus and instead deploy the language of cohesion to legitimate "progressive local projects that united across communities to address shared issues of deprivation".

But the committee report itself advocates a "clear role for the Department of Communities and Local Government facilitating community cohesion and integration", whereby local authorities will be "promoting safer stronger communities and promoting 'shared values' at a local level". Overall, it still basically reads as a disciplinary address targeting Muslim communities, presenting them as responsible for getting their houses in order.

It is not about them being invited to participate in equitable dialogue to decide on the nature of core shared values (which are never defined within the report). And yet there remains a pretence of neutrality reflected, for example, in the fact that the word "British" never prefaces the word "values".

In any case, the main rhetorical thrust remains that of a balance between the twin evils of far-right and Muslim extremism. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to talk of a moderate-extremist division have failed to grasp the multifaceted reality of political Islam, and have generally been used to divide Muslims into those supportive of government policies (and thus rewarded with funding) and those who are unsupportive.

A key feature of Islamophobia, like all forms of racism, is its changing nature and function as new political needs emerge. From the Islamophobic reaction to the protests against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1988-1989, via the deepening hostility to asylum seekers through the 1990s, the responses to the summer 2001 riots, and justification for the "war on terror", the shape of anti-Muslim sentiment has evolved in unpredictable ways.

The current period would seem to be defined especially by the initial credit crunch in 2007-2008; the rapid growth of unemployment and the beginning of a new consciousness over the savage cuts; the mass popularisation of the "British jobs for British workers" slogan during the first wave of unofficial walkouts by construction workers at the beginning of 2009; and the entry of the EDL together with the political advance of the BNP.

It is a period in which domestic, increasingly aggressive, scapegoating nationalism becomes more active in a context of intensifying economic struggle between different national capitals, and as a way of deflecting popular anger and offsetting growing divisions within the ruling class nationally and internationally.

The attempts to accuse Muslims of a destabilising impulse for self-segregation may intensify. There will be little focus on the fact that nearly half are below the official poverty line and that Muslims are 50 percent more likely to suffer from poor health compared to the rest of the population. We need to expose such attacks as distractions from the increased self-segregation of the rich in the neoliberal era.

Part of the legacy of the anti-war movement has been a range of new alliances and partnerships, often involving both Muslims and non-Muslims, encouraging common political engagement. Examples might include the Islamophobia Watch website, or the Engage initiative.

But one of the most exciting and democratic developments has been the mobilisation of hundreds of Muslim youth, in various major British cities, against the EDL. Such groups are made up predominantly of disaffected and economically marginalised youth who utilise informal social and communication networks to intervene decisively on the streets.

So far we have not seen these inspiring mobilisations develop into a more structured organisational form in a way which would, for example, resemble the pattern of the Asian Youth Movements of the 1970s and early 1980s. At most, leading figures who are politicised are working closely with the wider anti-fascist movement. In many cases this is encouraging a wider debate within Muslim communities about how best to resist racism, as well as challenging conservative forces both in mosques and further afield.