Fuelling Islamophobia

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As austerity attacks bite, the threat posed by anti-Muslim racism is likely to grow.

The recent student protests have been an inspiration, but not everyone is happy about them.

Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as "Tommy Robinson", leader of the racist English Defence League (EDL), made his displeasure known at a demonstration in Peterborough in December. He described students as "dirty, stinking layabouts" and threatened to send EDL thugs to attack future student protests.

EDL members regularly make such threats and typically they turn out to be hollow. The police and the right are only too keen to play up these threats to put people off demonstrating. But the EDL have taken a more explicitly violent turn recently, with Muslims first in their firing line. EDL members in Preston were filmed chanting "burn a mosque" on the streets, and there was an attempted arson attack on a mosque just days later in Stoke-on-Trent, which police are treating as a racist attack.

This wasn't an isolated incident. A new report by the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter offers a comprehensive overview of this latest phase of anti-Muslim violence in Britain. Titled "Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies 2010", the report by academics Dr Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Dr Robert Lambert is the first tranche of a planned ten year project to document the racism faced by Muslims in Europe.

The report makes grim reading. There has been a spate of attacks on mosques in Britain in recent months, including pigs' heads being left outside them in Cambridge and Dudley; arson attacks in Stoke, and eggs, bricks, stones and other missiles being thrown at mosques. The report also highlights a disturbing number of assaults, especially on Muslim women for wearing the hijab or niqab.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the EDL are held in contempt by the vast majority of Britain's population. But the EDL's message of hate against Muslims is reflected and amplified by the mass media, especially newspapers like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Star.

As Githens-Mazer puts it: "The factually inaccurate yet consistent portrayal of Muslims as somehow being apart from British culture and values fans the flames of hatred and violence against Muslims in Britain."

This pattern of racist hysteria against Muslims is not confined to Britain. In a disturbing echo of the way anti-Semitism swept across Europe and the US in the early 20th century, we are now seeing a worldwide rise in Islamophobic words and deeds.

Last year US right wingers linked to the Tea Party whipped up an absurd controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque" in New York - in reality an Islamic cultural centre some distance from Ground Zero. This sparked a spate of anti-mosque activity across the US, including arson attacks. The right wing media has fuelled this hysteria. Fox News host Glenn Beck recently claimed that 10 percent of Muslims are terrorists.

This kind of hateful rubbish has shocked even some on the right. Muhammad Ali Hasan, a rich Republican and founder of "Muslims for America", recently defected to the Democrats as a result of anti-Muslim racism. The hostility he felt at the Republican Party convention in May was the tipping point. "You experience bigotry sometimes but I often just think it's probably my personality that the person doesn't like," he said. "At the convention, though, that was the first time I felt the real thing. It was the worst experience of my life."

Europe has also seen a spike in violent Islamophobia, again characterised by attacks on the streets, the rise of fascist and far right parties, racist media campaigns and laws directed against Muslims. France has banned the niqab face veil and Spain only narrowly rejected doing so.

There has also been resistance to Islamophobia. The EDL recently attempted to demonstrate in Amsterdam in support of the rabidly anti-Muslim Dutch MP Geert Wilders. But anti-racists and Ajax football fans in the city mobilised to make clear that the EDL was not welcome there.

But elsewhere the response to Islamophobia has been ineffective, even among some on the far left. In France 12 Muslim activists recently left the New Anti-capitalist Party, including the hijab-wearing former candidate Ilham Moussaid. She said this was due to the party's failure to tackle Islamophobic attitudes against her.

There is certainly no room for complacency on these matters. While people generally oppose the crude and blatant bigotry of groups like the EDL, anti-Muslim ideas have seeped deeply into our society. One poll taken last year found that 44 percent of people in Britain agreed that Islam is a "serious danger to Western civilisation even in its milder forms".

As the austerity measures and coalition cuts ramp up we will see more attempts to divide our movement by setting up Muslims as a scapegoat for people's frustrations. David Cameron recently spoke in the House of Commons of the need to "de-radicalise our universities" - a reference in this case to the terror threat allegedly posed by Islamic societies.

Words like this can only help the fascists and racists of the EDL and British National Party grow. The EDL are planning to return to Luton, the town where they started their campaign of anti-Muslim hatred, on 5 February 2011.

Unite Against Fascism has called a national counter-demonstration in response to this threat. We have to show the EDL thugs that we won't tolerate their racism on the streets - and send the same message to their political masters in Whitehall and Fleet Street.