Hands up if you’re suffering from Islamofatigue
Why spiked takes neither side in the ‘great political divide’ over whether Islamophobia or Islamofascism is the biggest threat.
So, British politics has finally got interesting again, has it? After 10 very long years of New Labour, where the big issues have been youth crime, political sleaze and youth crime, there is reportedly a new Culture War, an historic intellectual battle on which ‘the fate of the free world rests’, no less.
On one side stand the vast bulk of the old left and liberal commentators who claim that Islamophobia is on the rise, and that Europe is threatened by a wave of hatred and intolerance which all good democrats must resist. On the other side stands a band of Conservative commentators, joined by a small but apparently brave group of left-wing thinkers, who believe that Islamofascism is the starkest and darkest threat. They have formed what Conservative MP and writer Michael Gove describes as an ‘anti-Islamist intelligentsia’ which defends equality and secular democracy against the ‘medieval ideology’ of the Islamists (1).
Which side is spiked taking? Neither. We are suffering from Islamofatigue, a condition which brings us out in a rash whenever we hear any word or phrase prefixed with ‘Islamo’. Today’s ‘great political divide’ is a phoney war, in which both sides are given to fearmongering, conspiracy-invention and a petty and pernicious authoritarianism. The Islamo-clash does nothing to clarify the challenges facing humanity today, and a lot to stultify genuine and honest political debate.
Amongst the left and their allies in self-selected Muslim community groups, it’s widely claimed that Islamophobia is stalking the land. In fact, Islamophobia is a myth, an invention by groups keen to play the victim card against what they view as a seething white mob of Muslim-haters. For all the hysterical talk of ‘an orgy of Islamophobia’, acts of anti-Muslim hatred or violence remain remarkably low. One Muslim commentator says Muslims in Britain are ‘subject to attacks reminiscent of the gathering storm of anti-Semitism in the first decades of the last century’ (2). In truth, there are a tiny number of attacks on Muslims. At the end of last year, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that in 2005-2006 – in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, when politicians, the police and others predicted there would be an anti-Muslim pogrom – there were only 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, 18 of them against Muslims (or ‘perceived’ Muslims). This represented a decline from 23 anti-Muslim crimes in 2004-2005 (3). Kristallnacht it ain’t.
Claims that the authorities, and particularly the police, are harassing Muslims as part of the ‘war on terror’ also don’t stand up to scrutiny. Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, has claimed that ‘95 to 98 per cent of those stopped and searched under the anti-terror laws are Muslim’. It isn’t true. Figures from 2004 showed that 21,577 were stopped and searched, and the vast majority of them – 14,429 – were white. Around 14 per cent were Asian, a far cry from Sacranie’s 95 per cent who were allegedly Muslim (4). The police, far from being at the forefront of an imagined wave of Islamophobia, have encouraged the Islamophobia agenda as a convenient cover for legitimating tougher interventions into working-class areas of Britain, where they’re apparently needed to keep the baying mob and the victimised Muslims apart. The left-wing activists and Muslim leaders promoting the myth of Islamophobia seem to share with the authorities an innate fear and loathing of the largely white mass of the population.
The anti-Islamophobia camp of today’s ‘great political divide’ is defined by relativism and censoriousness. The tag ‘Islamophobe’ is used to describe not only the mythical mob but also those who criticise any aspect of Islam or Islamism. One Islamic human rights group hands out an Islamophobe of the Year Award to public figures who have said harsh or hurtful things about Muslim culture and practices (5). This is about shutting down debate; it takes the relativistic idea that all cultures are equally valid to its perversely logical conclusion, by turning criticism of religion into a condition, a ‘phobia’, a mental defect. It pathologises political debate. The end result of the Islamophobia agenda is the government’s Religious Hatred legislation, which makes it a crime to ridicule or offend Islam and other religions – a flagrant attack on the hard-won right in our secular society to speak out against superstition.
The Islamophobia industry obscures and mystifies contemporary debate. It surrounds religion with a forcefield against criticism, and calls for new illiberal measures that do harm to free thought and speech in the name of tackling a non-existent groundswell of hate.
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On the other side, the ‘anti-Islamist intelligentsia’ uses fearmongering over facts, too, in an effort to convince us of its case. They claim Islamofascism is the greatest threat to mankind. Michael Gove likens the Islamofascists to the Soviet Union, arguing that ‘the intellectual response to the challenge of Islamism…stands comparison with the cultural resistance to communism developed by Western intellectuals during the Cold War’. Going one better, the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips claims there is a ‘world war being waged by clerical fascism against free societies’, and the need to confront these warriors is ‘no less critical than when [Britain and the US] stood shoulder to shoulder against Nazi Germany’ (6). Like the Islamophobia industry, some anti-Islamofascists are effectively whoring the Holocaust to give their agenda oomph and urgency.
The anti-Islamofascists massively overstate the terror threat. There is no ‘world war’ being waged by any kind of mass movement. As David Cook argues in his book Understanding Jihad, one of the most striking things about contemporary violent Islamism is its stark inability to recruit large numbers: ‘The fact that the majority of contemporary Muslims do not actively participate in jihad demonstrates a decisive rejection of which the radical Muslims are keenly aware.’ (7) For all the claims that we live in an ‘age of terror’, the number of terror attacks has fallen over the past 30 years. In the Eighties, there was an average of 360 international terror incidents worldwide each year; by 2000 it had fallen to just 100. In Western Europe, the number of such attacks fell from 200 in the mid-Eighties to under 30 in 2004; in the US, it fell from more than 40 a year in the mid-Seventies to under five every year from the mid-Nineties onwards. Apart from in 2001, there has also been a decline in the number of worldwide fatalities from terrorism (8).
The anti-Islamofascists’ arguments also have a corrosive effect on liberty. For example, new laws to criminalise the ‘glorification of terrorism’ – or anyone seen to be ‘attacking the values of the West’, as the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said when asked to elucidate on the matter – further circumscribe what is acceptable and unacceptable political speech. The anti-Islamofascists avoid the real issue. The most thorough studies of al-Qaeda suggest it is largely made up of young middle-class men, many of whom were either born in the West or who studied here. And they tend to self-recruit rather than being brainwashed (9). In defining themselves in opposition to small groups of weird-beards, the anti-Islamist intellectuals dodge the harder task of interrogating what it is about British and Western society that can make the backward and obscurantist ranting of Islamic sects seem like an attractive alternative for often well-brought-up and educated young Muslims.
A plague on both their houses. The Islamo-clash is a Culture War that dare not speak its name. Instead of openly and honestly debating the values that should define the twenty-first century, commentators on both the left and right wage war against imaginary armies of Islamophobes or Islamofascists. This does nothing to discourage that handful of terrorists who carry out sporadic attacks. The one thing that seems to sustain their violence is the Islamo-obsessions of the political and cultural elites. The Islamophobia industry can be seen as providing some alienated young Muslims with the narcissistic victim mentality required to launch a terror tantrum like 7/7, while the handwringing of the anti-Islamofascists gives them the fanciful idea that they’re engaged in a ‘clerical war’ against the West that is rattling the ‘whole free world’. Islamist terror increasingly looks like a performance, with the script and the costumes provided by the Islamo-obsessives.
spiked has no truck with religious obscurantism, or the idea that all cultures have something interesting and wonderful to tell us. We are vigorous defenders of the Enlightenment values of reason, liberty and secularism. But we also recognise that, today, such values are threatened less by three men and a laptop in a cave in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Wherever-istan, than they are by an anti-humanist culture here at home – by a cautious and suspicious climate that always seems to assume the worst of people and which seeks to regulate and rein us in; by a view of freedom as too risky, debate as dangerous, and humanity as a problem-maker rather than problem-solver. Far from single-handedly undermining the gains of the Enlightenment, the Islamists can be seen as a brutish byproduct of the anti-Enlightenment trends that have emerged in the West. In their rejection of reason and liberty, and their embracing of a particularist Islamic identity and the cult of victimhood, the Islamists echo developments across the West.
Tackling the rise of a homegrown anti-Enlightenment will require, first, freedom of speech, and second, some intellectual honesty. We need a real Culture War rather than a phoney Islamo-war, and that is what we intend to launch on spiked in the coming year. So, let battle begin.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
spiked-issue: War on terror
(1) All hail the new anti-Islamist intelligentsia, Spectator, 27 January 2007
(2) Muslims need to take part, Guardian, 21 December 2006
(3) See Time for a backlash against the hate-obsessed state?, by Brendan O’Neill
(4) The myth of Islamophobia, Kenan Malik, Prospect, February 2005
(5) Islamophobe of the Year Awards, Islamic Human Rights Commission
(6) Londonistan, Melanie Phillips, Gibson Square Books, 2006
(7) Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel, IB Tauris, 2004
(8) The good news about terrorism, Spectator, 2 April 2005
(9) See 7/7: a very British bombing, by Brendan O’Neill