Who’s whipping up Islamophobia?
The British elite seems almost as fearful of the white working class as it is of the terrorists.
Almost before the dust had settled, warnings about the ‘Islamophobic backlash’ began. Don’t do anything hasty, came the warnings from all sections of the British establishment – as if our first reaction would be to head out and beat up the nearest Muslim. Islam is a religion of peace, we were told; don’t take it out on your local mosque.
Fears about reprisals were raised in Cobra, the government’s top-level emergency committee. Yet there has been no wave of anti-Muslim pogroms – nor will there be. The idea of mass Islamophobia stems more from official myth than from the reality on Britain’s streets. And all this suggests an elite that is almost as fearful of its own population, as it is of the terrorists.
In Tony Blair’s speech after the attacks, he took care to emphasise that this had nothing to do with Islam, and that most Muslims are ‘decent and law-abiding people’. In case we didn’t get it, the same message has been repeated ad infinitum over the past few days. Church leaders have orchestrated gestures of solidarity with Muslim representatives, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams warned against a ‘temptation for some’ to make Muslims a ‘scapegoat’. Police officers were stationed outside mosques, to protect them from anyone who might give in to temptation.
Behind the establishment’s preoccupation with Islamophobia lies a fear of the mass of the British people – particularly the white working-class section of the British people. There is an idea that the public is volatile and bigoted, and liable to be set off at any moment. Terrorist attacks are feared not just for the damage they wreck, but for the sparks they could ignite in domestic populations.
Stemming ‘hate crimes’ has become part of the official plan for dealing with a terrorist attack – along with cleaning up the rubble, getting trains running again, and catching those responsible. A National Community Tensions Team is monitoring incidents across the country, and providing intelligence to the government and police. The Muslim Safety Forum – an umbrella organisation of Muslim groups, including the Muslim Association of Britain and the Association of Muslim Police – has met with police chiefs to discuss ways of protecting Muslim communities over the coming weeks. The Metropolitan Police’s deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick called for people to come forward: ‘We need people from every community to report incidents to the police of any faith-hate crime… We will not tolerate a small minority of people who are using these tragic events last Thursday to stir up hatred.’ (1)
Even doctors’ surgeries have been enlisted in the effort. One Primary Care Trust sent an email on 8 July calling on staff to be on the lookout for hate. ‘These were terrorist acts which may falsely claim to represent particular communities but religious beliefs cannot be associated with such hateful acts’, it reminded GPs, in case they thought otherwise. ‘At a time of raised tension such as this it is important that all staff challenge racism and prejudice in a positive way. We would like to remind staff that if in the course of their work they encounter any form of abuse they should report this to their managers so that appropriate action and support can be given to those concerned.’
These frenetic measures against Islamophobia contrast with the quiet on the ground. Despite some reports of a ‘backlash’, there has been no such thing. A number of incidents have been reported in the press, including an attempted arson attack on a Sikh temple in south-east London; a petrol attack on a mosque in Birkenhead; the smashing of windows at a mosque in Mile End, east London; and an arson attack on the Pakistani consulate in Bradford. These crimes should of course be investigated and perpetrators prosecuted – but they don’t amount to any anti-Muslim pogrom. What we’re seeing are either local incidents that have little to do with the attacks, or the actions of isolated individuals.
Take the tragic murder of a Pakistani man in Nottingham on Sunday. The Nottingham police are treating this as an isolated incident, carried out by some local tearaways who turned nasty. Yet that hasn’t stopped it being taken as evidence of the danger to Muslim communities across Britain. A battle of definition has ensued, with some clamouring for the attack to be classified as Islamophobic. The chair of the Muslim Safety Forum commented: ‘We are disappointed that they have misclassified it, especially after all the advice to be more alert to Islamophobic hate crime.’ (2)
Much was made of the fact that the Muslim Council of Britain received 30,000 hate emails in the aftermath of the attacks. It has now transpired, however, that these emails seem to have been sent by either one individual, or a very small group of people. Indeed, the council has posted a selection of other emails on its website, most of which make a point of emphasising that they don’t blame Islam for the terrorist atrocities (3). Meanwhile, the handful of attacks on mosques are the actions of a few idiots, not a mass wave of hate. On the ground, some of those targeted sought to play down events. The chairman of one mosque responded to an attack by saying: ‘It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened…. I am quite easy about it and don’t want to make it into a big issue.’ (4)
Some of those incidents being defined as ‘Islamophobia’ are relatively minor. One of those reportedly charged over the past few days was a crank caller. But these incidents are being pounced on by those concerned about the backlash of hate. One Metropolitan Police official said that in the coming weeks officers would be on the lookout for all kinds of anti-Muslim crime, including ‘verbal abuse or graffiti’. This is downright surreal: London gets attacked, and the Met worries about graffiti that hasn’t even happened yet.
Evidence for Islamophobia has been consistently overblown over the past few years. In 2002, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) produced a report documenting the anti-Islamic reaction in European states in the four months after 11 September. Although the report was headlined as showing a ‘major explosion’ in anti-Muslim sentiment, this wasn’t backed up with its contents. It documented around 15 cases of serious physical violence, and a similar number of damage to property.
But most incidents were less serious. There were a handful of cases of Muslims being chased and threatened with violence, Muslim women having their headscarves torn off, and a larger number of cases of Muslims receiving hate mail or being threatened verbally. One case documented was that of Mohammed Saddique, a shopkeeper from Oldham who was regularly called ‘Osama’ by his suppliers (even though Mr Saddique was quoted as saying that ‘I think they’re taking the Mickey and I prefer to treat it as a joke’). Another was of two girls sitting outside a café in London who were harassed by a drunk, homeless man who said ‘Islam is evil’, ‘you’re evil’ (5).
Although there is scant evidence for any anti-Muslim backlash, all these official measures to prevent one could have a grievous effect on our ability to live and associate freely together. With a network of organisations on the lookout for religious hate, this is likely to breed bad faith and resentment among different communities. It should come as no surprise if these campaigns do actually start to encourage anti-Muslim resentment – spurred on by the sight of police tracking down anti-Muslim graffiti rather than investigating the terrorists.
Loose tongues could cost lives, is the message; we are all being asked to tiptoe around and watch what we say. Journalists have been hauled over the coals by the Metropolitan Police for using the phrase ‘Islamic terrorists’, as if any kind of connection between Islam and terrorism could set things off. Whatever happened to the free, open society that London is supposed to represent?
All of us – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – should protect Britain against this corrosive official campaign.
spiked-issue: London bombs
(1) Police pledge tough action as race hate attacks rise, Guardian, 12 July 2005
(2) Islamophobia blamed for attack, Guardian, 13 July 2005
(3) See the MCB emails
(4) Norwich Evening News, 12 July 2005
(5) See Who’s afraid of Islamophobia, by Josie Appleton
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