International

Islamophobia in Britain, a reality

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“For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate – even commendable – thing.... Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test.” These are the words of Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the ruling Conservative Party of England, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. While delivering her speech at Sir Sigmund Sternberg Interfaith Lecture on 20th of January Baroness Warsi, first Muslim woman to join English cabinet, highlighted the increasing acceptance and patronage for Islamophobia in the contemporary British society. It was the first time in recent years that a leading English politician, especially from Tory (Conservative) Party spoke openly against Islamophobia in British society.

Her speech has added fuel to the ongoing debate in British academic and policy-making circles about whether British multiculturalism is viable or not. It was attacked by her own party members and others conforming to British right-wing politics against immigration and conservation of “Victorian era Britishness”. However, her speech was also applauded by people from progressive movements in England (Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism etc), Socialist groups and especially Muslim organisations are concerned with surge in Islamophobia in UK since 9/11.  There has also been substantial growth in physical attacks on Muslims and Islamic establishments such as mosques in recent years.

In contrast to Baroness Warsi, Prime Minister David Cameron at a high profile security conference in Munich on 5th  February condemned the “state-sponsored multiculturalism” and blamed it for “radicalisation of British Muslim youths”. In what can be termed as a veiled attack on Islam in Britain, Prime Minister Cameroon used phrases such as “preachers of hate in mosque” and “rootlessness among Muslim youths” to blame the Muslim community in failing to integrate into British society and uphold “British values”.  The biggest irony of his argument is that on that same day, a far-right anti-Muslim group made up of football hooligans and thugs with a British Sikh Amit Singh as poster boy, that calls itself English Defence League (EDL), was demonstrating in Luton in huge numbers to intimidate Muslim community in the city. Cameron’s remark has legitimised the baseless argument of anti-Muslim groups such as EDL and British National Party that are overwhelmingly active in Islamophobic activities. His remarks can also be attributed to age-old colonial notions of superiority of White British culture and ideological nostalgia of Victorian era Britain. Even in year 2007, years before he became Prime Minister, he characterised British multiculturalism as a ‘barrier’ that divides British society.

A section of British society over the centuries has repeatedly discriminated and treated numerous immigrants and ethnic groups with disgust, based on the assertion that they threaten the British identity. Some of the prominent groups at the receiving end of wrath in past were European Jews, Catholic Christians, Black and Pakistani migrants. In recent years, it is the broader Muslim community that is being bombed with British racism. Contrary to the idea that Islamophobia in UK is a result of the tragic events of 9/11 in New York or 7/7 London tube bombings, it can be traced back to 1990s that led to the publication of a report titled, “Islamophobia: A challenge for US all” by Runnymede Trust’s Commission in 1997.

Increasing number of people who blame British Muslims for not accepting and upholding British values are far from truth, and their accusation against 2 million strong Muslim communities is mostly false. In a detailed and well researched survey conducted by BBC just after one month of London tube bombings in July 2005, the respondents (consisting of two sets of sample: National (N) and another set of only Muslims (M)) clearly agreed that the policy of state Multiculturalism should not be abandoned. When asked if the immigrants should learn English language (N=82%, M=90%), the two set of respondents unequivocally agreed. When asked if Islam is incompatible with the values of British democracy, a majority of respondents disagreed with the question suggesting that Islamic values and traditions are compatible with British values that Cameron is trying to force on British Muslims using “muscular liberalism”.

According to Peter Oborne and James Jones, the authors of the document ‘Muslims Under Siege’;  “Islamophobia is a tremendous force for unification in British public culture. It does not merely bring liberal progressives like Polly Toynbee together with stubborn Tory commentators like Bruce Anderson but also enlists militant atheists with Christian believers.” As per the document, since 2000, most media reports portrayed Muslims as dangerous, backward, irrational, extreme, incompatible with British values, and prone to commit terrorism.  The biggest tragedy is that both tabloids and broadsheet press including liberal and progressive Guardian has been putting Islamophobic commentaries from writers like Polly Toynbee who claimed that; “I am an Islamophobe and proud of it.”

While England and other European countries under the leadership of USA are illegally occupying two Muslim countries, they are also indulging in Islamophobic policy-making and activities at home. There has been spurt in blaming Muslims in Europe to be not able to fully integrate into wider European society. Co-incidentally, increasing number of right-wing political parties have come in power today across Europe. With ailing economy and widespread opposition from labour unions and progressive movements against stubborn austerity measures, the Europeans governments are using racist political tactics as a tool to divide the opposition in the name of maintaining their “superior white European identity”. From Angela Markel in Germany and Nicholas Sarkozy in France to the ban on minarets in supposedly religiously neutral Switzerland and the Islamophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Netherlands -  many of the national leaders and heads of state in Europe have openly spoken against Muslims in their countries. Many political analysts and social scientists including many Jewish historians have started to find parallels between the current witch-hunt and treatment of Muslims in Europe with treatment of Jews in 1920s and 1930s in wider European society and especially in Nazi Germany.

In an increasingly globalised and inter-dependent world, one can only hope that unlike Hitler, who massacred six-million Jews for Europe to receive its emancipation from anti-Semitism, Europe would choose not to persecute mainstream and moderate Muslims to emancipate itself from growing Islamophobia.

Ibn Sibghat

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2011 on page no. 24

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