Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Islamophobia: the bigotry you can vent without shame

Yesterday evening, Channel 4 showed a wonderful documentary, "Dispatches: It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim", an example of that rare and precious thing called public service broadcasting. It is my view that every last person responsible, from the tea-boy up, should be given a knighthood. At least.

Journalist Peter Oborne investigated "the rise of violence, intolerance and hatred against British Muslims....He discover[ed] that for many in the Muslim community, Britain is becoming a very frightening place. Dispatches [met] a range of British Muslims who now live in daily fear, some because their homes are constantly vandalised, others because they or family have suffered devastatingly violent attacks."

The Language of Hate

Some important and authoritative research was commissioned by the film-makers, which will serve as valuable resources for those fighting Islamophobia in the future. There's a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, which found that "the bulk of [press] coverage of British Muslims - around two thirds - focuses on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general)." "Decontextualisation, misinformation and a preferred discourse of threat, fear and danger, while not uniformly present, were strong forces in the reporting of British Muslims in the UK national press."

The Cardiff School of Journalism report is a very solid bit of social science research and well worth reading in full. Like the documentary as a whole, it provides a thorough analysis of how a dangerous bigotry is constructed and maintained in public discourse. The British press is shown to constantly present Muslims as an alien presence; a threatening "other". Rarely if ever in the coverage is it accepted that if a person lives, works, votes, pays their taxes and abides by the law in this country then they are no less British if they are a Muslim than if they are CofE or anything else. Instead, Islamic traditions are presented as a threat to a nebulous concept called "our way of life", from which British people of Islamic faith are excluded by definition. It is clear that, for the press, "Britishness" means a narrow concept of white Anglo-Saxonism; and that should be a cause for concern to a great many of us besides Muslims.

The other point about the press coverage is that so much of it is simply false, to the point where it appears that many journalists are in the business of systematically lying about the subject. It becomes plain that the assumption you should work from when you see a scare-story about Muslims in the gutter press, or even the broadsheets, ("Muslims Ban Christmas", "Mosques Beat Churches", "Gay Muslim Paedophile Asylum Seekers May Cause Cancer/Fall in House Prices") is that the story is probably false.

Furthermore, "Oborne conclude[d] that in today's climate the media say things about Islam and Muslims they would never say about other groups [and this includes supposedly liberal commentators like Polly Toynbee]. When he replace[d] the word' 'Muslim' in some recent headlines with 'Jews', 'Blacks' and 'Gays' and show[ed] them to members of the public, they [found] those headlines deeply offensive".

A particularly interesting moment came when Oborne interviewed Rabbi Pete Tobias, a expert in the anti-semitism of early twentieth century Britain. Tobias showed Oborne an Evening Standard article from 1911, a time when many Jews were arriving in the UK from Europe. The language was familiar: dangerous and backward people from the east threaten our values and way of life by swamping our communities and refusing to integrate or submit to our superior culture. Chilling to consider that, even after the twentieth century, the essential components of racist discourse are still not being recognised for what they are (see the election of the lovable clown Boris Johnson, for a separate example).

Crucially, the documentary gave many British Muslims the chance to speak for themselves, which makes a change from having other people talking about them. And their responses to the prejudice that had been thrown their way were the best and most telling of all. Asked about the Sun's political editor's comment that it is correct to spotlight Muslims because of Islamist terrorism, one Muslim cleric asked, if all rapists are men, then why don't we spotlight the entire male gender for the issue of rape? A Muslim medical student said that when Muslims like her get abused or attacked by white British people then no one asks broad questions about the defects of white British culture, but when a Muslim commits a terrorist act then every member of the Islamic faith is held guilty of hate-filled extremism until proven innocent.

This gets right to the crux of it. In reality, we do not have a problem with Islam; we have a problem with terrorists. Actually, we have a problem with terrorism and with bigotry towards Muslims, which often manifests itself in Muslims being violently terrorised.

Terrorising Muslims

The documentary makers commissioned a poll, one of the most important results of which illustrated the fact that Islamophobia does a lot worse than hurt people's feelings. Fully thirty seven percent of Muslims - over one in three - says they have been subjected to hostility or abuse since 7 July 2005 because of their religion. Oborne interviewed people who had had their houses and cars vandalised, been abused in the street, beaten and stabbed, and targeted by fire-bombings.

The information pamphlet accompanying the programme (also well worth a read), describes an incident where "[o]n Wednesday 7 May 2008 in Bolton a group of young people allegedly chased a group of Muslim men shouting racial and religious abuse. A chainsaw was allegedly held to the throat of one man. A 17-year-old girl and a 22-year-old man have been charged with affray and possession of an offensive weapon, and are awaiting trial". Elsewhere "[a] Methodist chapel being converted into an Asian community centre in Quenchwell, near Carnon suffered an Islamophobic attack in early June. In the wake of a local row about the plans to create an Asian centre at this location urine was found inside a builder’s helmet. The words “Fuck off you Asian bastards” were written on a table. On the morning of Monday 2 June a pig’s head was found nailed to the door in a clear attempt to offend Muslims. The words “God says fuck off” and a cross were daubed on the door".

"On 17 April three men were jailed for three years for a campaign of racial harassment lasting nine months against a Muslim colleague, Amjid Mehmood, who was tied to railings and force-fed bacon, which he cannot eat because of his religious beliefs. His attackers filmed the whole incident on a mobile phone. In total, nine separate incidents of racial harassment occurred over the period. A rucksack with protruding wires was put on his locker and his trousers were set on fire. During the Birmingham riots he was driven to an Afro-Caribbean area and told locals were “coming to get him.”"

Its never been a secret that the language of racism is spoken with fists and knives as much as it is written in newsprint or insinuated in the statements of politicians. But many powerful people seem happy to ignore this, while the costs are paid by ordinary and entirely innocent Britons of Islamic faith. Violence is of course the logical consequence of a public discourse in which Muslims are constantly demonised and lied about. Thus, the self-styled victims of fictional Muslim aggression become the enablers of actual aggression against Muslims. The press and politicians (like the odious Jack Straw whining about how veiled women discomfort him, or any given right-wing hack complaining about "political correctness gone mad") portray themselves as the pitiful victims of extremist Islamism. But when Muslims then suffer actual physical aggression as a result of this demonisation, politicians and the press have nothing to say.

Attitudes: differences and similarities

The poll also shows, as other polls have done, that Muslims are not significantly less tolerant than non-Muslims, which sweeps away at a stroke the fantasy of an ultra-conservative Islamist invasion. So we can expect the press to ignore that completely, since it doesn't fit with the approved story.

Speaking generally, the poll results highlight the sorts of differences in perceptions of Islamophobia that you'd probably expect between Muslims and the rest of the population, which are certainly dismaying, and a serious level of prejudice obviously exists. But I hope I'm not being panglossian in saying that this prejudice is also not as widespread as it could be, given the nature of press coverage and elite political discourse. Note for example that 78 per cent of Muslims and 70 per cent of non-Muslims agree that "there is more ... religious prejudice against Muslims in Britain today since the London bombings in July 2005". Most non-Muslims felt that Muslims were bearing the brunt of unjustified criticism (51 per cent) while 31 per cent felt that the level of criticism was justified. When you subtract the decent people who have just been misled by politicians and the press (and would probably change their minds when presented with the facts) from that third of the population, then you're left with a small minority of bigots. Which is not to say that a small minority of bigots can't be very dangerous, but it does help to put a rather frightening picture of British Islamophobia in some sort of context. In a way, it shows what polls often show, that the public are largely decent and reasonable people, and that the political class (media and politicians) is broadly to the right of the general population. Islamophobia is propagated by the political class and a potentially small minority of the public; making it dangerous, but not invincible.

The political utility of hate

Finally, I'd like to make a point that wasn't made in the documentary but which I think is essential for putting all of this in context. We should bear in mind the central, enabling role that Islamophobia plays in the War on Terror, and the potential usefulness to the political class of this species of bigotry.

The documentary aired 3 years to the day after the London tube and bus bombings. As I wrote at the time, the security services had repeatedly warned the government that Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq strongly increased the chances that attacks like this would occur. The government joined the US invasion of Iraq - a country that posed no threat to us - in spite of these warnings. It is a truism that one is responsible for the predictable consequences of ones actions, so on the afternoon of 7/7/2005 the British government had a serious problem, as indeed did the media that had played a key enabling role in taking the country to into an unpopular war. It was then extremely convenient for these elites to change the subject from Western foreign policy, the known inspiration for these brutal terrorist crimes, and instead place the focus on the Muslim community. And when you observe the people who run our country first starting a war of aggression that has by now claimed probably over a million lives, and then passing the blame for one of the predicted consequences of that war onto one of the most vulnerable communities in the UK (many of whom had actually voted New Labour, incidentally), then you get the measure of the sheer moral bankruptcy of British ruling elite.

It should also not be forgotten that the demonisation of Islam plays a broader enabling role for Western foreign policy. As I noted in this article, which I wrote in response to the controversy over the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad:

"It is no coincidence that those who most enthusiastically peddle the fiction of a "clash of civilisations" also portray the opposing "other" as a force that seriously threatens to destroy "our way of life", and therefore advocate an aggressive US-led military strategy across the Islamic world. Manichean rhetoric eulogizing the liberal idealism of "our values" and the necessity of defending them against those who "hate our freedoms" has been the very essence of Western pro-war advocacy in recent years. Observing essentially imperial foreign policies being depicted as altruistic endeavours aimed at bringing enlightenment to backward, inferior (if exotic) cultures, or at least at defending us against them, hardly places us in unfamiliar territory. Indeed, subjugation almost invariably goes hand in hand with the deliberate dehumanisation of those who are being subjugated by those responsible for or whose acquiescence is essential to the act of subjugation".

As competition escalates for strategic control over the planet's dwindling oil reserves, the need for our esteemed leaders to present aggressive imperial policies in Western Asia within the conceptual framework of a "clash of civilisations" will only increase. Violence against innocent people on the streets of Britain will be but one lamentable but neccessary byproduct of this propaganda campaign, along with the massive violence meted out to the people of the region and the predictable terrorist backlash against our own country. Such are the calculations made by the statesmen who run the world on our behalf.


But while the documentary did not place British Islamophobia into this broader context, it should still be applauded for giving such serious treatment to an important subject, and for speaking out with a strong moral voice against this dangerous tide of hatred. Hopefully before too long, Islamophobia will go the way of anti-semitism and anti-black racism, becoming seen as something you at least don't say out loud, as a prelude to it and those other forms of bigotry disappearing forever. If that is to happen, then people like Peter Oborne and the Dispatches team will have played their part. If only more of their peers could say the same.

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Anonymous JamieSW said...

Then again, in yesterday's Mail Melanie Phillips claimed that "[t]his country is so pro-Muslim it is giving succour to the extremists who would destroy us".

I just don't know who to believe...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008 12:00:00 AM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Never underestimate powerful people's capacity for self pity

Wednesday, July 09, 2008 5:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for this blog David. it's a real eye opener.

why aren't you writing for the guardian or the independent? seems like you're more than qualified to do so.



Friday, July 25, 2008 7:46:00 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

you tell me, Fay!

Thanks for your kind words

Monday, July 28, 2008 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wont tell you, but I will tell the Guardian ;-p


Friday, August 08, 2008 12:46:00 PM  

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