The racist backlash after last week’s atrocity was appalling but tragically predictable. Many will have had the experience of unfriending people on Facebook as their timeline became awash with racism. That the EDL and BNP have sought to use the horrific murder of Lee Rigby to push their own racist agenda is equally unsurprising. The climate last weekend was so toxic that many of my Muslim friends were too frightened to leave their home or travel alone. But what I find perhaps just as worrying as the apparent acceptability of openly articulating anti-Muslim rhetoric is the frequent reluctance to challenge Islamophobia from many people who identify as progressive or even or left-wing.
First all, I’d like to deal with some of the standard excuses. The claim is often made that Islamophobia cannot be racist because, so the argument goes, ‘Islam is not a race’. However, when people talk about ‘Muslims not respecting our way of life’, or ‘Muslims not integrating’ do they picture in their mind’s eye the relatively small number of white Muslims in Britain? Or are they in fact referring to Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Somalians, Turkish people and Arabs who reside in the UK and adhere to the Islamic faith? It’s really not a complicated issue and it is certainly nothing new. In 19th century Britain, job adverts which concluded ‘No Irish need apply’ just as frequently read ‘No Catholics need apply’ or ‘Protestant preferred’. No prizes for guessing why: because Catholic meant Irish. When Jews and their religious practices were attacked in the UK in the late 19th and early 20th century it was no coincidence that the vast majority were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Another clear parallel with the UK’s Irish community comes from the 1970s and 1980s where an entire community was often perceived as being made up of people who were either potential terrorists or terrorist sympathisers – and treated as such by the British state.
Like all Abrahamic religions, some of the ideas espoused by Islam are unpalatable to 21st century Britain. However, it would not take long to find similar passages in both the Bible and the Torah. Yet, no-one fears or hates Christians or Jews nor protests against the building of churches or synagogues because of Leviticus. Indeed, singling out Islam is striking given how much overlap there is with Jewish religious practices. For example, some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women wear veils that are identical to the burqa. The fact that most people have even heard of the burqa is an indication of how pervasive Islamophobia has become, given the incredibly small number of women who actually wear one. The existence of Sharia courts in the UK is often met with tabloid outrage, but do those same journos know about Beth Din courts, which serve the exact same purpose for the UK’s Jewish community? There is often opposition to Islamic schools, but the existence of Catholic or Jewish faith schools do not elicit the same hostile response. To give another illustration, kosher slaughter is identical to halal. At the risk of evoking Godwin’s Law, the fact of the matter is that the very first anti-Jewish measure passed by Hitler’s dictatorship was the outlawing of kosher slaughter. Was it because they were concerned with animal rights, or did it have more to do with isolating the Jewish community and marking them out as different? Today, if someone were to rant about the ‘barbarity’ of kosher meat, declare that Jews were a threat to ‘our way of life’ or fume about how the Torah and Talmud sanction the death penalty for a whole range of things, they would almost certainly labelled an anti-Semite, and rightly so. But say the same about the Qur’an and Muslims and the response would not be so clear cut.
Another feature of Islamophobia is to see Muslims as invariably intolerant on issues like gay rights and women’s rights and therefore, dislike of Muslims isn’t really prejudiced. But what is the reality? Is hostility to gay rights really something led by British Muslims? As far as I could see, opposition to the recent gay marriage bill in parliament was championed overwhelmingly by white, (nominally) Christian men on behalf of ‘middle England’. However, the majority of Muslim MPs such as Labour’s Rushanara Ali, Shabana Mahmood and Sadiq Khan all voted in favour of marriage equality, as did George Galloway, who enjoys the support of a large number of British Muslims in the Bradford West constituency. In addition, a poll in 2009 found that the vast majority of Muslims were ‘proud of how Britain treats gay people’. Likewise, when a few years ago, there were efforts to undermine abortion rights, this was not led by Muslims but by the likes of Tory MPs Nadine Dorries and Anne Widdicombe.
All of these rationalisations for Islamophobia from sharia courts to the burqa call to mind what George Orwell once wrote about the hated and feared minority of his day: ‘The Jews are accused of specific offences … which the person speaking feels strongly about, but it is obvious that these accusations merely rationalise some deep-rooted prejudice’.
Over a century ago, the great German social democratic leader August Bebel unequivocally condemned popular sentiments which fused anti-Semitism with anti-capitalism as ‘the socialism of fools’. Today, instead of echoing Islamophobic discourses with a secular or left-wing slant, we must forthrightly defend the rights of Muslims in this country. The idea that a community which makes up less than 5% of the population poses an existential threat to society as we know it is nothing but hysteria. And just for the EDL, who were recently in Newcastle, there has been a Muslim community in the North East for well over a century and they’re not going anywhere.
There’s nothing progressive about Islamophobia. It cannot just be the case of Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism opposing the EDL and the BNP. We all have a duty to speak out against this bigotry in every day life. It is not Muslims, many of whom are among some of the poorest people in the country, who are selling off the NHS, forcing people to use food banks, subjecting disabled people to Atos, imposing the Bedroom Tax or cutting jobs but those at the top. And as long as anger about a whole range of social problems is directed at Muslims (or any other minority group for that matter) rather than at the government’s policies, the urgent task of transforming society for the better will be severely hampered.