Lindsey German: Muslims in Britain could be forgiven for thinking that even when they do the right thing, it’s wrong
Perhaps it was inevitable that the failure of the serial interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, plus the relentless drive towards austerity in Britain, would produce a perfect storm at the centre of which is the Muslim community.
For that is what we are facing here in Britain. We have seen for several years growing attacks on the way Muslims dress, or behave, or worship. There have been controversies over the hijab and the niqab, over education in Muslim majority schools, about halal meat, the location of mosques. Muslims are under attack from all sides.
If this were from far right and fascist groups alone, it would be bad enough. But there are signs that these groups are floundering, at exactly the time when anti-Muslim racism, or Islamophobia, is becoming more respectable and widespread. An unremittingly right wing agenda, fostered by a political establishment dragged increasingly to the right by Ukip priorities, has taken hold. Its endless ‘debate’ about immigration, which starts from the assumption that it must be a bad thing, has helped to increase racism. While some of this is focussed on east Europeans, in Britain the topic can never be discussed for very long without raising criticisms of black or Asian people.
Conveniently, this anti-immigrant discourse dovetails with another concern: the threat of terrorism. And this of course is talked about as exclusively concerning mainly black and Asian people who are Muslims. While Home Secretary Theresa May in her speech on 24 November 2014 paid lip service to far right attacks on Muslims, all the emphasis was on Islamic terrorism.
This week is Counter Terrorism Awareness Week, where police and politicians stress the danger of terrorism and the need to use the government sponsored Prevent strategy. This is exclusively about Muslims. May is introducing new anti terror-legislation in parliament this week, the eighth piece of major legislation since 2000, which she says will ‘place a statutory duty on named organisations - such as schools, colleges, universities, the police, prisons, probation providers and local government - to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’ This will restrict speakers in colleges: ‘universities will have to put in place extremist speaker policies’.
Some of the other government proposals to counter terrorism seem bizarre: UK insurance firms will not be able to pay out to reimburse money paid in terrorist ransoms. But there are much more substantial attacks on civil liberties. There are moves to ban young people who go to fight with Isis in Syria and Iraq from returning to Britain, something almost certainly illegal under international law, and would be without any court proceedings.
There are two major objections here: the first is that there is little evidence that such laws do anything to prevent terrorism from occurring. Repeated swathes of legislation have not lessened the threat of terrorism; indeed it is greater now that it was in 2001. It is not surprising that this is the case: terrorism arises from political grievance, and it is dealing with the political grievance that tends to end it.
This has been the case with a whole range of national struggles, most recently in Ireland. The IRA actually committed far wider ranging attacks than anything that has so far been carried out in recent years. High-ranking politicians and relatives of the royal family were assassinated. Downing Street was directly attacked with rockets. Canary Wharf and the City of London saw bombings that destroyed millions of pounds worth of property.
Laws that restrict civil liberties have the effect of making life harder for those carrying out such attacks, but not of stopping them. In addition, the general repression of particular groups as a result of anti terror laws helps to create precisely the opposite from the desired effect of support for terrorism and the alienation of those groups.
Again, this is what happened with the Irish, where nearly everyone convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was later found to be victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Dealing with the political roots of terrorism would however mean acknowledging our government’s role in helping to create and sustain it: through funding certain groups in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, for example, through passing restrictive laws, and - most importantly - by waging wars and occupying countries which have helped lead to terrorism.
That realisation is unlikely to dawn any time soon, which leads to the second objection: banning ‘extremist’ speakers, carrying out surveillance on young Muslims, attacking perfectly decent schools for not monitoring extremism sufficiently, is both an attack on political dissent, and a means of creating further support for terrorism.
Few would want to support those like Isis who use the most barbaric methods. But a report only today shows that the US air strikes in Syria and Iraq have been a recruiting sergeant for Isis. Spying on students and refusing to allow them to have speakers who don’t agree with the government will further alienate young Muslims in particular.
Muslims political engagement has been high in the anti-war and pro-Palestine movements. As recently as last summer we saw hundreds of thousands mobilise over Gaza. Their reward for opposing illegal wars and occupations has been high levels of repression and racism.
The present wave of Islamophobia is a direct consequence of those wars and the policies associated with them. Muslims in Britain could be forgiven for thinking that even when they do the right thing, it’s wrong.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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