girl with anti-racist placard National Unity Demo Against Fascism, London, November 2018. Photo: Jim Aindow

Attacks on Islam and Muslims are the central organising principles of far-right movements across Europe, argues Chris Nineham

It shouldn’t really need to be pointed out given the evidence, but it does. Islamophobia is the dominant form of racism in British society and across much of Europe.

According to a recent survey, 25% of people in England believe that Islam is a dangerous religion that incites violence. According to the same research a shocking 52% believe that Islam poses a serious threat to Western civilisation.

Attacks on Islam and Muslims are the central organising principles of far-right movements across Europe. For Tommy Robinson for instance, Islam is the main enemy. His key mobilising issues are terrorism, grooming and the threat of Sharia law. When he claims to be defending freedom of speech it is against a fantasy political correctness that he believes blocks discussion of these issues.

But the far right are not the source of Islamophobia. They are feeding off the mainstream. Islamophobia is deeply embedded in the main political parties, central to media discourse and to the functioning of the key bodies of the state.

The Muslim Council of Britain have repeatedly pointed to the growing number of Islamophobic posts or comments by representatives of the Tory party – there were for example nine in just two months of last year. Despite this and the fact that 66% of Tory voters see Islam as a threat, the Tory leadership has consistently refused to launch the enquiry into Islamophobia that the MCB demands.

There is a problem in the Labour Party too – 22% of Labour voters also believe Islam is a danger to our lifestyle. Islamophobia is a far more prominent problem in British politics than antisemitism, although this too is growing in society. Studies of the media show almost daily stereotyping and demonisation of Muslims and statistics of stop and search, arrest and imprisonment reveal systematic anti-Muslim attitudes in the police and the courts.

The so-called Prevent strategy attempts to mobilise workers in all sorts of other state institutions in an initiative that often assumes that Muslims are a danger to society. Meanwhile data shows that discrimination against Muslims extends across the economy. Muslims are half as likely as the rest of society to have permanent jobs for example.

So why is there no national debate about this scandalous situation? The first problem is denial. It’s not just that the issue is ignored, there are regular debates in the media as to whether Islamophobia actually exists. Worse still, Islamophobic attitudes are often dressed up as liberal critiques of aspects of some Muslim’s lifestyles or what is often, absurdly, regarded as a uniquely reactionary religion. Such attitudes adopted by liberals and sometimes by people who regard themselves as progressives only give confidence to the right. So when Boris Johnson made his disgraceful comments about women in Burqas looking like letterboxes he felt confident to justify them in terms of opposing women’s oppression, ‘if you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree’.

Racist attitudes are second nature to the British ruling class of course, and various forms of racism against people of Asian or African descent have a long and horrible history which continue to this day. But Islamophobia’s ability to present as cultural critique means that it is a racism that it is peculiarly convenient at a time when ‘biological’ racism is largely regarded as unacceptable.

It is a form of racism that can pretend not to be one. But this isn’t the only cause of the denial. Islamophobia is deeply structured into British society because it has played a central role in attempting to create the conditions in which the British elites can fight unpopular foreign wars, particularly in central Asia and the Middle East. A series of studies have mapped the rise of Islamophobia to geopolitics and Western foreign policy priorities, including the shock of the Iranian revolution, the US retreat from the Lebanon in 1984, and in a different way the end of Cold War.

Islamophobia went mainstream after the start of the War on Terror in 2001 when the US, Britain and its other allies turned towards massive military intervention against Afghanistan and then Iraq. The damage and bitterness caused by these invasions has predictably unleashed an intensifying cycle of violence that threatens to sustain racism against the people who we have murderously attacked in the first place. Really confronting Islamophobia, challenging the logic of the Prevent programme for example, or explaining the causes of terrorism, requires challenging the logic of the wars and foreign interventions so dear to the British establishment. There are too few in public life who are prepared to do that.

Islamophobia can be overcome. Social attitudes are very contradictory. Despite some popular prejudice, the vast majority want to see more measures to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims,including for example better access to language teaching. Overwhelming numbers of people oppose the foreign wars that successive governments have dragged us into and the fact that we have a leader the Labour Party who is anti-war, a principled and public anti-racist and takes Islamophobia very seriously is important in itself and a sign of widespread anti-racist attitudes in Britain.

One of the most inspirational and significant moments in recent British politics was during the 2017 election campaign when Jeremy Corbyn responded to the dreadful terrorist attacks in Manchester with a press conference in which he argued that the main cause of  terrorism was our foreign policy. To the shock of the Tories and the right wing in Labour the next day opinion polls showed that 75% of the population agreed with him. This was a moment when it became clear how the Islamophobic narrative can be unravelled. 

To do so will require concerted action. We have to insist on the cultural, economic and institutional importance of Islamophobia. We have to make the fight against Islamophobia as central to our movement as it is to the thought and actions of the establishment and the far right. But as well as calling it out and confronting it we have to tackle its causes. Muslims will not feel really safe and at home in Britain until we stop bombing and intervening in Muslim countries and start developing a foreign policy based on peace and respect.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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