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Zahid Ali on Islamophobia

Talk given by Zahid Ali at a meeting in Spring 2008
Abridged text

In the seventies, you didn't have British Muslim we were all banded together as Asians. The National Front was very active and we were concerned about racism. There was the murder of Blair Peach... A lot of our culture and language and attitudes to Islam has been influenced by our historical by the crusades. In the 1980's, the newspapers used to describe Muslims as manual labourers: they were family-orientated and law abiding people. Now, that's flipped on its head we are sort of fifth columnists! Contributing factors to this great change in attitudes were:

  • The assassination of President Sadat by Muslim extremists (in 1981)
  • The overthrow of the Shah of Iran (in 1979) and the Iranian revolution
  • The continued humiliation of Palestinians and the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982
  • The rise of the right wing in Europe
  • Elections in Algeria being cancelled because an Islamic party won them
  • The sponsorship by the Christian fundamentalists of the neo-cons in the US

9/11 speeded up what was already happening. Before 9 11 'fundamentalist' was really a Christian term. Now, Islamist extremist and all the 'ist' that have Islam linked to them are negative. In the recent past the Irish community went through it, as you well know. The difference is there is a massive propaganda machine out there in that sense there is really an onslaught. That extends to every facet of life. Because for politicians being anti-Islam is an opener! Examples in everyday life are the physical attacks the burning of mosques and businesses. This is the way that British Muslims grew up. So, it is very hard for Muslims to find themselves. Young people are asking themselves these questions: where do I pitch my camp? This is the battle of ideas going on individually and also in the Muslim community.

What does Islamophobia mean? A dread or a fear of Islam. This can include an economical dimension. Islam is seen as a monolithic block. It was seen as separate with no common values with those is the west. Muslims have a long history in Britain. The cross-pollination of Muslim ideas, Islam and Muslims are seen as violent aggressive and engaged in a clash of civilisations, if you want to get your defence budget through! It is seen as a military ideology: anti-Muslim hostility is presented as natural and normal.

Is it just another form of Racism, as Salmon Rushdie says? In some respects, it is like anti-Semitism. Tackling Islamophobia can never be easy. Disagreements, discussions and debates are an important part of Islam. It is important to realise that recognising Islamophobia should not limit your free speech to discuss Muslim issues. Terrorism laws don't say they are aimed at Muslims, but the statistics suggest the targeting of Muslims. Take Belmarsh... the way it's applied you could say it's an Islamophobic piece of legislation. Bradford riots and the kind of sentences that were passed out. It was glaringly obvious - some of the rioters got 5 years. This is unheard of really! At the time, David Blunkett told them to stop wining! In 2003/4 Muslim population of Britain was 2 percent, but of those incarcerated they represented 8 percent.

Anti-racist legislation could not protect Muslims because Muslims are not a race. It's religious discrimination. The new legislation gives some protection and as such is to be welcomed. Negative reporting of Muslims is not just limited to tabloids it's right across radio, TV and the broadsheets. 91 percent of surveyed articles were negative in one week. Ken Livingstone said that, the overall threat presented by the media is a threat that no fair-minded person should think is right. Only 4 percent of articles were reported to be positive about Islam. The idea that Muslims are anti-Christmas trees and in favour of Sharia Law being introduced - I don't know where they get these stories from! Just talking about Edinburgh. When the Algerians were arrested the intelligence services and the police and they fed the media and they reproduced it. They reproduce every thing the police say. Why? To influence judges, the community. The media are really funny. To watch films, the Muslim has to be the terrorist waving an AK47 looking violent and threatening! This happens a lot in TV drama. Then we cut to someone praying in a Mosque. Then the Muslim says nobody cares about us. It is so depressing! 62 percent of Muslims in a study thought the media depiction of them was unfair.

In Britain 8 out of 10 Britons don't have any contact with Muslims. What they see on TV is their only view - the BNP is no longer a racist party the real problem is the Muslims. That's what they say.

It amazes me to be frank with you, that Muslims have any friends really! The challenge for British Muslims is to change that perception to interact with the community. Change the media image to be active in schools and to be active generally. So that people get to know what Muslims are really like - challenge the stereotypes. A lot of what happens is linked to the international situation. The continual humiliation of Palestine and the situation in Iraq is a huge factor. I haven't mentioned Iraq and going to war. It is the real reason for the rise in Islamophobia.