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Islamophobia - the Slime Monster, the War and Apple Pie

Scotland United Against Islamophobia

It's impossible to talk sense about Islamophobia without talking about the colonial wars Britain has been fighting for the last 12 years. And it's impossible to understand the wars without talking about Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is the irrationality in the engine room of the war. Of course there's a rational basis for the war. The trouble is that it's the rationality of thieves and if anyone thinks the thieving might benefit the ordinary people of the war-mongering countries, they just need to ask themselves whether US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel - or for that matter BP's Chief Executive Bob Dudley - looks anything like Robin Hood.

Back in 2007, Chuck Hagel said:

"People say we're not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America's national interest. What the hell do you think they're talking about? We're not there for figs."

At a certain point in any discussion of the war, the rational war-gamers have to sit down in case they say too much, and the slime-monster called Islamophobia has to take the podium instead. For that to work, the slime monster has to look as if it isn't a slime-monster at all. It has to seem as wholesome and natural as apple-pie.

How did the slime-monster get its place in the war-room, what does it do there, and how does it disguise itself as apple-pie?

Islamophobia masquerades as a legitimate critique of Islam. Actually, it's racism. Islamophobes see Islam as threatening because it comes from somewhere else. Not just any somewhere else, but a somewhere else where people's skin colour is different. A somewhere else outside the charmed circle of countries that are supposed to set the world's agenda.

Some Muslims are ethnically from Britain's majority community. They too suffer from Islamophobia. To understand how that plays its part in the machinery of racism, you just have to remember the vitriol that used to be heaped on Brits living in the overseas parts of the Empire who chose to "go native."

A psychological affliction

The word "Islamophobia" has gained currency because it conveys the flavour of what many Muslims actually experience. It's quite a new word. It was used by Edward Said in the 80's and may have been used by others before that. But it only really entered the language after the Runnymede Trust published a report in 1997 called Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.

Islamophobia - the word - sounds not so much like a system of political and ethnic repression as like a psychological affliction. Muslims who meet an Islamophobe must certainly feel as if they are dealing with someone with some kind of a problem. What happens with Islamophobes is that they seem unable to control themselves.

A lot of people in Britain have a lot of dealings with Christian institutions. All kinds of political and activist groups routinely hold their meetings in churches. Let's suppose your group has just arranged to hold a meeting in the Friends Meeting House.

A Quakerophobe - if they modelled themselves on Islamophobes - would have a problem with that. If you mentioned that your group was meeting here, the Quakerophobe would digest it, and perhaps be quiet for a minute or two, or even wait a day or two, and then for no reason at all spew out everything they'd ever objected to about Quakers, Christianity and Christians.

And there would be less genteel Quakerophobes. If Quakers were visibly identifiable, Quakerophobes would attack them in the street and bully their children at school.

For someone from the majority community like me, it's hard to guess what it would be like to have the possibility of racial abuse stalking you all your life. But sometimes I think that when it comes to Islamophobia, Muslims don't know the half of it. There's a sort of soft Islamophobia that you're more likely to be exposed to if you're not Muslim.

It invites you into a deadly complicity. It invites you to look at me, and think:

"You and me, we're the same. You and me, we understand that Muslims are a bit strange and maybe a bit dangerous. But of course we wouldn't be so crass as to say so. Not out loud"

There's another kind of Islamophobe as well. A kind that doesn't bother with the tacit complicity, and would rather stand six inches from your face and shout at you. One of that sort - an SDL supporter perhaps - recently posted his critique of our Islamophobia Awareness Conference on facebook. He said:

"SCUM like you are only encouraging these Islamic paedophiles, rapists and potential terrorists who are encouraged to sign up for Jihad."

However much Islamophobia might look like a personality defect, it didn't get where it is today through quirkiness. There's plenty of debris from Britain's colonial past to feed the thing, and there's similar debris, with different particulars, in other European countries and in the USA. But there's also something else going on.

Clash of civilisations

One of the first signs that Islamophobia was going to be incorporated into the sinews of power in the present-day world came in an article published in 1993 and then expanded into a book in 1996. The author was Samuel Huntington, the article and book were called "The Clash of Civilisations."

Huntington said that the important entities in history are things called civilizations, that these things exist for many centuries and that you can mark them out on a map. He said that each civilization holds a particular set of views, and that differences between civilisations tend to produce conflict, including violent conflict.

He said that the cold war was an internal conflict within western civilisation, but that from now on conflicts will not be "primarily ideological or primarily economic," but will be between civilisations.The pragmatists who wield power for a living know that's nonsense. Chuck Hagel, back in his tactless days, even went so far as to say so. But it's useful cover, and Chuck Hagel probably won't be talking like that again.

Huntington devoted a lot of space in his article to the supposed conflict between Western and Islamic civilisation.

He had a pithy phrase - "Islam has bloody borders." But he wore his dogma lightly and looked to material conditions within the Islamic world as an explanation for the blood stains. There isn't much open Islamophobia in his writing. There doesn't need to be. It's all there in the overarching concept of the clash of civilisations.

When his article was published back in 1993, I think all this struck a lot of people as scraping the barrel a bit. It struck others as a glimmer of hope.

The Cold War was over and there was a lot of talk of a peace dividend. Defence companies and generals were scared rigid. Huntington made a specific pitch to that audience. He didn't say war was inevitable, but he said the west would have to "maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations."

The first time that Osama bin Laden publicly and explicitly framed his anti-colonial struggle as a conflict between Islam and the West came in an al-Jazeera interview in 1998, well after Huntington's publications. I don't know whether he read Huntington, but if he read the western press he could hardly miss the ideas.

Huntington claimed that the age of colonialism is over, that "non-Western civilizations no longer remain the objects of history as targets of Western colonialism but join the West as movers and shapers of history."

Well, if you happen to be standing in Afghanistan you might have trouble noticing the difference between being a target of colonialism and being part of a civilisation in relation to whom the west is protecting its interest.

Of course the interest being protected isn't ours. It's the interest of people like Chuck Hagel and Bob Dudley.

Entrenching Islamophobia at Home

With the colonial powers digging in to protect their interests in the Middle East and Africa, it's to be expected that their rulers will be hard at work entrenching Islamophobia at home. And they are.

In 2010 the BBC broadcast a Dispatches programme that Craig Murray neatly summed up as "Shock Horror! Muslims found in mosque."

But it isn't funny. This is the kind of thing that deters Muslims from trying to participate in political life. If they act apart from mainstream politics, they are called "self-segregating", and if they try to participate in mainstream politics they are called "entryists."

In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference last October, Theresa May's first words were:

"Wasn't it great to say goodbye - at long last - to Abu Hamza and those four other terror suspects on Friday?"

Abu Hamza and two of the other men extradited to the US - Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan - are British citizens. Theresa May didn't use the words Islam or Muslim anywhere in her speech. But would she have spoken in this way about saying goodbye to Britons who were not Muslims? And would she have so gratuitously offended the 140,000 voters who signed a petition in support of Babar Ahmad had she not believed them to be mostly Muslims?

In February, students at City University, London, were prohibited from using a university room for Friday prayers because they refused to submit sermons for vetting. If a university treats its Muslim students like that, is it any surprise that impressionable non-Muslims conclude that there must be something wrong with Islam?

"Keep extremists out and let MI5 and the police in" says Prof

Impositions are routinely made upon the the Muslim community that would not be possible without the thorough embedding of soft Islamophobia in our society.

Muslims are expected to voluntarily submit their organisations and activities to MI5 and police surveillance. This is supposed to be normal. If you have nothing to hide, you are not expected to object. Try telling a golf club - one with a non-Muslim membership - that they should permit MI5 scrutiny of their affairs, and see how normal that kind of surveillance is.

We are living in increasingly surveillance-friendly times. But no other group, besides Muslims, is so widely, humiliatingly and shamelessly spied upon.

Professor Anthony Glees is director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham. He makes a living out of worrying about "Islamic radicalisation." In June 2011 he wrote in the Telegraph:

"What should universities be doing? The answer is really simple: they should be doing what they are meant to do. That means teaching their students by working with them, knowing them, guiding them and ensuring that they keep to the basic values which have made this country a decent mature democracy."

Fair enough, you might think.

Then he added:

"They need to keep extremists out and let MI5 and the police in."

A state that embeds its intelligence agencies and its secret police in universities, in student life and in civil society is a police state. We would use the label without hesitation if the surveillance wasn't confined to Muslims.

For the moment, universities don't conduct themselves exactly as Professor Glees would wish. Britain isn't yet quite a police state. But it's much closer to being a police state for Muslims than for others. Doesn't that make it a racist state?

Photo: Julia Davidson
Demo and March against racism and fascism: Edinburgh Sat 20 Feb 2010