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Islamophobia Watch

Freedom of Speech or Islamophobia?

Owen Jones

THE PUBLICATION of a dozen caricatures of the prophet Mohammed by newspapers across Europe has sparked a global explosion of Muslim rage. Particularly incensed by the portrayal of Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban, thousands of Muslims have protested across Europe and the Islamic world, culminating in the torching of Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus and the deaths of several protesters.

According to Jyllands-Posten, the rightwing Danish newspaper that originally published the cartoons, the right of freedom of speech is under siege. France-Soir launched an impassioned defence of secularism with the assertion that: "Yes, we have the right to caricature God." The Daily Telegraph has gone even further. In a recent editorial it demanded that: "Muslims must accept the predominant mores of their adopted culture... Those Muslims who cannot tolerate the openness and robustness of intellectual debate in the West have perhaps chosen to live in the wrong culture."

Undeniably, many Muslims are angry that their religion has been slandered in such a deliberately provocative fashion. Islam generally forbids any depictions of Mohammed. It is also clear that Islamic fundamentalists are undoubtedly exploiting the crisis for their own reactionary ends. However, there are two other – arguably more important – explanations for the sheer intensity of Muslim angry. One is the perceived hypocrisy of Islam being associated with terrorism by Western countries who have participated in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis with cruise missiles, bullets and even chemical weapons. The other is more sinister. Many Muslims believe that these cartoons have nothing to do with iconoclasm and everything to do with a wave of Islamophobia sweeping Western societies.

Europe's twenty million Muslims are an increasingly embattled minority. The far right no longer directs its hatred against Jews or blacks – their targets of choice are now almost exclusively Muslims. The original publication of the cartoons cannot be divorced from the context of rampant Islamophobia in Danish society itself. For example, the far right Danish People's Party is now the third biggest party in Denmark. One of its MEPs, Mogens Camre, recently declared that: "All countries in the West are infiltrated by Muslims. They are nice to us while they wait until they are enough to kill us."

His sentiments are echoed in Belgium. One of the leaders of the far right Flemish Vlaams Blok, Filip Dewinter told the New York Times: "We must stop the Islamic invasion." In the Netherlands, prior to his assassination, the right wing demagogue Pim Fortuyn declared himself "in favour of a cold war with Islam. I see Islam as an extraordinary threat, as a hostile religion."

In Britain, the BNP has followed the trend of their European counterparts. BNP leader Nick Griffin was recently acquitted of all charges relating to his description of Islam as a "vicious, wicked faith" and his claims that Western civilisation is threatened with destruction at the hands of a Muslim plan for global conquest.

The rising tide of European Islamophobia has spilled far beyond the confines of the far right. In the Netherlands, following the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh (who described Muslims as “goat-fuckers”) in November 2004, several mosques were set alight. The right wing Dutch Government is currently in the process of banning the burqa outside of the home. In Italy, Berlusconi publicly affirmed the superiority of Western civilisation over Muslim societies, while a bestselling book by Italian author Oriana Fallaci, The Rage and the Pride, claimed that Muslims "breed like rats, and they piss in baptismal fonts."

In Britain, violence against Muslims continues to mount as the media stirs a cauldron of hatred. A 600% rise in Islamophobic attacks was registered in Britain in the aftermath of the 7 July attacks. Muslims find themselves increasingly on the receiving end of police intimidation. In the aftermath of the London terror attacks, stop-and-search of Asians rose twelve-fold.

Muslims are not only the victims of a gathering storm of racist persecution. They also represent one of the most oppressed and impoverished sections of the working class. According to a recent TUC study, over two thirds of British Muslims live in poverty and suffer from the lowest employment rate of any ethnic group. This situation is repeated across Europe. In France, for example, over a quarter of university graduates of North African origin are unemployed, compared to an average rate of only 5%.

Without examining this broader context, it is difficult to understand the intensity of the anger and indeed fear among Muslims that the publication of these cartoons has provoked. There is a danger that, as anti-Semitism once clothed itself in the rhetoric of anti-capitalism, today Islamophobia appropriates the language of secularism. It is a convenient ideology at a time when Western armies occupy Afghanistan and Iraq and when American power menaces Iran. Furthermore, it is the lethal concoction of Islamophobia, western imperialism and poverty that has given birth to modern Islamic fundamentalism, along with the decline of secular nationalist alternatives that accompanied the collapse of Stalinism. Unless the Islamophobic tide is driven back, there is a clear risk that the events surrounding the caricatures of Mohammed are a precursor for a much greater disaster.

Published in Labour Left Briefing, March 2006