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Islamophobia Watch

Racists’ Trap

Ken Livingstone

THE MUSLIMS are coming. Twisted mind of the agony Sheikh. Why we must kick out this man of hate. Britain’s welcome for Devil. Confront Islam instead of kowtowing to it.

Such headlines and comments have become commonplace in the British media.

The question of hostility to Islam and Muslims in our society – and in "Western" society more generally – is now one of the most important in politics. The left in Britain should take this issue up and vigorously oppose the racism that is now being directed against Muslims in our society.

Islamophobia is the battering ram with which Muslim communities are isolated by the rest of seciety. It is the weapon of choice of the far right in Britain. We should be under no illusion that Islamophobia and racism towards Muslims are major tools in BNP attempts to build on the council seats that it has won so far.

Islamophobia tars all Muslims with the fundamentalist brush and legitimises racist views, prejudices and even attacks against Muslim Asians.

There has been a rising tide of Islamophobia in Western countries since September 11 and the subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq. The onslaught portrays Islam as a uniquely backward, oppressive or evil religion, distinct from all others and at odds with Western values.

In France, some parts of the left were pulled in behind the "headscarf ban", the law forbidding the wearing of the hijab and other conspicuous religious symbols in schools, on the grounds that it is consistent with the anti-clerical secular traditions of progressive French politics. In fact, the ban was a mechanism to isolate France’s Muslim community in particular.

We are now told that we face a "clash of civilisations", a phrase that, in itself, reflects a mindset from which all sorts of reactionary ideas can be justified.

Will Cummins in the Sunday Telegraph argued (July 18, 2004) that "Islam is not, or not only, a religion. Islam is a supranational army and state". In an article by Anthony Browne (July 24, 2004) headed "The Triumph of the East", the Spectator states that "there is no plot – Islam really does want to conquer the world". Browne’s article distinguishes Islam from Christianity by arguing that "Christendom" has given up its conquering and converting, while Islam maintains its ambitions to conquer the West.

BNP leader Nick Griffin issued a tirade against Islam, exposed in the recent BBC documentary, singling Islam out as a "vicious, wicked faith". He described it as a religion that had "expanded through a handful of cranky lunatics" and "is now sweeping country after country". He argued that it was inherent in that religion to spread Islam by force.

The singling out of Islam as a uniquely dangerous religion simply aids fascists like Nick Griffin. The British National Party used Islamophobia as central plank of its party broadcast for this June’s elections.

Right-wing newspapers and columnists debate openly how to move onto this terrain in order to make gains for the Tories. Again, Will Cummins urged in the Sunday Telegraph that the Tory Party adopt an openly anti-Islamic platform as a means to make electoral gains. "Do the Tories not sense the enormous popular groundswell against Islam?" he asked. His conclusion was that "an anti-Islam Conservative Party would destroy the BNP as quickly as Margaret Thatcher despatched the National Front in 1979 when she warned that, unless immigration was curbed, Britain would be ‘swamped’ by an ‘alien culture’."

The visit of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to City Hall this summer led to a spate of Islamophobia in the rightwing press. Despite Dr Qaradawi being widely respected as one of the most eminent Muslim scholars in the world, he was subjected to a campaign of slurs and hatred, causing great offence to Muslims across the globe.

I welcomed him to London, just as I would leader of any of the other great world religions, to promote understanding between London’s communities. I welcome dialogue with all religious leaders in London – without necessarily agreeing with their views. But I was appalled by the outpouring of lies and Islamophobia against Dr al-Qaradawi in the media.

He is of particular importance to many Muslims in Britain because of his interest in the question of how Muslims should practise their faith in non-Muslim societies. He is regarded as an apostate by many Islamic fundamentalists because of his view that Muslims should respect other great religions and his forthright condemnations of the terrorist attacks on September 11, in Bali and elsewhere.

Of course, there is a dividing line in any discussion – there are many adherents of views that are extremely dangerous and wrong, as we well know from the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001. For example, I refused permission for the Al-Muhajiroun group to demonstrate last weekend on Trafalgar Square. Al-Muhajiroun has caused offence with its views on September 11, its sectarian campaigns towards other religions and on many other issues. But the difference in the two cases merely serves to underline the need to consider matters carefully and not get caught up in the knee-jerk hysteria of the tabloids.

There was a strand of the left and in progressive politics that reacted with considerable hostility to my hosting Dr Qaradawi in City Hall, much of which relied on the quotes attributed to Qaradawi in the tabloids.

Others took a different view. Green Party home affairs speaker Hugo Charlton stated: "I regret the decision by some (London) Assembly members to attempt to deter the distinguished Muslim scholar Dr al-Qaradawi from speaking at City Hall." Green Party MEP for South East England Dr Caroline Lucas stated: "At a time when Muslims find themselves victims of vilification – both in the press and by government agencies – it is more important than ever that our commitment to human rights and equality is not expressed in a way that can fan the flames of populist Islamophobia."

Both the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain wrote to Assembly members to express their concern and the Palestinian representative in Britain Afif Safieh also intervened in the debate. The Stop the War Coalition’s Lindsey German argued in the Guardian that "we could start by not treating Muslims as one reactionary, superstitious mass".

The rising tide of Islamophobia – underlined by the hysteria in the tabloids surrounding al-Qaradawi’s visit – assists the right within our society. If this tide is allowed to build up momentum and legitimacy, as it is currently doing, then our political landscape as a whole will be inched to the right. If we allow fertile territory for the right to grow, we should not be surprised if it uses it.

Racism has taken many forms in our society. At different times, different communities – Jewish, Caribbean. African, Asian and so on – have found themselves at the receiving end of the onslaught. The left has always understood that to capitulate to such attacks will drive every progressive social force backwards in the end.

This article was published in the Morning Star, 21 July 2004.