July 5, 2008
Fear of Islam: Britain’s new disease
Peter Oborne | The Independent
Three years ago, four young suicide bombers caused carnage in London. Their aim was not just to kill and maim. There was also a long-term strategic purpose: To sow suspicion and divide Britain between Muslims and the rest. They are succeeding.
In Britain today, there is a deepening distrust between mainstream society and ever more isolated Muslim communities. A culture of contempt and violence is emerging on our streets.
Channel 4’s Dispatches program discovered many violent episodes and attacks on Muslims, with very few reported; those that do get almost no publicity.
Last week, Martyn Gilleard, a Nazi sympathizer in East Yorkshire, was jailed for 16 years. Police found four nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat. Gilleard had been preparing for a war against Muslims. The Gilleard case went all but unreported. Had a Muslim been found with an arsenal of weapons and planning violent assaults, it would have been a far bigger story.
There is a reason for this blindness in the media. The systematic demonization of Muslims has become an important part of the central narrative of the British political and media class; it is so entrenched, so much part of normal discussion, that almost nobody notices. Protests go unheard and unnoticed.
Why? Britain’s Muslim immigrants are mainly poor, isolated and alienated from mainstream society. Surveys show Muslims have the highest rate of unemployment, the poorest health, the most disability and fewest educational qualifications of any faith group in the country. This means they are vulnerable, rendering them open to ignorant and hostile commentary from mainstream figures.
Islamophobia — an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims — can be encountered in the best circles: Among our most famous novelists, among newspaper columnists, and in the Church of England.
Its appeal is wide-ranging. “I am an Islamophobe,” the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote in The Independent nearly 10 years ago. “Islamophobia?” the Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle asks rhetorically in the title of a recent speech, “Count me in”. Imagine Liddle declaring: “Anti-Semitism? Count me in”, or Toynbee claiming she was “an anti-Semite and proud of it”.
Anti-Semitism is recognized as an evil, noxious creed, and its adherents are barred from mainstream society and respectable organs of opinion. Not so Islamophobia.
“There is a definite urge; don’t you have it?”, the author Martin Amis told Ginny Dougary of The Times: “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. Not letting them travel. Deportation; further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.”
Here, Amis is doing much more than insulting Muslims. He is using the foul and barbarous language of fascism.
All over Europe, parties of the far right have been dropping their traditional hostility to minorities such as Jews and homosexuals; in Britain, the BNP has come to realize that anti-Semitism and anti-black campaigning won’t work if they are serious about electoral success. To move to mainstream respectability, they need an issue that allows them to exploit people’s fears about immigrants and Britain’s ethnic minority communities without being branded racist extremists. They have found it. Since 9/11, and particularly 7/7, the BNP has gone all out to tap a rich vein of anti-Muslim sentiment. The party’s leader, Nick Griffin, has described Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith” and has tried to distance himself and the party from its anti-Semitic past. Party members are now rebuked for discussing the Holocaust and told to focus on terrorism, the evils of Islam, and scare stories of Britain becoming an Islamic state. Griffin’s strategy has been inspired by the press.
Many categories of immigrants and foreigners have been singled out for hatred and opprobrium by mainstream society because they were felt to be threats to British identity. At times, these despised categories have included Catholics, Jews, French and Germans and blacks. Now this outcast role has fallen to Muslims. We should all feel ashamed about the way we treat Muslims, in the media, in our politics, and on our streets. We do not treat Muslims with the tolerance, decency and fairness that we often like to boast is the British way. We urgently need to change our public culture.
— Peter Oborne’s Dispatches film, “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim”, will be screened on Channel 4 at 8 p.m. on Monday