By Andrew Williams
Islamophobia is back on the rise in Britain. Just in the last few weeks the tabloid media has been raving about halal food. The only Muslim directly-elected Mayor – Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets – has been subject to a witch-hunting Panorama programme and trumped up allegations of misallocation of funds. Muslim school governors in Birmingham have been accused of plotting an Islamist takeover. Plus the government is considering repressing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
This new wave of attacks on Muslims, alongside relentless scapegoating of migrants, is at the centre of the right-wing’s offensive into this Thursday’s (22 May) European and local elections. This reactionary agenda is being particularly pushed by UKIP and the Tories and, with Labour failing to oppose it, these elections will inevitably see gains on the right.
In electoral politics, the most high profile attack on Muslim engagement is the effort to oust Lutfur Rahman from Mayor of Tower Hamlets at this week’s election. As explained here the core of this campaign makes explicit appeals to Islamophobia and racism. The pernicious climate this has encouraged has contributed to Islamophobic crime in this borough almost doubling this past year.
But more generally, UKIP is at the centre of promoting an extreme agenda against Muslims. Its immigration spokesman Gerard Batten MEP proposed to ban all new mosques in Europe and is calling for British Muslims to be required to sign a declaration denouncing parts of the Qur’an. Other UKIP candidates have said Muslims are the ‘devil’s kids’; compared Islam to the Third Reich; and called for Britain to ‘ban Islam and knock down all the mosques’.
The recent Islamophobic barrage has included Tony Blair exhorting the West to focus its energy on attacking ‘radical’ Islam and the Charity Commission’s head claiming that ‘Islamic extremism’ presents the ‘most deadly’ threat to British charities.
In a more subtle variation of the same agenda, the Tories used the Easter break to a campaign that Britain is a ‘Christian country’, identifying with backward sentiment opposing other fairths.
Like all forms of racism, anti-Muslim bigotry serves to divide the working class, to divert attention from the attacks being made by capital and to provide ideological backing for imperialism’s brutalities abroad. Islamophobia is encouraged to bolster support for the West and Israel’s interventions in the Middle East.
Hysteria about halal food
The tabloids have resurrected their campaign against halal meat with ‘revelations’ that much meat on sale in Britain is compatible with Muslim and Jewish requirements. A racist furore has been whipped up because several supermarket chains supply lamb slaughtered in a halal-compliant way and a pizza restaurant chain serves halal chicken.
There is no conclusive evidence that the provisions the meat industry makes to meet the requirements of several religious traditions result in greater animal suffering than would otherwise occur. Also the complaint that consumers are being duped can easily be satisfied if retailers clearly label food, as Muslim and Jewish leaders suggested in their letter initially published by the Daily Telegraph.
Muslim inclusion in education
Turning to the Birmingham schools witch-hunt, contrary to media hype, the real unfolding conspiracy in the education system is a government attempt to roll back Muslim involvement in it – orchestrated by Michael Gove, the despised Tory Education Secretary. Rather than Muslims seeking a takeover, Michael Gove’s offensive is targeting the cultural accommodations that progressive schools have introduced to cater for their Muslim pupils.
Far-fetched accusations that Muslims are plotting to ‘takeover’ Birmingham’s schools have been based upon a transparently fake document, claiming to be organising a takeover plot called ‘Operation Trojan Horse’. The government has given this nonsense credence as it aids its wider aim to replace these schools’ current managements and to break up the local education authority.
Ofsted has been pressed into acting as a political vehicle for the Tories’ agenda. Having recently assessed the school at the centre of the allegations, Park View, as ‘outstanding’, it is now preparing a volte face and will downgrade the school to ‘inadequate’.
Those who support inclusive education are being intimidated; Gove has whipped up the spectre of terror plots by engaging Peter Clarke, a former counter-terrorism police chief, to look into the schools. Clarke has also been asked to look at two Muslim inspectorates that check on private schools, the government’s aim is to close them down.
This is the context of the inquiry into the activities of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) ordered by David Cameron, which aims to restrict, if not ban, the activities of the party that won Egypt’s first democratic Presidential elections in 2012.
The British government is supporting those who have used violence to secure office in Egypt. Along with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it backed last July’s military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi and now it supports a regime that has killed more than 2,000 protesters, detained over 20,000 people and sentenced to death more than one thousand.
Egypt’s MB, in contrast, pursues a non-violent strategy, of peaceful demonstrations and winning elections to gain office.
Egypt’s generals plus the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have banned the Muslim Brotherhood and have directly intervened with Cameron to press Britain to do likewise. Cameron’s appointment of Britain’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia to review the MB suggests serious consideration is being given to some level of ban on its activities in Britain. While not active as a political current in British politics, it is behind extensive charitable, social and welfare activities in sections of the Muslim community in Britain. These could be targeted both to weaken the MB and undermine the level of organisation among Britain’s Muslims which has particularly challenged government foreign policy but also begun to assert itself on other social issues.
Assaults on Muslims
The constant demonisation of Muslims strengthens anti-Muslim attitudes and is feeding a rise in physical attacks. The government backed project Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) reports Islamophobic hate crime has soared this past year. The majority of Muslims physically attacked, harassed or intimidated because of their faith are women.
Attacks on mosques are mounting, with at least 35 this past year, including bombs let off outside three West Midlands mosques, a Grimsby mosque firebombed, a Muswell Hill mosque burned down and an attempt to burn down an Islamic school in Chislehurst with the pupils inside. This month the far-right militaristic organisation Britain First burst into three Bradford mosques to terrorise worshippers.
Muslim communities across the country have endured four years of violent thuggery from the English Defence League and, whilst its activity has ebbed for present, on 10 May it mobilised several hundred to march chanting anti-Muslim slogans through Rotherham.
Given the savagery of imperialism’s offensive in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is not surprising that some individuals or small groups in the population have seen individual acts of terrorism as providing the only means of response.
Imperialism has multiplied these risks through its interventions in Libya and Syria. Al-Qaeda affiliates have gained influence amongst the Muslims from Europe recruited to fight these governments.
The government’s campaigns within Britain demonising Muslims exacerbate the dangers. If you want to ensure ultra-fringe terrorist groups do not gain a hearing, there has to be serious engagement with Muslim communities, in particular with their political leaderships. Promoting all this anti-Muslim hysteria puts the whole population at risk.
Some of the Muslim communities’ most effective activists in combating al-Qaeda propaganda are those who support the Muslim Brotherhood. They can marginalise the fringe elements that oppose peaceful campaigning. The government should be working with Muslim political leaders capable of isolating those prepared to support terror attacks instead of threatening the MB.
Britain’s Muslim population is rising. The 2011 census recorded 2.7 million Muslims in Britain (4.8 per cent of the population), in London it was 12.4 per cent of the population. The electoral implications are important for all the main parties, but in particular for Labour which increasingly relies on Muslim voters to win many parliamentary and council seats.
The Muslim electorate overwhelmingly orientates towards Labour, but its votes cannot be taken for granted. Significant desertions from Labour have occurred when there are viable anti-racist or anti-war candidates, such as George Galloway’s election as MP in Tower Hamlets (2005) and Bradford (2012) and Lutfur Rahman’s election as Mayor (2010).
The moral grounds for opposing Islamophobic bigotry are evident, but Labour’s leadership at best is not opposing them and is directly colluding in some of the arguments that underpin it. This is electorally damaging for Labour. Instead campaigning against racism would increase Labour support amongst Muslim and socially liberal voters. Equally important Labour needs to arm its core supporters with the arguments against the vilification of Muslims to ensure they are not seduced by UKIP and Tory reactionary propaganda.
Labour’s failure to oppose Islamophobic attacks plus echoing the scapegoating of migrants is helping shift British politics to the right. It is no accident Labour’s poll support recently dropped to levels not seen since 2010.
Step up campaigning against Islamophobia
This offensive to demonise Muslims needs to be confronted with the most effective resistance possible. The broadest framework is to defend freedom of religious and cultural expression. This liberal principal is profoundly supported by socialists but also seriously upheld by sections of liberal opinion. On this basis Muslims and the left can ally with wider forces, irrespective of different views on racism and imperialism’s wars.
This approach informed the high profile riposte against the tabloid’s recent anti-halal campaign. The joint statement of the Muslim Council of Britain with the Jewish organisation Shechita UK, supported by Christian leaders, used the platform of the Daily Telegraph to gain a wide hearing. It is similar to the framework pursued by the campaign One Society Many Cultures.
Islamophobia also needs to be taken up within the wider context of fighting racism. The recent 10,000 strong London Stand Up To Racism And Fascism demonstration on 22 March illustrating what is possible.
Also, given the role scapegoating Muslims plays in distracting attention from the slashing of living standards, opposition to Islamophobia needs to be raised in the context of campaigning against austerity.
Promoting hostility to Muslims is integral to imperialist objectives in the Middle East (as argued here), so the anti-war movement rightly takes up this issue. But anti-imperialism necessarily cannot provide the main framework for opposing Islamophobia. The broadest approach will also include opponents of these attacks who are not anti-imperialist. The goal has to be to mobilise the most powerful alliance of forces.
Irrespective of different views on strategy amongst progressive currents, the key task for all is to step up activity against Islamophobia.
Building opposition to the scapegoating of Muslims will be a major theme at the Stand up to racism and fascism Conference on Saturday 14 June, details below.
Stand up to racism and fascism – No to Scapegoating Immigrants – No to Islamophobia
9.30 – 5pm Saturday 14 June
Trade Union Congress
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3LS
£12 / £6 (students and concs)
Themes include: ● No to Islamophobia and Islamophobic attacks ● Challenging racist scapegoating of immigrants ● Celebrating diversity ● Busting the myths on immigration ● Responding to racism and fascism in Europe ● Stand up to UKIP
Download Stand up to racism and fascism conference leaflet here.