A great piece by Seumas Milne on the rising tide of Islamophobia in Britain and why it has to be confronted.
If young British Muslims had any doubts that they are singled out for special treatment in the land of their birth, the punishments being meted out to those who took part in last year’s London demonstrations against Israel’s war on Gaza will have dispelled them. The protests near the Israeli embassy at the height of the onslaught were angry: bottles and stones were thrown, a Starbucks was trashed and the police employed unusually violent tactics, even by the standards of other recent confrontations, such as the G20 protests.
But a year later, it turns out that it’s the sentences that are truly exceptional. Of 119 people arrested, 78 have been charged, all but two of them young Muslims (most between the ages of 16 and 19), according to Manchester University’s Joanna Gilmore, even though such figures in no way reflect the mix of those who took part. In the past few weeks, 15 have been convicted, mostly of violent disorder, and jailed for between eight months and two-and-a-half years – having switched to guilty pleas to avoid heavier terms. Another nine are up to be sentenced tomorrow.
The severity of the charges and sentencing goes far beyond the official response to any other recent anti-war demonstration, or even the violent stop the City protests a decade ago. So do the arrests, many of them carried out months after the event in dawn raids by dozens of police officers, who smashed down doors and handcuffed family members as if they were suspected terrorists. Naturally, none of the more than 30 complaints about police violence were upheld, even where video evidence was available.
Nothing quite like this has happened, in fact, since 2001, when young Asian Muslims rioted against extreme rightwing racist groups in Bradford and other northern English towns and were subjected to heavily disproportionate prison terms. In the Gaza protest cases, the judge has explicitly relied on the Bradford precedent and repeatedly stated that the sentences he is handing down are intended as a deterrent.
For many in the Muslim community, the point will be clear: not only that these are political sentences, but that different rules apply to Muslims, who take part in democratic protest at their peril. It’s a dangerous message, especially given the threat from a tiny minority that is drawn towards indiscriminate violence in response to Britain’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and rejects any truck with mainstream politics.
But it’s one that is constantly reinforced by politicians and parts of the media, who have increasingly blurred the distinction between violent and non- violent groups, demonised Islamism as an alien threat and branded as extremist any Muslim leader who dares to campaign against western foreign policy in the Muslim world. That’s reflected in the government’s targeting of “nonviolent extremism” and lavish funding of anti-Islamist groups, as well as in Tory plans to ban the nonviolent Hizb ut-Tahrir and crack down ever harder on “extremist written material and speech”.
In the media, it takes the form of relentless attempts to expose Muslims involved in wider politics as secret fanatics and sympathisers with terrorism. Next week, Channel 4 Dispatches plans to broadcast the latest in a series of undercover documentaries aimed at revealing the ugly underside of British Muslim political life. In this case, the target is the predominantly British-Bangladeshi Islamic Forum of Europe. From material sent out in advance, the aim appears to be to show the IFE is an “entryist” group in legitimate east London politics – and unashamedly Islamist to boot.
As recent research co-authored by the former head of the Metropolitan police special branch’s Muslim contact unit, Bob Lambert, has shown, such ubiquitous portrayals of Muslim activists as “terrorists, sympathisers and subversives” (all the while underpinned by a drumbeat campaign against the nonexistent Afghan “burka”) are one factor in the alarming growth of British Islamophobia and the rising tide of anti-Muslim violence and hate crimes that stem from it.
Last month’s British Social Attitudes survey found that most people now regard Britain as “deeply divided along religious lines”, with hostility to Muslims and Islam far outstripping such attitudes to any other religious group. On the ground that has translated into murders, assaults and attacks on mosques and Muslim institutions – with shamefully little response in politics or the media. Last year, five mosques in Britain were firebombed, from Bishop’s Stortford to Cradley Heath, though barely reported in the national press, let alone visited by a government minister to show solidarity.
And now there is a street movement, the English Defence League, directly adopting the officially sanctioned targets of “Islamists” and “extremists” – as well as the “Taliban” and the threat of a “takeover of Islam” – to intimidate and threaten Muslim communities across the country, following the success of the British National party in baiting Muslims above all other ethnic and religious communities.
Of course, anti-Muslim bigotry, the last socially acceptable racism, is often explained away by the London bombings of 2005 and the continuing threat of terror attacks, even though by far the greatest number of what the authorities call “terrorist incidents” in the UK take place in Northern Ireland, while Europol figures show that more than 99% of terrorist attacks in Europe over the past three years were carried out by non-Muslims. And in the last nine months, two of the most serious bomb plot convictions were of far right racists, Neil Lewington and Terence Gavan, who were planning to kill Muslims.
Meanwhile, in the runup to the general election, expect some ugly dog whistles from Westminster politicians keen to capitalise on Islamophobic sentiment. With few winnable Muslim votes, the Tories seem especially up for it. Earlier this month, Conservative frontbencher Michael Gove came out against the building of a mosque in his Surrey constituency, while Welsh Tory MP David Davies blamed a rape case on the “medieval and barbaric” attitudes of some migrant communities.
As long as British governments back wars and occupations in the Middle East and Muslim world, there will continue to be a risk of violence in Britain. But attempts to drive British Muslims out of normal political activity, and the refusal to confront anti-Muslim hatred, can only ratchet up the danger and threaten us all.