By Hilary Aked
In the run up to 2010, what direction was Britain moving in and how can we progress in the next decade of the 21st century?
In October 2009, the BBC allowed Nick Griffin of the BNP to claim on television that ‘Islam is an evil religion’. Judging from the rather muted reaction this comment received, it was as if this wasn’t a particularly outrageous statement to make.
About a month after this, on November 5th 2009 three Muslim students from City University in London were badly hurt in a violent attack by a mob of about 30 people armed with metal poles and bricks. The attackers are said to have shouted ‘get the Muslims’ and ‘terrorists’.
More recently, in Switzerland, a vote to ban minarets was a wake-up call to many, highlighting just how mainstream discriminatory attitudes towards Islam had become and how often it was being unfairly singled out.
An incident at the London School of Economics in December 2009 recently offended many people, especially Muslims, after student sports players chose to paint their faces black and dress up like inmates of Guantanamo Bay – in orange jumpsuits – at a Christmas party. Their defence was that it was just ‘a bit of fun’ and was not intended to be ‘racist, religiously insensitive or demeaning’ as it was later branded by the Student Union president. But not many people were laughing.
Unfortunately, Islamophobia is clearly on the rise in Britain. And whether it is severe prejudice, or mere thoughtlessness, if we don’t challenge it, it will become accepted as a social norm.
It is in everyone’s interest that we do better to tolerate, respect and co-exist with other races, religions and ideologies. This is not only so we can hold on to the benefits of a multicultural, multi-faith society. It’s also because racism (such as attacks on Muslims – or anyone else) increasingly feeds its twin barbarism: terrorism (in the name of Islam – or anything else).
On Christmas 2009 day a former UCL student is accused of attempting to commit mass murder by blowing up a plane in Detroit.
A flurry of media reports suggesting that he may have been ‘radicalised’ whilst at university in London followed. Although there is no evidence of this, some newspapers presented the fact that he had organised events on the War on Terror as some sort of early warning sign. The absurdity of this is staggering and dangerous.
It is clear that ‘extremist’ is such a vaguely defined conceptual term that in some minds any Muslim with an opinion, especially one critical of Britain or America’s foreign policy, is suspect. This mentality threatens to curtail freedom of speech by intimidation and silence of dissent, and turn into a McCarthyist witch-hunt against left-wing Muslims. A distinction has to be drawn between voicing anger at the suffering caused by the violence of Western governments and espousing violence as a response.
There are reasons to be fearful that more Islamophobic attacks will follow this attempted act of terrorism by one grossly misguided individual.
But the disturbing polarisation that seems to be starting to occur can be reversed in the next ten years. No one wants a continued destructive cycle of racism, terrorism, alienation, injustice and bloodshed.
The government’s Preventing Violet Extremism programme is counter-productive, itself stigmatising Muslims and exacerbating the sense of disaffection some feel by treating their religion as the problem, and ignoring the bigger picture.
It also feeds Islamophobia, and groups like ‘Stop the Islamisation of Europe’ – who openly boast of their Islamophobia with their slogan ‘Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense’.
The media also bears some responsibility for the climate of heightened racism. The City University attacks in London were, according to witnesses, carried out by both black and white youths. It is patently obvious that this was a specifically anti-Muslim hate-crime, yet it was reported only as ‘racially motivated’. But much worse are the newspapers who, since 9/11, have become obsessed with the word ‘Muslim’ treating it as carrying some automatic connotations – mostly negative. The implicit message is: here is a group of people the rest of us should be worried about.
It is vital that the media don’t use their power irresponsibly. Equal prominence must be given to a story where a Muslim is an innocent victim, not a guilty party. Despite the dramatic, tragic and shocking circumstances, the case of Marwa el-Sherbini – stabbed to death in Dresden, Germany – was not widely reported upon, seemingly because it did not fit the dominant narrative of ‘Muslims as baddies’.
Vilification of Muslims as uniformly ‘extremist’, dangerous, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, irrational and violent panders to the BNP’s lie that Muslims do not ‘fit’ in British society and this view cannot be allowed to creep any further into the mainstream.
Opposing violent fanaticism can only be effective if we fight racism and discrimination at the same time. Suspicion of all Muslims is a symptom of the tendency to make lazy generalisations. If a handful of terrorists succeed in making us so very terrified that we turn on innocent people in Muslim communities, we will be wilfully participating in our mutual self-destruction by tearing up the trust and respect that are so hard to recover.
This decade we should demand some sophistication from the government, an end to hysterical stereotyping in our media, and universal recognition that no form of racism – including Islamophobia – is respectable.
Hilary Aked read English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford and then went on to complete a Masters degree in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is currently editor of ‘London Student,’ the student newspaper of the University of London. The newspaper is the largest of its kind in Europe, serving as the voice of 120,000 students.
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