By Sabby Dhalu
News during the Christmas and new-year period was dominated by the failed terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on 25 December 2009. Many media reports have used the fact that the perpetrator was a student in London, active in a student Islamic Society, to imply this appalling act was incited by the perfectly normal activities of Islamic Societies in London colleges. Abdulmutallab was President of the Islamic Society at University College London (UCL) from 2006-2007. Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, said reports that Abdulmutallab developed extreme views whilst studying at UCL about were “spectacular insinuation” and has ordered a review of the 23-year-old’s time at the university.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims resident in the UK abhor such acts. One of the routes to countering terrorism lies in ensuring that Britain’s Muslim communities are respected and included in all aspects of society. Isolating and stigmatising all Muslims in response to such incidents undermines these efforts and the basis of an integrated society where all are free to express their faith and culture, as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same. Unsubstantiated media reports on Islamic societies at University campuses inciting extremism are whipping up Islamophobia in an already hostile climate.
There have been numerous overtly anti-Muslim demonstrations around the country coordinated by various groups calling themselves the English, Welsh and Scottish Defence Leagues, including two demonstrations which took place outside Harrow Central Mosque donning the name “Stop the Islamification of Europe”. Some of these anti-Muslim demonstrations are linked to the fascist organisation, the British National Party (BNP). The BNP has been emboldened by the election of two of its members to the European Parliament in June this year. Its leader, Nick Griffin, has since been a panellist on the BBC’s flagship programme Question Time. Fascism – the politics of the BNP – stands for systematic racism, including annihilation and genocide against entire peoples. It stands for the ruthless victimisation of black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish and other minorities.
The BNP has been increasingly focussing its political cutting-edge on demonising Muslims, and Griffin has been reported to have said: “We bang on about Islam. Why? Because, to the ordinary public out there, it’s the thing they can understand. It’s the one thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with. If we were to attack some other group – some people say we should attack the Jews … But … we’ve got to get to power. And if that was an issue to bang on about when the press don’t talk about it … the public would just think we were barking mad.”
The BNP has been making use of whatever bigotry the media or mainstream politicians have effectively legitimised, with Muslims being its current principal target. For example it described the 2006 local elections as “a referendum on Islam”.
Accompanying increased Islamophobia from the media and the BNP advance, there have also been physical attacks, including two murders. A taxi driver in Birmingham and a Muslim man in Tooting, South London, were the victims of such cases. Most recently, in November, Muslim students from City University in London were viciously assaulted after prayers. In Rochdale, in the North West, a Muslim woman was violently attacked by a BNP supporter who attempted to rip off her hijab.
The anti-Muslim campaign is also being fanned across Europe. In Switzerland a referendum last November agreed to ban the building of minarets, following a campaign led by the far-right. In France, home to Europe’s largest fascist organisation, President Sarkozy has called for a ban on the wearing of burkas in public.
To defeat this Islamophobia trend, not only must we oppose the politics of the extreme right, but we also need to change the terms of the discussion taking place by waging a strong campaign in defence of multiculturalism. We must assert the importance of the most fundamental of human rights; the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and cultural expression.
Despite the rise of Islamophobia, tremendous progress is taking place in society. The majority of people– over 80% of Londoners – enjoy Britain’s multiculturalism. Far from Britain ‘sleepwalking into segregation’, a recent study by Dr Ludi Simpson from the University of Manchester found that British society is becoming more mixed, not more segregated, with the number of mixed neighbourhoods increasing from 864 to 1,070 in the decade to 2001. In addition, the past decade has seen children of mixed ethnic parentage to rise by 20%, and there are four times more children than adults of mixed ethnicity.
Ken Livingstone recently launched the One Society Many Cultures campaign. It aims to uphold the freedoms of religious and cultural expression and to defend them for all groups in society, including Muslims who are facing the brunt of the attack. At its launch meeting, representatives from a wide range of religious faiths and from different political parties pledged their support to this campaign. It is through initiatives such as these that we can hope to unite over the coming ten years and strengthen ourselves as a rich and diverse British community – one that we can all be proud of. Let’s all do our bit to realise that.
To support the campaign contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Sabby Dhalu has been Joint Sectretary of Unite Against Fascism since the campaign started in 2003, and an active campaigner against racism with the National Assembly Against Racism for 10 years.
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