Last weekend London hosted a conference bringing together for the first time people from across Europe to respond to the threat of Islamophobia. Some people were surprised as hundreds of Muslims and non-Muslims, young and old, streamed in to the conference hall at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel on a sunny Saturday morning.
They shouldn’t have been.
It may not have registered much in the media or in official politics, but anti-Muslim racism is starting to infect the body politic in many European countries in the most alarming ways. And most Muslims and many non–Muslims are very anxious and very angry.
The conference, organised by a coalition called ‘Enough’, was a response to the fact that over the last few years widespread prejudice and routine discrimination against Muslims has started to morph in to open and unapologetic state repression. Women are being arrested in the street for wearing the full veil in France, minarets have been banned in Switzerland, Halal food has been prohibited in schools in many countries, and everywhere, including Britain, an official discourse is developing that brands Muslims as a menace to society. The results: growing violence and harassment including widespread attacks on mosques, and the increasing rise of racist, anti-Muslim political organisations.
To anyone with a passing knowledge of twentieth century history these events are chilling. Speaker after speaker at the conference argued that the echoes of the clamour against Jews in the 1920s and 1930s could no longer be ignored. The comparison with anti-Semitism is depressingly appropriate. Like Islamophobia, anti-Semitism is a racism that dresses up as cultural critique. Jews were initially demonised as an anti-integrationist and alien religious community. They soon became ‘the enemy within’. As German academic Sabine Schiffer argues, ‘the exact same metaphors and ideas are used to incite hatred against Muslims as were and are used to incite hatred against Jews. This can be seen in the many parallel terms, such as ‘Islamisation’ and ‘Judaisation’. It can also be seen in the assumption that people are totally defined by their religon, as if being a Muslim were the sole and decisive factor explaining all of a Muslim person’s action and attitudes.
One of the functions of the conference was to establish with clarity that Islamophobia is a form of racism. Suspicion of Muslims is justified in a host of ways; concern about terrorism, concern about ‘social cohesion’, concern about the spread of ‘non-western’ values, even apparent concern for women’s rights. These recurring themes all betray ignorance and twisted thinking but they have allowed all sorts of people who should know better to climb aboard the anti-Muslim band wagon. And taken together they have generated growing hostility to one of the most downtrodden and oppressed groups in society, the vast majority of whom are black and Asian. Islamophobia has become the last acceptable racism.
Way before the post-9/11 ramping up of Islamophobia, Muslims faced intense discrimination in housing, education, employment; in fact in every social index you want to name. So what Islamophobia amounts to is looking at oppression upside down, or blaming the victim. Muslims are treated as if they are somehow responsible for the fact that their countries are being bombed by the West or that there is a perceived problem with integration or that they face hostility and violence on the street.
The mood of the conference was that people would no longer accept the blame. French writer Marwan Muhammed spoke of the relevance of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; Dr Schiffer from Germany argued that the task in hand is not to defend Muslim culture or explain Islam but demand justice and respect without conditions for Muslims; Liz Fekete from the Institute of Race Relations argued for a new civil rights movement.
More than anyone, Kenza Drider from France embodied this new spirit of defiance. Drider is the inspirational French Muslim who is defying the Niqab ban despite arrests and death threats. She is refusing to pay the fines imposed on her by the French state even if it means going to prison. ‘There is a phrase that is used a lot in France,’ she said, ‘that runs “Liberty, fraternity, equality”. It’s time that sentiment was extended to the six million Muslims in our country; until it is, I will not rest.’
The conference decided many things, but one initiative captured everyone’s imagination.
In the spirit of the young civil rights activists from north America who travelled to the southern states in the 1950s and ‘60s to challenge the racist Jim Crow laws, a freedom train ride was arranged to take British women wearing full veils along with as many supporters as possible to France to challenge the racist French law. When it was announced that Kenza and her sisters would welcome the freedom ride at the station in Paris the hall erupted in cheers.
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