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the islamophobia myth

prospect, february 2005

Ten years ago no one had heard of Islamophobia. Now everyone from Muslim leaders to anti-racist activists to government ministers want to convince us that Britain is in the grip of an irrational hatred of Islam - a hatred that, they claim, leads to institutionalised harassment, physical attacks, social discrimination and political alienation. Former Home Office Minister John Denham has warned of the 'cancer of Islamophobia' infecting the nation. The veteran anti-racist Richard Stone, who was a consultant to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, suggests that Islamophobia is 'a challenge to us all'. The Director of Public Prosecutions has worried that the war on terror is 'alienating whole communities' in this country. The government is so concerned that it is introducing a new law outlawing incitement to religious hatred.

But does Islamophobia really exist? Or is the hatred and abuse of Muslims being exaggerated to suit politicians' needs and silence the critics of Islam? The trouble with Islamophobia is that it is an irrational concept. It confuses hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims on the one hand with criticism of Islam on the other. The charge of 'Islamophobia' is all too often used not to highlight racism but to stifle criticism. And in reality discrimination against Muslims is not as great as is often perceived - but criticism of Islam should be greater.

In making a film on Islamophobia for Channel 4 what became clear is the gap between perception and reality. Islamophobia driven by what people want to believe is true, rather than what really is true. A good example is the debate about police harassment of Muslims. Last summer the Home Office published figures that revealed a 300 per cent increase in the number of Asians being stopped and searched under Britain's anti-terror laws. Journalists, Muslim leaders and even the Home Office all shouted 'Islamophobia'. 'The whole Muslim community is being targeted by the police', claimed Khalid Sofi of the Muslim Council.

Certainly, the bald figure of a '300 per cent increase' suggests heavy handed policing and continual harassment. But dig a little deeper and the figures reveal something very different. They show that just 3000 Asians had been stopped and searched in the previous year under the Terrorism Act. Of these probably a half were Muslim. In other words around 1500 Muslims out of a population of more thtan 1.6 million had been stopped and searched under the terror laws - hardly a case of the police targeting every Muslim.

A total of 21,577 had been stopped and searched under the terror laws. The vast majority of these - 14,429 - were in fact white. Yet when I interviewed Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britainhe insisted that '95-98 per cent of those stopped and searched under the anti-terror laws are Muslim'. The real figure is actually 15 per cent. But however many times I showed him the true statistics he refused to budge. I am sure he was sincere in his belief. But there is no basis for his claim that virtually all those stopped and searched were Muslim - the figures appear to have been simply plucked out of the sky.

There is disproportion in the treatment of Asians. Asians make up about 5 per cent of the population, but 15 per cent of those stopped under the Terrorism Act. Could this be because of anti-Muslim prejudice? Perhaps. It's more likely, however, to be the result of majority of anti-terror sweeps taking place in areas - near Heathrow Airport, for instance - where there happen to be higher numbers of Asians. Almost two thirds of terrorism stop and search operations took place in London, where Asians form 11 per cent of the population.

The claims of Islamophobia become even less credible if we look at all stop and searches. Stop and searches under the Terrorism Act form only a tiny proportion of the 900,000 stop and searches that took place last year. If there was widespread Islamophobia within the police force we should expect to find Asians in disproportionate numbers in the overall figures. We don't. Asians are stopped and searched roughly in proportion to their population once age structure is taken into account.

All these figures are in the public domain and easily available. Yet not a single reputable journalist challenged the claim that Asians were being disproportionately stopped and searched. So pervasive is the acceptance of Islamophobia, that no-one even bothers to check if it is true.

As it happens, there is evidence that stop and search is used in a racist way. But the victims are not Asian. They’re black. Blacks form 3 per cent of the population – but 14 per cent of those stopped and searched. You’re five times more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re black than if you’re Asian - not that you’d know from all the hoo-hah about Islamophobia. One of the consequences of the exaggeration of anti-Muslim prejudice is to hide the real discrimination.

In the debate about police harassment, there are objective statistics against which to check claims about Islamophobia. When it comes to physical attacks, however, the truth is harder to discern. What constitutes racist attack has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. These days everything from name-calling to brutal assaults are included in the statistics. The problem is compounded by the fact that in the wake of the McPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the police are obliged to accept the victim's perception of the attack. If the victim believes it to be a racist attack the police have to treat it as such, leading to a large subjective element in the reporting.

If statistics for racist attacks are difficult to compile, it is even more difficult to define what is an Islamophobic attack. Should we treat every attack on a Muslim as Islamophobic? If an Afghan taxi driver is assaulted, is this a racist attack, an Islamophobic incident or simply a case of random violence? Such uncertainty gives licence to peddle all sorts of claims about Islamophobia. According to Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muslims have never faced greater physical danger than they do now. The editor of Muslim News Ahmed Versi similarly believes that 'after September 11th we had the largest number of attacks ever on Muslims'.

Both personal experience, however, and such statistics as do exist, challenge these claims. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events. In May 1978, 10,000 Bengalis marched in protest from Whitechapel to Whitehall in protest at the murder of garment worker Altab Ali near Brick Lane - one of 8 racist murders that year. In the decade that followed there were at least another 49 such killings. For Muslims, the end of the 80s, in the period from the Salman Rushdie affair to the first Gulf War, was particularly tough. I remember having to organise patrols on East London estates to protect Asian families from racist thugs.

Britain is a very different place these days - even for Muslims. Certainly there are racist attacks, and vicious assaults on Muslims. Early in December, for instance, three young Muslims were beaten up in Manchester by a 15-strong gang in what the police described as a 'dreadful racial attack'. Yet, despite such incidents, we've moved a long way from the 70s and 80s, and I get little sense of the intensity of racism that we faced then.

What statistics are available lends weight to this personal perception. The European Union was so concerned about Islamophobic attacks that it commissioned a special report in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In the four months following the attack on the World Trade Centre, the EU discovered around a dozen serious physical attacks on British Muslims. That is certainly a dozen too many attacks, but it does not speak of a climate of vicious Islamophobia. 'There were very few serious attacks', acknowledges the report's author Chris Allen. Islamophobia 'manifested itself in quite basic and low level ways.'

Even Muslim organisations that campaign against Islamophobia find it difficult to make the case for there being widespread attacks on Muslims. The Islamic Human Rights Commission monitored 344 attacks on Muslims in the year after September 11, most of which were relatively minor incident such as shoving or spitting. For the victim, each attack is nasty and distressing. But taken together they do not suggest a climate of uncontrolled hostility towards Muslims.

What all this suggests is a huge gap between perception and reality. And it's a gap that's exploited by both Muslim leaders and mainstream politicians. For Muslim leaders, inflating the threat of helps consolidate their power base, both within their own communities and within wider society. British Muslims have long looked with envy at the political power wielded by the Jewish community, and by the status accorded to the British Board of Deputies. One of the reasons for setting up the Muslim Council of Britain was to try to emulate the political success of the Board of Deputies. Muslim leaders talk about using Islamophobia in the same way that they perceive Jewish leaders have exploited fears about anti-Semitism.

Exaggerating anti-Muslim prejudice is also useful for mainstream politicians, and especially for a government that has faced such a political battering over the war on Iraq and its anti-terror laws. Being sensitive to Islamophobia allows them to reclaim some of the moral high ground. It also allows Labour politicians to pitch for the Muslim vote. Muslims may feel 'betrayed' by the war on Iraq, trade minister Mike O'Brien wrote recently in The Muslim Weekly. But 'the Labour government are trying to deliver an agenda that has shown consideration and respect for Muslims.' According to O'Brien 'Iqbal Sacranie, the General Secretary of the Muslim Council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the Government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in the middle of his speech to the Labour Party Conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour Government would ban religious discrimination. It was a major victory for the Muslim community in Britain.'

Pretending that Muslims have never had it so bad might bolster community leaders and gain votes for politicians, but it does the rest of us, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, no favours at all. The more that the threat of Islamophobia is exaggerated, the more that ordinary Muslims come to accept that theirs is a community under constant attack. It helps create a siege mentality, stoking up anger and resentment, and making Muslim communities more inward looking and more open to religious extremism. Muslim leaders constantly warn that Islamophobia is alienating Muslims and pushing many into the hands of extremists. However, it's not Islamophobia, but the perception that it blights lives, that is often the bigger problem. In making my Channel 4 documentary I asked dozens of ordinary Muslims across the country about their experience of Islamophobia. Everyone believed that police harassment was common though no one had been stopped and searched. Everyone insisted that physical attacks were rife, though few had been attacked or knew anyone who had.

What is being created here is a culture of victimhood in which 'Islamophobia' has become one-stop cause of the myriad of problems facing Muslims. Take, for instance, the social problems which beset Muslim communities. The figures are truly appalling. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis (who comprise most of Muslims in this country) are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than are whites. Average earnings among Muslim men are 68 per cent that of non-Muslim men. 65 per cent of Bangladeshis are semi-skilled manual workers compared with 23 per cent among other ethnic minorities and 15 per cent among white Britons. Fifty four per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi homes receive income support. In 2000, 30 per cent of Pakistani students gained five or more good GCSEs, compared with 50 per cent in the population as a whole.

It has become common to blame all of this on Islamophobia. According to the Muslim News, 'media reportage and public discourse on Islam and Muslims have a huge impact on Muslim labour market performance'. Islamophobia shapes 'how Muslim children are treated in schools', the 'self-esteem on Muslim children' as well as 'their educational achievements'. Unemployment, poverty and poor educational standards is not, however, a new phenomenon in Muslim communities in this country. And the causes are myriad. Racism certainly plays a part. So does class. The social profile of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is closer to that of Afro-Caribbeans than it is to Indians or Chinese. That is because while the latter are often from middle class backgrounds, most Banglandeshis, Pakistanis and Afro-Caribebans originally came from poor working class or rural, with few resources, especially to combat the intense racism they faced in this country. Class plays as important a role as race or religion in explaining the poor performance of Muslims. Indeed, Indian Muslims tend to be far better of than those from Bangladesh or Pakistan - and conversely Bangladeshi and Pakistani non-Muslims tend to be worse off.

Some also point the finger at cultural practices within some Muslim communities. 'By and large', the journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown acknowledges, 'the lowest achieving communities in this country are Muslim. When you talk to people about why this is happening the one reason they give you, the only reason they give you, is Islamophobia.' It's not an argument that Alibhai Brown accepts. 'It is not Islamophobia that makes parents take 14 year old bright girls out of school to marry illiterate men, and the girl has again to bring up the next generation who will again be denied not just education but the value of education.'

Alibhai Brown disagrees with me about the extent of Islamophobia, believing that it is a major force shaping Muslim lives. But, she adds, it has also become 'a convenient label, a figleaf, a reason that is so comfortable for Muslims whenever they have to look at why they aren't in the places that they have to be. All too often Islamophobia is used as an excuse in a way to kind of blackmail society.'

What all this suggests is the need for an open, frank debate about Muslims and their relationship to wider British society. There is clearly prejudice and fear of Islam in this country. Muslims do get harassed and attacked because of their faith. At the same time the degree of hatred and discrimination is being exaggerated to suit particular political agendas, stoking up resentment and creating a victim culture.

The likelihood of such a frank, open debate is, however, not very high. 'Islamophobia' has become not just a description of anti-Muslim prejudice but also a prescription for what may or may not be said about Islam. Every year, the Islamic Human Rights Commission organises a mock awards ceremony for its 'Islamophobe of the Year'. Last year there were two British winners. One was the BNP's Nick Griffin. The other? Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. Toynbee’s defence of secularism and women’s rights, and criticism of Islam, was, it declared, unacceptable. Isn't it absurd, I asked the IHRC's Massoud Shadjareh, to equate a liberal anti-racist like Polly Toynbee with the leader of a neo-fascist party. Not at all, he suggested. 'There is a difference between disagreeing and actually dismissing certain ideologies and certain principles. We need to engage and discuss. But there’s a limit to that.' It is difficult to know what engagement and discussion could mean when leading Muslim figures seem unable to distinguish between liberal criticism and neo-fascist attacks.

It would be tempting to dismiss the IHRC as a fringe organisation. It's not. It is a consultant body to the UN. Its work has been praised by the CRE. More importantly its principal argument - that in a plural society, free speech is limited by the need not to give offence to particular religious or cultural groups - has become widely accepted. So, for instance, the government is proposing new legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. The Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill will make it an offence ‘to knowingly use words, behaviour or material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intention or likely effect that hatred will be stirred up against a group of people targeted because of their religious beliefs’ Supporters of the law claim that it will extend to Muslims, and other faith groups, the same protection that racial groups already possess. Sikhs and Jews are already by the Race Relations Act. The new law is aimed squarely at meeting Muslim concerns that they seem to have been left out.

In fact it is already an offence to perpetrate religious hatred. The 1986 Public order Act was amended in 1998 to include the offence of 'religious aggravation'. A person commits and offence if he 'displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.' The offence 'may be committed in a public or private place.' Shortly after 9/11, Mark Norwood, a BNP member, was convicted under this law after he placed a poster in his window with a picture of the World Trade centre in flames and the slogan 'Islam out of Britain'.

In any case, there is a fundamental difference between race and religion. You can't choose your skin colour; you can choose your beliefs. Religion is a set of beliefs. I can be hateful about other beliefs, such as conservatism or communism. So why can't I be hateful about religion too? It's a question that supporters of the law have continually ducked.

In practice the law could be a nightmare to enforce. Every Muslim leader I've spoken to wants to use the law to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Several believe that my own articles on Islam and free speech are Islamophobic and should fall under the scope of the law. Ahmed Versi, the editor of Muslim News, thinks that Margaret Thatcher should have been prosecuted for suggesting that after September 11 there had not been 'enough condemnation of terrorism from Muslim priests'.

Ten years ago the then Conservative government rejected a similar law precisely because ministers feared that it could be used to ban The Satanic Verses. Today Home Office Ministers and the Director of Public Prosecutions assure everyone that this won't happen. 'We will still be free to insult each other', the DPP Ken Macdonald told me. In which case many Muslims are not going to be satisfied. Having encouraged exaggerated fears about anti-Muslim prejudice, and led Muslims to believe that the new law has been designed to meet their concerns, ministers might find it difficult to dampen Muslim demands. The current view of the courts is that material that encourages public disorder can be seen as inciting racial or religious hatred. The new law may actually create greater public disorder as disgruntled groups attempt to censor what they consider to be offensive works. The scenes in Birmingham outside the Sikh play Behzti may well be repeated many times over.

In a sense, though, the flaws in the proposed law are irrelevant, because its real value is not practical but, in the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 'symbolic'. The legislation sets out, not to provide legal remedy for a real problem, but to make a moral statement about what is and is not socially acceptable. The real aim of the law is not to censor us, but to get ourselves to censor ourselves.

In fact, we already live in a culture of growing self-censorship. A decade ago, the Independent asked me to write an essay on Tom Paine, the eighteenth century English revolutionary and freethinker. It was the 200th anniversary of his great polemic, The Age of Reason. I began the article with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to show the continuing relevance of Paine's battle against religious authority. The quote was cut out because it was deemed too offensive to Muslims. The irony of censoring an essay in celebration of freethinking seemed to elude the editor.

These days it is becoming increasingly common for liberals to proclaim free speech is necessary in principle - but also to argue that in practice we should give up that right. Ruminating in the Guardian about the fallout from the Behzti affair, Ian Jack, editor of Granta magazine, suggested that whatever liberals believe in principle, in practice we need to appease religious sensibilities. 'The state has no law forbidding a pictorial representation of the Prophet', he pointed out, 'But I never expect to see such a picture. On the one hand, there is the individual's right to exhibit or publish one; on the other hand, the immeasurable insult and damage to life and property that the exercise of such a right would cause.' He added that 'In this case, we understand that the price is too high - even though we, the faithless, don't understand the offence.'

John Mortimor has described this as 'tiptoeing around doing our best not to irritate other people by disagreeing with their opinions'. The irony of this approach is that it actually undermines what is valuable about living in a diverse society. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, and make judgements upon them. In other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create more universal values and beliefs, and a collective language of citizenship. But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that contemporary multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'.