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islamophobia and islamophilia

weltwoche, 28 february 2008

Last November the Mayor of London published a report called Finding Common Ground. The report surveyed press coverage of 'Muslim issues' and lambasted journalists for fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment.

The report's authors had chosen a random week in 2006 and analysed all newspaper articles about Muslims. During that week there had been 352 articles on Muslim-related issues of which 91 per cent were deemed 'negative' in their portrayal of Muslims and Islam, and only four per cent judged to be positive. This was evidence, the report claimed, of the 'demonisation' of Muslims that was 'likely to provoke feelings of insecurity, suspicion and anxiety amongst non-Muslims' and of 'vulnerability and alienation amongst Muslims'. The press, the report concluded, was 'Islamophobic' to its core.

As with many other recent reports on Islamophobia, it payed to scratch beneath the surface of the rhetoric. According to the authors, they had picked a random week to assess press coverage. It just so happened that this was the week in which the British government published its report on the 7/7 bombings of the London underground. Not surprisingly, there was a huge amount of press coverage, and not surprisingly most of it was 'negative'; even the Mayor of London, I think, would have found it difficult to be positive about four British-born Muslims who had blown up themselves and 52 others a year earlier.

The authors of the report looked for articles that included the words 'Islam', 'Muslims', 'Islamic', 'Islamist', 'Sunni', 'Shia'; they also looked for words such as 'radical', 'fundamentalist' and 'extremist' if the 'context was such that it was reasonable to assume that an association with Islam or Muslims would be made'. So an article about an 'extremist' al-Qaeda sympathizer would be deemed to be a negative story about Muslims, whether or not his religious got a mention. The researchers also included articles where the names of people were obviously Muslim, 'even if their religious identity was not explicitly stated'. As a result, articles about the sentencing of the former boxer Prince Naseem Hamed for dangerous driving were bizarrely labeled as negative stories about Muslims. Similarly, reporting of suicide bombings in Iraq was seen as fomenting anti-Muslim hatred because it associated Muslims with reprehensible acts. It is difficult to know how either dangerous driving or suicide bombings could be reported in any other way.

The report shows how inane, fatuous and self-serving has become much of the contemporary discussion of 'Islamophobia'. Twenty years ago no one had heard of the word. Today, everyone from Muslim leaders to anti-racist activists to government ministers want to convince us that the whole of the Western world 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.

I am the kind of person whom you might expect to join this chorus of condemnation. I have been an anti-racist all my life. I opposed the war on Iraq and think that the so-called war on terror is doing little to stem terrorism but much to undermine basic freedoms and liberties. Guantanamo Bay is, in my eyes, an affront to democracy, as are the anti-terror laws in most Western nations. But I also think that Islamophobia is a myth - at least in the way that most people conceive of it.

There is clearly ignorance and fear of Islam in most Western countries. Muslims do get harassed and attacked because of their faith. Yet I believe that Islamophobia 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 silence critics of Islam.

I first started investigating the idea of Islamophobia in 2004. In the summer of that year a major political controversy erupted in Britain over government figures about 'stop and search' operations by the police, 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 government ministers all shouted 'Islamophobia'. 'The whole Muslim community is being targeted by the police', claimed Khalid Sofi of the Muslim Council. A report to the European Parliament accused the British police of 'racial profiling' - targeting people simply because of their race, ethnicity or faith.

I was sceptical of these claims. I live in London in a largely working class area with a high proportion of blacks and Asians. It is the kind of area where 20 years ago police harassment of non-whites was routine. Yet, in my experience, that kind of harassment rarely happens these days. So I decided to check out the figures.

The headline figure of a '300 per cent increase' in the stop and search of Asians certainly suggested heavy handed policing and continual harassment. But digging a little deeper, I found that the statistics revealed something different. They showed that the vast majority of people who had been stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act were actually white. Just 3000 Asians had been stopped and searched in the previous year (British police record figures by ethnicity rather than by faith). Of these probably half were Muslim. In other words out of a population in Britain of around two million Muslims around 1500 had been stopped and searched under the terror laws - hardly a case of the police targeting every Muslim.

Asians make up about six per cent of Britain's population, but 15 per cent of those stopped under the Terrorism Act. Why? Probably because the majority of anti-terror sweeps take 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 take place in London, where Asians form 12 per cent of the population. Stop and search operations tend to focus on young people and the Asian population is disproportionately young. Taking all this into account there waslittle evidence of anti-Muslim bias.

Figures in subsequent years have borne this out. The latest figures available are for the year between November 2006 and November 2007. These show that in London 55 per cent of those stopped and searched were white and 19 per cent were Asian. The figure for Asians is higher than one should expect, but is not hugely disproportionate.

Such stop and search statistics question the belief that Muslims face continual and constant harassment from the police. What about physical attacks? According to Iqbal Sacranie, former general secretary of Britain's principal Muslim organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain, Muslims have never faced greater physical danger than they do now. Ahmed Versi, the editor of Britain's leading Muslim newspaper, Muslim News, similarly believes that 'after September 11th we had the largest number of attacks ever on Muslims'.

Again, personal experience told me to be sceptical of such claims. I grew up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s when racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were common, firebombings almost weekly events. 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. But Britain have moved a long way from the 70s and 80s, and there is little sense of the intensity of racism that blacks and Asians faced then. It is a perception backed up the statistics.

The European Union commissioned a special report on attacks on Muslims 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.'

More recent figures concur. After the bombings of the London underground in July 2005 there were fears that Muslim communities could come under siege. The number of attacks on Muslims did increase, but not greatly and not for long. In his annual report published in December 2006, the Director of Public Prosecutions observed that fears 'of a significant backlash against the Muslim community... appear to be unfounded.' He noted that 'although there were more cases [of religiously aggravated offences] in July 2005 than for any other month, the rise did not continue into August and overall in 2005-2006 there was an increase of nine cases compared to the previous year.' There were in fact just 18 cases in which the victim was identified as Muslim, six of which happened in the month following the bombings.

Every racist assault is nasty and unacceptable and the actual figures for attacks are undoubtedly higher than those officially recorded. Nevertheless, what all the available evidence suggests is a huge gap between perception and reality, a gap that has been skilfully exploited by Muslim leaders. Inflating the threat of Islamophobia helps community leaders to consolidate their power base, both within their own communities and within wider society. 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 community more inward looking and more open to religious extremism. Three years ago I made a TV documentary in which 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 problems facing Muslims. Take, for instance, the social difficulties which beset Muslim communities. The figures are truly appalling. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis (who comprise most of the Muslims in Britain) 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 or unskilled 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 (government aid for those on low incomes and unable to work full-time).

It has become common to blame all of this on Islamophobia. 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 an important role, but there is little evidence that anti-Muslim sentiment specifically is to blame. After all, 25 years ago, when people thought of themselves as 'Bangladeshis' or 'Pakistanis' rather than as 'Muslims', and when nobody suggested that Islamophobia was a major issue, the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities still faced exactly the same social problems as they do now.

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-Caribbeans originally came from poor working class or rural communities, 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 off than those from Bangladesh or Pakistan.

So does all this mean that Islamophobia is a myth? The idea that Muslims are under constant attack and intimidation is clearly false. And it makes little sense to blame all the problems of Bangaleshis and Pakistanis in Britain on the fact that they happen to be Muslim. In a broader sense, though, there is no question that many people do fear and loathe Islam. Just as many Muslims have come to see Islamophobia as a one-stop explanation for all their problems and Islam as a one-stop solution to them so, ironically, non-Muslims are now beginning to mirror these arguments, increasingly viewing Islam as a one-stop explanation for everything, from the failure of multiculturalism to the problems faced by women.

The result is a society polarised between those who see themselves as victims of Islam and those who see themselves as victims of Islamophobia. Take for instance the case currently being brought by the Canadian Islamic Congress against the journalist Mark Steyn for an article he wrote in MacLean's Magazine. The CIC reported both the journalist and the magazine to the Human Rights Commission claiming that the article - an excerpt from Steyn's new book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It - was 'flagrantly Islamophobic' and subjected 'Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt'.

CIC's action shows how the charge of Islamophobia can be used not simply to highlight discrimination or hatred but also to shut down debate. When Muslim leaders or organisations find an argument these days that they do not like, all too often they shout 'Islamophobia'. But while I have no sympathy with those who wish to shut down political debate or censor unacceptable remarks, and while Steyn is well within his rights to make his case the way he wishes against Islam, it is also undeniable that that case is crude, reactionary and preposterous. America Alone is an absurd fantasy about the transformation of Europe into 'Eurabia' as Muslims outbreed Christians and there are 'mass evacuations' of whites. The continent descends into 'societal collapse' and 'fascist revivalism'. The only response to all this, Steyn suggests, is what the Serbs tried against the Bosnians:

Why did Bosnia collapse into the worst slaughter in Europe since World War Two? In the thirty years before the meltdown, Bosnian Serbs had declined from 43 percent to 31 percent of the population, while Bosnian Muslims had increased from 26 percent to 44 percent. In a democratic age, you can't buck demography - except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out - as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can't outbreed the enemy, cull 'em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia's demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.

'If you can't outbreed the enemy, cull 'em'. And since Steyn insists that we can't outbreed the enemy, the only solution left is the one 'figured out' by the Serbs. Steyn does not openly advocate the 'Serb solution'. But he observes in an online exchange that 'even if you're hot for a new Holocaust, demography tells. There are no Hitlers to hand.' The world is going downhill so fast that you cannot even find a genocidal dictator these days when you need one. (The  original quote seems no longer to be online but has been recorded by Andrew Sullivan and Mark Kleiman among others).

Not many would go along with Steyn in suggesting that mass slaughter might end up being the only answer to the 'Muslim problem'. Others, however, are quite happy to treat all Muslims as criminals and to inflict collective punishment. The British novelist Martin Amis (who is a great proselytiser for Steyn's demographic arguments) generated a storm recently after telling an interviewer that 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? 'Not let them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.' Amis later suggested that this was just a 'thought experiment' but even thought experiments, especially when expressed in a public interview, can be revealing of attitudes.

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) has created a major controversy with a new film about the Koran (the release of which seems to have been postponed until March). Wilders calls for the Qur'an to be banned and for the ownership of a Koran to be made a criminal offence. He wants a stop to all Muslim immigration and an end to the building of mosques. He has also demanded that the one million Muslims in Holland either 'give up their religion' or 'go to their own countries'.

Such arguments might suggest that the Islamic critics are right, and that Islamophobia is deep and pervasive. After all, Steyn's book made it into the New York Times bestseller list, Amis' new book The Second Plane - a collection of his essays about Islam and terror - is likely to do the same, and Wilders was recently voted 'Politician of the year' in a poll run by the Dutch public broadcaster NOS. Yet, however obnoxious the beliefs of Steyn and Amis and Wilders may be, we should not exaggerate their impact. Their arguments no more make Western societies institutionally Islamophobic than the actions of Mohammed Atta (who piloted the plane into the Twin Towers) or of Mohammed Siddique Khan (who led the men who bombed the London underground on 7/7) makes Islam an institutionally violent religion.

For a start, the attempt to demonise Muslims is matched by the attempt to institutionalise respect for Islam. It has become a mantra from virtually Western leader that Islam is really a religion of peace and that jihadists distort the message of the Qur'an. In January, Britain's Home Secretary Jacqui Smith went further. Since Islamic terrorists were acting contrary to the spirit of the Qur'an, she argued, so they should be called 'anti-Islamic terrorists'. Even the American military is at it. The website of the Combined Joint Task Force-82, the US military command for eastern Afghanistan, recently took Geert Wilders to task for 'preaching hate and fear'. 'Condemning the religion that has been twisted and misused to convince the suicide bomber to put on the vest', it concluded, 'does not make the world safer from terrorism.'

When not promoting Islam, Western leaders and institutions are censoring critics of Islam. Last year the United Nations passed a resolution calling on all states to 'combat defamation of all religions, Islam and Muslims in particular'. Many individual countries have already done so. In 2005, the British government passed controversial legislation banning 'incitement to religious hatred', largely to appease Muslim leaders. Whatever Islamophobia may exist is matched by what can only be called institutionalised Islamophilia.

In any case the impact of anti-Muslim rhetoric is not straightforward. According to the Mayor of London's report on Islamophobia, the media promotes the belief that the conflict between Islam and the West is a 'clash of civilisations'. Yet the report also observes that public opinion rejects this view and sees the 'key tensions [as] political'. So either the media's Islamophobia is exaggerated, or else it has little effect on public opinion.

In 2007 the public opinion company Globescan conducted a major international survey on attitudes to Islam for the BBC World Service. Respondents were asked whether there existed 'common ground' between Muslims and non-Muslims and whether conflict was inevitable. More than three-quarters of Britons thought that common ground did exist and just 15 per cent believed that conflict was unavoidable. There were similar kinds of figures for most other Western nations. In the UAE, on the other hand, fewer than fifty per cent believed in common ground between Islam and the West, while nearly a third believed in the inevitability of conflict. There were similar figures for Turkey, Kenya, Indonesia and India. The belief that Islam and the West are incompatible seems to be driven less by the alleged Islamophobia in the West than by anti-Western sentiments in countries with large Muslim populations. The Globescan survey also showed that far more people in India, Indonesia, and the Lebanon believed that global tensions were caused solely by an intolerant Muslim minority than in Britain, Australia, France or America. Again, there seems to be more to anti-Muslim hostility than the Islamophobia of Western nations.

A small anecdote reveals how surprising can be the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. Three years ago, Britain's Channel 4 broadcast a drama, Yasmin, which told the story of a Muslim woman struggling to deal with the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments after 9/11. At one point in the film, Yasmin is walking home and is attacked by a group of youths. It proved impossible to film this scene as the director had originally wanted. Every time the actress playing Yasmin was attacked, passers-by, unaware that this was a film, stepped in to stop what they thought was an actual assault. The headscarf-wearing Yasmin was repeatedly saved by non-Muslim passers by. The director was eventually forced to rewrite the scene and turn it into one in which Yasmin is protected from the youths.

I would not for a moment suggest that every Muslim woman facing attack would have been protected the way that Yasmin was. There are many assaults on Muslims, and some are quite vicious. But equally I would not for a moment suggest that such assaults are evidence of a deeply Islamophobic society. The relationship between Western societies and their minority communities - especially Muslims - is a highly complex one and not easily reduced to simple formulae such as 'the West is Islamophobic' or 'blame it all on Islam'.

The real problem is neither Islam nor Islamophobia but an obsession with Islam and a desire from all sides to play the victim. On the one side, many Muslim leaders view Western societies as institutionally Islamophobic and all Muslims as living under siege. On the other the likes of Steyn, Amis and Wilders absurdly view the West as living under the lash of Islam and seek collective revenge on all Muslims. We certainly need to challenge the iniquities of Islam and refuse to bow to Muslim blackmail that certain debates are off-limits. But equally we need to keep the problem of Islam in perspective and not pretend that it is the root cause of every social ill. And we need to insist that notions of free speech and equal rights apply to all. Otherwise we will end up with a society in which an obsession with Islam distorts the lives of both Muslims and non-Muslims, and in which this obsession becomes a means of undermining free speech and basic liberties.