“The good news is that government is finally dealing with the issue and it is now a priority,” said the government minister in a BBC film last month. And of which of the panoply of issues currently facing our country was this speaker thinking? The stalled economy? Youth unemployment? No. The words were spoken by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the “minister for faith”, and the issue she was happy to report as a UK government “priority” was the tackling of “Islamophobia”.
Coming just days after the bombing of the Boston Marathon by two young radical Muslims, Baroness Warsi’s comments were not just poorly timed — they were poorly thought through. The killing of three people and injury of more than 260 others would have been the perfect time for Britain’s only Muslim cabinet minister to address and assault the ideology which causes such attacks: radical Islam. B Days later, a soldier was beheaded by Islamists on the streets of Woolwich. But — aside from attacking the most irrelevant, fringe extremists like Al-Muhajiroun — Warsi has never taken up this role. This is not just her own failing. It is an exemplar of a wider cultural failure.
In the first years after 9/11 there was some success in turning the global spotlight onto what Islamic fundamentalists believed, taught and aimed to achieve. But then — at some point in the last five or more years — that spotlight was turned around. It was not on the extremists but on the rest of us — Muslim and non-Muslim — that it settled. It became all of us who were the problem — not the crimes of the fundamentalists but our response to them. The primary problem was no longer Islamic fundamentalism but “Islamophobia”. This narrative has not only become pervasive in our societies — it has become dominant. It is stopping us from dealing with the most severe challenge to our security. It is time to unfold the lie.
I have long argued — in this magazine and elsewhere — that the very word “Islamophobia” is a nonsense term. A “phobia” is something of which one is irrationally afraid. Yet it is supremely rational to be scared of elements of Islam and of its fundamentalist strains in particular. Nevertheless the term has been very successfully deployed, not least because it has the aura of a smear. “Islamophobes” are not only subject to an irrational and unnecessary fear; they are assumed to be motivated (because most Muslims in the West are from an ethnic minority) by “racism”. Who would not recoil from such charges?
There is also something akin to the charge of anti-Semitism in the accusation — a link that many Jewish leaders have promoted. It was several years after 9/11 that I first remember speaking on a panel with a leader from the Jewish community. My co-speaker framed his remarks by saying, “We must fight anti-Semitism but we must also fight Islamophobia.” He could not answer my question of how you could condemn Islamic anti-Semitism without committing an act of “Islamophobia”. But the term has caught on, in part because of its catch-all availability. Much of society has imbibed the meme.
The term “anti-Muslim prejudice” has been suggested in recent years to replace it. Certainly an improvement, it may help to draw the lines more clearly than the fundamentalists who shout “Islamophobia” might like. For among the reasons the term “Islamophobia” is so inexact is that — in so far as there is a definition — it includes insult of and even inquiry into any aspect of Islam, including Muslim scripture. Accusations of anti-Semitism would rarely if ever be levelled at any — let alone all — scholars of the history of the Torah. It is not levelled at people who say that the God of the Jews does not exist. Sam Harris and other prominent atheists regularly lambasted for their “Islamophobia” could never be seriously accused of anti-Semitism despite the fact they make exactly the same claims about the Jewish God as they do of the Muslim one.
But even talk of “anti-Muslim” prejudice is wrong if it ignores the most significant causal factors. As Boston should have reminded us, talk of “phobias” only works if you ignore the facts. People do not say about Jews, gays or any other minority what they say about elements — and in some unpleasant cases all — of the Muslim communities because to date neither Jews nor gays have carried out any acts of terrorism (let alone repeated acts of terrorism) against our societies. If they did then we would have to expect — while also again decrying — expressions of outrage against members of these communities. Such widespread blame would be wrong — as wrong as it is to hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of the Islamists. But it too would not have come from nowhere.
The terrorism, bigotry and disdain for non-believers which the radicals in the Islamic communities preach is not beside the point. It is the point — the point from which everything else grows. However, a decreasing number of people seem to want to accept this. They wish to consider everything other than the facts.
At a London conference on anti-Semitism last year there was a walkout by some left-wing Jewish delegates. They objected to the discussion by some members of the desire of Islamic extremists to transform and take over Western societies. “We didn’t like it when they said it about us” was more or less the cry of these delegates. As one speaker was forced to say in reply, “But when they said it about us it wasn’t true.”
It should not need to be said, but most Muslims in Britain and America are no more involved in any conspiracy than Jews ever have been. The problem we all have worldwide — Muslims first — is that extremist groups exist which have power, influence and in some cases dominance and whose aims are expansionist, extremist and violent. If the spotlight is taken off them for a second they get off the hook. By taking it off them for years we not only focus on the wrong things, we actually encourage what we are trying to avoid. Suspicion and even hatred of Muslims could well rise. But it could only be successfully stopped — as we must hope it could be — by stopping radical Islam. The greatest fuel any such general movement could get, by comparison, would be to ignore the thing which sparks the suspicion — radical Islam — and attempt to cover for it.
The immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings brought some striking examples of this. In the days before the identities of the culprits were known several prominent left-wing journalists wrote that they were hoping the perpetrators would turn out to be “white” non-Muslim Americans. Once it was clear that the bombers were Muslims, opinion divided between those who said that the religion of the perpetrators was of no consequence and those who said they now feared that Muslims as a whole would be demonised as a result. This has been a staple of terrorist attacks since 9/11: the “anti-Muslim backlash” meme.
No “anti-Muslim” backlash has ever occurred. Americans, like the British, are infinitely more tolerant and opposed to bigotry than our politicians and media seem to realise. But the warning of such a backlash always serves the same end — to confuse public opinion over who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. Warnings of “backlash” — as in Boston — take attention away from the actual, specific victims (such as the eight-year-old Bostonian Martin Richard and his family) and towards a generalised sense of potential guilt.
The “Islamophobia” industry can find meaning only in such moments. It responds not to the terrorism but to the perceived “response” to it. Take Dr Hatem Bazian, Director of the “Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project” at UC Berkeley Center for Race and Gender. In the wake of Boston he condemned the “horrific crimes” of the Tsarnaev brothers which “left the City of Boston in fear.” And then he went on: “But the Islamophobic machine committed crimes against our collective consciousness by exploiting the suffering and pain of our fellow citizens.”
Here is one of the core reasons why “Islamophobia” or even fear of “Islamophobia” is such a destructive thing. For in the wake of an attack by any other group the pools in which they swim are gone over relentlessly; undercover exposés are carried out, names named and connections made. Were the Boston bombing to have been carried out by some Tea Party activist, for instance, every single politician, pundit and grouping that had ever inspired, influenced or engaged the perpetrator would have been crawled over and blamed. Even after all these years, our societal willingness to do this to radical Islamists remains too weak.
As it happens, the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the attacks, seem most likely to have been radicalised by a combination of factors including online videos of radical preachers. These include Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist preacher who inspired numerous terrorists before and since being killed two years ago in Yemen by an American drone strike.
But there, and in the search around it, we come to the core of the problem. If there were such a thing as “Islamophobia”, by what might it be caused? It is not only by the behaviour of violent radicals but the way in which the extremism they display comes from a radical agenda never nearly so many steps away as one might wish. In this melée Baroness Warsi, and indeed Boston, feature not as mere case studies, but as examplars of the problem.
In the days after the identification of the Tsarnaevs, media attention turned cautiously to the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) whose mosque the brothers had attended. As it happens, it is an institution that has been connected to extremism and terrorism since its founding. But in the days after the arrests a good news story came out. An unnamed witness at the mosque said that in the months before the bombings the elder Tsarnaev brother had twice been challenged by other worshippers at the mosque, for interrupting sermons with anti-American rhetoric. But this much-desired example of a mosque actually dealing with a radical did not last.
For then came the discovery — leaked onto the blogosphere — of a different story. The leaked email had been sent by the ISB to its congregation in the wake of the discovery of the bombers’ identities. The mosque had warned them about co-operation with US law-enforcement.
“We have been informed that the FBI may be starting to question some of the community members about the two suspects,” the email read. “Insha’Allah we want to help as much as we can, but of course not put ourselves at risk either.” The ISB told its members to get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the mosque “for other resources” if approached by law enforcement. What is any normal American — including any normal Muslim American — to make of such a revelation? Surely to wonder with everybody else what the risk could be to mosque members in speaking with the FBI?
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim umbrella group, has similar form. In the wake of earlier terrorism investigations, CAIR distributed a poster which read: “Build a wall of resistance. Don’t talk to the FBI.” The major American Islamic organisation has consistently taken a hostile attitude towards US law enforcement, partly perhaps due to its inclusion as an unindicted co-conspirator in a major Hamas terror fundraising case a few years ago.
Are cases such as this — continuous connections to terror and an unwillingness to co-operate with law enforcement — of no concern to those concerned with “Islamophobia”? If suspicion towards Muslims were ever to become mainstream, might it not come from just such facts? And if such a situation were to become worse might it not come from the realisation that people in positions of influence have tried to ignore the problem and deflecting it onto everyone else?
Sayeeda Warsi is just one of those guilty of this mistake. Her film account of the scourge of “Islamophobia” showed her talking of the ten to 12 occasions on which windows had been smashed and graffiti daubed at a mosque in the north of England. “Islamophobia” was, she said, “blighting lives”. Women have had veils torn from their heads, she said, and families had been “continually targeted”. This shows, she said, that “anti-Muslim attacks can happen any time, any place”. Is that really so? If it is then all of us, of any background or faith, would do whatever we could to address the problem. Yet Warsi’s approach does not address it. It exacerbates it.
At the end of March, shortly before making her film, Warsi spoke at a conference in the House of Lords organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). FOSIS has been repeatedly criticised in UK government counter-terrorism reviews for its troubling attitude towards extremism. The aim of the March conference demonstrated exactly why. Titled “Representation and Reality”, its intention was to challenge the idea that Islamic extremism exists on UK campuses. The truth is that to date numerous people who have been leading members of student Islamic societies have been involved in — and convicted of — the most serious terrorism offences. These include the Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was president of the student Islamic Society at University College London shortly before trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day 2009. His inspiration, as for the Tsarnaevs, was Anwar al-Awlaki. The conference Warsi addressed was, in short, set up to conceal a fact and repeat a lie.
As it happens, Awlaki himself had been a guest speaker at FOSIS conferences. The organisation protesting that campus radicalisation did not exist had hosted a man who did more than anyone else to promote such radicalism. And this is part of a common pattern. The day before the Warsi-featured conference, FOSIS was hosting an event addressed by Hamza Tzortzis, a well-known Islamist speaker on campus (also a favourite of the Tsarnaevs), who, among other things, defends beheading those who leave Islam (he calls it “painless”). A couple of days after Warsi’s speech to FOSIS the group’s current president, Omar Ali, spoke on a platform with numerous extremists at a rally in support of the convicted al-Qaeda facilitator Aafia Siddiqui (currently serving an 86-year sentence in the US). Why should anyone — let alone a UK government minister concerned about “Islamophobia” — be taking part in an event that will actually make matters so much worse?
FOSIS epitomises the problem. Always wishing to be seen as representing Muslim students as a whole, the FOSIS leadership has in fact long been defined by its narrow sectarian interests and a specific desire to promote fundamentalist versions of Islam as mainstream while condemning any critics as critics of Muslim students as a whole.
The damage such sleights of hand do to opinion on all sides cannot be overestimated. Had Baroness Warsi not been so busily promoting the idea that Muslims — in particular Muslim students — are being “demonised” she might have looked into the facts and found an explanation: that any suspicion is caused not just by the extremists but by actions like those of Baroness Warsi.
The lie which the extremists, and those who give them political cover, hope to promote is that “Islamophobia” comes either from nowhere, or from some horrible, nativist instinct on the part of non-Muslims. At no point do they consider the possibility that while there may well be people who dislike people because of the colour of their skin, their accent, their height or anything else, the reasons for being suspicious or distrustful of any Muslims is provided first by extremist Muslims and second by the fact that mainstream Muslims too often pretend that the extremists are not extreme or otherwise provide them with cover.
When extremist organisations like FOSIS seek to make themselves the mainstream they tarnish by association the whole community, including those who suffer most from them. What is an Ahmadiyya Muslim student to think of such official support for clerics who tour the country preaching hatred of their own particular denomination?
A perfect example occurred five years ago when the journalist Peter Oborne presented a Channel 4 documentary called It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim. Timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, the claims of this programme were summed up by the UK’s first Muslim minister, Shahid Malik, who said, “I think most people would agree that if you ask Muslims today what do they feel like, they feel like the Jews of Europe.”
As I noted in Standpoint at the time, the programme did not find any evidence that Treblinka or Auschwitz had reopened in the UK. But they did find a Muslim leader at the Basildon Islamic Centre in Essex called Sarfraz Sarwar, who complained of attacks by vandals, including arson, on his prayer hall, house and car.
“What is happening is mainly to do with misunderstanding,” he explained. Oborne presented this in the way Warsi presented her case. Yet no one presenting the programme thought to note Mr Sarwar’s current and high-profile calls, in the local newspaper and elsewhere, for Sharia law to be imposed in the UK and Sharia-style public floggings to take place in the town centres of Essex. “Sharia law is not controversial. It’s a deterrent. Muslim countries don’t have half the problems we have because Sharia law is there,” he said.Needless to say, nobody should throw stones through anybody’s windows, but mightn’t people end up doing so because of statements like this?
A few months later, when another round of fighting between Israel and Hamas broke out Mr Sarwar — who like most such leaders boasts of “interfaith” work — could be found demonstrating outside the Israeli embassy in London. He told a reporter, “I met hundreds of young Muslims who are in no way fanatical. They haven’t been brainwashed and aren’t religious zealots, they are normal young men, but see what is happening and they are getting frustrated. It’s senseless violence like this that will feed their anger and will make them want to fight.” The next year, explaining the benefits of Sharia law for Britain to a journalist, he explained how British society could be improved by Sharia punishments. What would his punishment be for underage sex? “If they’re caught doing it, you stone the woman.”
He explained, “In Victorian days they applied Sharia. They held people in stocks. There were public floggings, hangings. Why not go back to it? What’s the big beef now? Too many goody-two-shoes talking about human rights.” It seemed that the only thing even more confused than Mr Sarwar’s attitudes towards Victorianism is what our opinion should be towards him.
Mr Sarwar is not the most prominent Muslim leader in Britain, but he is symptomatic. On the one hand, he says of someone throwing a stone through his window, “I thought we were living in a modern European country, but it is like Victorian times. There is a lot of hate.” One the other, he promotes punishments which are pre-Victorian, indeed medieval, such as stoning women to death. On the one hand, he can say that fear of the Muslim community is inexplicable. On the other, he can threaten that hundreds of young Muslims in Britain are standing on the cusp of violence.
And there is the heart of his-and our-problem. Shortly before the Boston bombings I attended a conference at a London university on the subject of the “anti-jihadist” movement, including the English Defence League (EDL). One of the presenters talked in particular of the way in which EDL supporters talk of “Muslim rape gangs” — cases like those in Rochdale of Muslim men abusing white non-Muslim girls. The speaker presented it as though it were a smear straight out of a modern-day Der Stürmer.
I was left marvelling that at a London university everything — interpretation, response — other than facts were now open for discussion. For at that moment only half a mile up the road at the Old Bailey, a group of men from Oxfordshire, of Pakistani and North African origin, were standing trial. A few weeks later in mid-May the guilty verdicts in the Operation Bullfinch trial came in. Once again these Muslim men had organised a paedophile abuse-ring of non-Muslim girls. I do not believe they raped those girls because of Islam. But the extremist versions of the religion are a factor in such cases, and judges, in British courts, have said as much and more.
And of course I know — and Standpoint readers know — that such cases involve only a tiny proportion of Muslim men. Distrust, let alone dislike, of Muslims generally should never occur because of this. But there will be people in the country at large who will have less judgment and discernment. They will see not only a terrible thing that has happened, but a desperate unwillingness at the heart of our society to even address this. Will that make things better or worse?
The primary challenge should be obvious. The second is how we deal with a reaction which only has the potential to grow. The answer for much of the media — and most governments — is to say either that things are not happening, or that they do not mean what people think they mean and that in any case we are all bigots for even thinking it. I think there is another answer.
Perhaps the “Islamophobia” of which Warsi speaks, and anti-Muslim hatred can be stopped. But it will only happen if the spotlight remains on the right people. Only then will more people in the Muslim communities stand up, speak out, and tackle the extremists out of rage that they are causing so much trouble for everybody else. When people try to deflect attention from the community, the radicals continue to get away with anything. A government or individual who sincerely desires to tackle “Islamophobia” must start by dealing not with the reaction but with the cause. And that is not a thing which is the invention of paranoids, but the reaction of many ordinary, alert people to a real problem. Deal with radical Islam and what is rightly or wrongly called “Islamophobia” will disappear.