Islamophobia in Britain

It's not just Robert Kilroy-Silk who rants against

Arab culture and Muslim faith. Prejudice against Islam

has become a disease, and attacks on mosques are now

routine. By William Dalrymple

There are few things, you would imagine, that Labour's

Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane, Margaret

Thatcher, the British National Party and the daytime

television host Robert Kilroy-Silk would all agree on.

Nevertheless, as events of the past week have shown, a

deep disdain for Islam is one subject on which they

can all concur whole-heartedly.

Their various remarks about Muslims are revealing, in

that they show the degree to which prejudice is - as

so often - mixed with quite astonishing ignorance.

Baroness Thatcher famously sounded off on the failings

of "Muslim priests", apparently unaware that Islam has

no such priesthood and indeed accepts no intermediary

between God and man. Denis MacShane recently echoed

her by criticising British Muslim leaders for failing

to speak out against terrorism, apparently unaware

that they have done little else since 9/11.

Meanwhile Kilroy - that eminent Brummie orientalist -

in a blatant incitement to racial hatred published in

the Sunday Express of 4 January, described Arabs as

"suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors",

and implicitly suggested that the British thought that

all 200 million of them were "loathsome" and

"threatening" "terrorists" and "asylum-seekers". He

also denied that Muslims had contributed anything to

civilisation (algebra, optics, the pointed arch and

Arabic numerals did not feature in his column) and

went on to reveal his expertise in the field by

writing that Iran is an Arab country.

Yet what is more alarming than the public airing of

such idiocy - ill-informed diatribes against Islam

are, after all, far from uncommon in the British press

- is the support that Kilroy has clearly found among

the British public. Many other examples of his

disturbing disdain for ordinary Muslims have since

emerged: in one column Kilroy wrote that "Muslims

everywhere behaved with equal savagery . . . they

throw acid in the face of women who refuse to wear the

chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and

ritually abuse animals"; in another, he described the

looting of Iraq as being the work of "a load of

thieving Arabs". Nevertheless, since the suspension of

his TV show by the BBC, the tabloids have rallied to

his defence and the Express claims that 97 per cent of

callers to the paper - about 22,000 people - have

agreed that the BBC was too harsh with him. There has

been a huge surge in anti-Arab racism as radio

phone-ins, internet chatrooms and other media forums

have been deluged with racist comments about

"towel-heads" and "camel-jockeys".

There are moments when it is possible to believe that

Britain is beginning to shed its racist past, and to

hope that we do now live in a genuinely tolerant,

colour-blind and multicultural society. Yet it is

still clearly acceptable to most people in Britain to

make the sort of straightforwardly racist remarks

about Arabs and Muslims that would now be considered

quite unacceptable if made about Jews, Catholics or


At the very least, the furore has shown how badly the

British need to be educated about Islam and the Arab

world. At the moment, the Islamic contribution to

world civilisation is completely ignored in the

British school curriculum: at my own school, I came

across Islam only in the negative and confrontational

context of the Crusades.

But the problem is bigger than that. Islam has now

replaced Judaism as Britain's second religion, and it

sometimes feels as if Islamophobia is replacing

anti-Semitism as the principal western statement of

bigotry against "the Other": the pre-war Blackshirts

attacked the newly arrived East End Jews, and today we

have their modern equivalents going "Paki-bashing".

The massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica

in 1995 never led to a stream of articles in the press

about the violent tendencies of Christianity. Yet

every act of al-Qaeda terrorism brings to the surface

a great raft of criticism of Islam as a religion, and

dark mutterings about the sympathies of British


We have had, for example, Michael Gove of the Times

warning us of the dangers of all the fanatical Muslim

terrorists lurking in our midst: "They are already

there in their thousands. And they are not going to

respect weakness any more than Lenin did." Meanwhile,

over at the Telegraph, the proprietor, Conrad Black,

characterised Palestinians as "vile and primitive"

while Black's wife, Barbara Amiel, concluded one of

her double-page rants by comparing Arabs to "animals".

Such offensive prejudices against Muslims, and the

spread of idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and

beliefs, have been developing at a frightening rate

since 11 September 2001. It is especially ironic that

much of the criticism of Muslims comes from the right,

given that British Islam has successfully preserved

traditional conservative values: an emphasis on the

family, chastity before marriage, respect for elders

and weekly attendance of a place of worship, as well

as observance of various important religious feasts.

Today, we have a situation in London where the number

of mosque-going Muslims is fast catching up with the

number of church-going Christians. Nor is there any

obvious drop-off in the faith of second-generation

British Muslims. There are now nearly a thousand

mosques serving Britain's 1.8 million Muslims, the

great bulk of them having opened within the past 15

years. Islam is the fastest-growing religion not only

in Britain but also in France and the US, and this is

as much to do with conversion as immigration. The

constant media refrain about "what went wrong" with

Islam - to paraphrase Bernard Lewis - ignores its

self-evident success and its increasing popularity.

Indeed, in the past few years Britain, and especially

London, has become one of the world's principal

centres of Islamic publishing, as well as a major

Muslim intellectual and cultural centre. According to

Fuad Nahdi, founder editor and publisher of the Muslim

magazine Q-News, "There's no other place in the world

where you get quite as global a variety of Islam as

here, and the result is the beginnings here of a

cosmopolitan and distinctively British form of Islam."

Yet for all this, British Muslims remain firmly on the

margins of our national life. Britons of Bangladeshi

and Pakistani origin are two and a half times more

likely to be unemployed than the white population, and

three times more likely to be on low pay. Considering

the size of our Muslim community, it is scandalous

that there are only four Islamic schools in the state

sector. It is even more alarming that there are only

four Muslim peers, two Muslim MPs and one lone British

Muslim MEP. One of Tony Blair's most senior advisers

recently told me that Labour did not take Muslim

sentiment seriously as there was yet to emerge a

serious lobby for Islam, capable of reacting in a

politically coherent manner.

British Muslims are used by now to endless abuse,

discrimination and violence. Little of this gets

reported, whether to newspapers, monitoring groups or

the police.

Eighteen months ago I was wandering past a mosque near

Brick Lane in east London when I came across a group

of elderly Bangladeshis sweeping up broken glass - the

result of a thrown brick. It emerged that such

vandalism was considered by them entirely routine, and

that they never bothered reporting it to anyone, least

of all the police. In the course of writing this

article, I found it impossible to find any statistics

on incidents of Islamophobic violence - in contrast to

the situation with anti-Semitism, where accurate and

up-to-date statistics are readily available from a

variety of websites.

This is not just a British problem. In the United

States recently, a Republican congressional candidate

compared Palestinians to "pond scum". And while in

France Jean-Marie Le Pen may rail against Muslim North

African immigrants and howl for their mass

repatriation, his outbursts look positively benign

beside those of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane in Israel:

"The Arabs are a cancer, cancer, cancer in the midst

of us . . . let me become defence minister for two

months and you will not have a single cockroach around

here! I promise you a clean Israel!" Equally vicious

is Bal Thackeray in Mumbai (Bombay): "I believe in

constructive violence . . . these people must be

kicked out. Even if a Hindu is giving shelter to these

Muslims he also must be shot dead."

Yet perhaps the most worrying thing about this trend

is the extent to which it has gone largely

unrecognised and uncriticised: indeed, despite

centuries of prejudice and violence against Muslims,

the term Islamophobia was coined only within the past

decade. Moreover, intellectualised versions of this

anti-Islamic revulsion have come to find acceptance in

defence and political circles. Not long ago, Nato's

then secretary-general, Willy Claes, told the German

daily Suddeutsche Zeitung that "Islamic fundamentalism

is just as much a threat to the west as communism

was"; he went on to contrast barbaric Islam with "the

basic principles of civilisation that bind North

America and western Europe". In America, Samuel P

Huntington's ideas in his book The Clash of

Civilisations made much the same point. These ideas

have been warmly embraced by Donald Rumsfeld, Vladimir

Putin and Silvio Berlusconi.

Significantly, one of the bestselling non-fiction

books in both France and Germany last year was the

horribly anti-Islamic Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, by the

French salon philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. The book

was well reviewed in both countries, and few reviewers

bothered to note Levy's profound and rather disturbing

hatred of ordinary Pakistanis, whom Levy portrayed

throughout as fanatical Orientals who "scowl" as he

passes and "narrow their eyes . . . with a

tarantula-like stare".

Yet almost as worrying as the way Levy managed to get

away with his crudely anti-Muslim comments was the

true story of the abduction of Pearl, a journalist.

The man who kidnapped Pearl in Karachi was a highly

educated British Pakistani, Ahmed Omar Sheikh. Sheikh

attended the same public school as the film-maker

Peter Greenaway and later studied at the London School

of Economics. Yet such was the racism he suffered,

that he was drawn towards extreme jehadi groups and

eventually came to be associated with both Harkat

ul-Mujahideen and al-Qaeda.

If intelligent, successful and well-educated British

Muslims such as Omar Sheikh can be so readily drawn in

to the world of the jehadis, we are in for trouble.

The combination of widespread hostility to the Muslims

in our midst, pervasive discrimination against them

and huge ignorance is a potentially lethal cocktail.

It has become increasingly clear since 9/11 that

western intelligence agencies have completely failed

to understand or to penetrate the networks of Islamist

ultra-radicalism. No intelligence agency predicted the

attacks on New York or Washington, DC. Nor were there

any warnings of the attacks since then in Kenya, Bali

or Morocco. Intelligence briefings linking Saddam

Hussein to anthrax attacks in the US, or to a nuclear

and chemical weapons programme in Iraq, have all

proved wildly inaccurate or, as in the case of the

documents detailing Saddam's search for nuclear

materials in Niger, they were simply made up.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair's neoconservative chums in

Washington, immune to the justifiable fears of the

Muslim world, talk blithely of moving on from Iraq

next year to attack Iran and Syria. They have also

invited Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist who

has branded Islam a "very wicked and evil" religion,

to be the official speaker at the Pentagon's annual

service - and this immediately prior to his departure

for Iraq to attempt to convert the people of Baghdad

to Christianity.

All the while, the paranoia and bottled-up rage in the

Muslim world grows more uncontrollable, and the

attacks by Islamic militants gather pace, gaining ever

wider global reach and sophistication. As long as

British Muslims remain at the receiving end of our

rampant Islamophobia, and remain excluded from the

mainstream of British life, we can expect only still

greater numbers of disenfranchised Muslims in the UK

to turn their back on Britain and rally to the


As Jason Burke points out at the end of his excellent

book Al-Qaeda, "The greatest weapon in the war on

terrorism is the courage, decency, humour and

integrity of the vast proportion of the world's 1.2

billion Muslims. It is this that is restricting the

spread of al-Qaeda, not the activities of

counter-terrorism experts. Without it, we are lost.

There is indeed a battle between the west and men like

Bin Laden. But it is not a battle for global

supremacy. It is a battle for hearts and minds. And it

is a battle that we, and our allies in the Muslim

world, are currently losing."

This month's upsurge of rampant Islamophobia in

Britain, widely reported in Muslim countries, is the

last thing we need in such a desperately volatile



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