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Making the Most of the Proposed Protest on the 31st of Oct

Innayat Bunglawala recently wrote on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ that there was a need to respond to a small group of Muslims’ misguided efforts on the 31st of October to carry out a protest demanding the abolishment of the Houses of Parliament. To offset this awful idea conceived by these unimaginative Muslims, Innayat proposes a counter-protest. This will distance the majority of ‘moderate’ Muslims from this insignificantly small group of firebrand Muslims who happen to be Al-Muhajiroun diehards guised under the new name of Islam4UK.  Innayat also points out that while this kind of thing should normally be ignored, the fact is that with the rise of the Right in the shape of The English Defence League (EDL) as well as the BNP itself, something more is needed, though this short article will argue that the counter-protest alone is not it. To lay out my case I will begin by carrying out a specific reading of Thursaday 22nd Oct’s airing of Question Time and in particular Nick Griffin’s appearance on it.

Much debate of course surrounded the BBC’s decision to invite the leader of the BNP on to Question Time. The papers and news broadcasters were showcasing the different sides of the argument and though pressure mounted on the BBC they stuck to their guns and went ahead with their decision. In the end Mr Griffin’s performance was a complete disaster as he came off looking inarticulate and confirmed his bigoted nature. But the result for Muslims is not so straight forward and neither is it for other Britons who want this country to be the kind of place where there is a high standard of justice and fair play.

 While Mr Griffin was mostly reviled by the audience he did receive some applause most notably when he defended his comment that Islam was a ‘wicked and vicious faith’. Almost no one challenged him on that and while that is understandable given that no one wanted to open up a whole other debate about Islam and thereby take the pressure off Nick Griffin himself, there is another way to read the reluctance to directly challenge his view. The uncomfortable reality I fear is that Mr Griffin’s view of Islam when it comes to “women”, “freedom” and “democracy” is becoming a normative – albeit distasteful – premise of discussion, one that a liberal on the Left would normally refute and a conservative temper.  It is not, however, a premise that disqualifies itself from being considered given its inaccurate and prejudicial nature. Such after all has happened to other premises for discussions ranging from the intellectual inferiority of women to the miserliness of Jews. No one entertaining such views would be able to get away with premising their comments in such a way, yet the climate of opinion and narrative strength of the essentially uncivilised nature of Islam has so gripped the minds of many in the West that the contours of any discussion on Islam carries forth this idea as a legitimate point to the extent that it is entertained even if only to be refuted in the end. That is how Jack Straw defended his decision to share a panel with Mr Griffin and how many who disagreed with the protestors demanding the BBC withdraw their invitation to the leader of the BNP argued their own stance on the matter.

Yet the growing acceptability of people airing such generalisations about Islam – whether that be Nick Griffin or the Dutch MP Geert Wilders – means that the social discourse around Islam admits the demonization of Muslims and their faith as part of a consensus in a way that the “essential barbarity of black people” could not possibly be. What this means is that these discourses shape the way in which Muslims are imagined and the way in which Muslims feel they are imagined. This leads to a degree of psychological and cultural dissonance amongst Muslims making them feel detached and not embedded in British society. It heightens their sense of needing to create physical spaces that are their own and feeds the process by which Muslims adopt either hyper-assimilative tendencies or then exhibit exaggerated Muslim identities that often drive segregationist impulses.  Discursive realities influence and shape the reality we carry in our heads and through which we imagine ourselves and others. If the discourse on Islam in Britain (and the West more generally) admits such prejudicial generalisations then what it does is create a climate in which bigotry slowly grows as, to paraphrase Alexander Tsesis, social consciousness is saturated with cultural meanings.
[1] What is more, bigotry entrenches itself in a culture over years and almost always by slowly extending the parameter of what can be publicly declared about a group. Indeed, the pathology of bigotry is not a systematic assault nor a full on attack but a slow procuring of disparate incidents of hate which over time become bolder because all the while the parameter of what can be publicly declared about a group and what cannot is stretched more and more 

While I can understand why people on the panel on Question Time and others in the audience as well as the host may not have challenged Nick Griffin on his comments on Islam, my reading of the programme questions whether his view is not also in part slowly becoming an indication of the imagined reality of Muslims and Islam. If that be the case, we must not simply put clear distance between ourselves and al-Muhajiroun – as some anxious Muslims have been writing in their emails which Innayat mentions in his article. Rather our efforts must be to speak out about the need for British society to once again assert itself as a society of justice and fairness and make it unacceptable to brandish such harmful generalizations. The counter-protest should not focus merely on the loathed Al-Muhajiroun therefore, nor present itself merely as the better Muslims. Instead British Muslims and other Britons should attend a counter protest and demand that this society of ours grows up and begins to comprehend a more nuanced discourse. We should shame and ridicule the likes of the BNP, the EDL and Al-Muhajiroun and show them up for the immature ingrates they are for being unable to cope with the complexities of our Multicultural world. It is this that the protest should focus on in its speeches, placards and banners for only then will the protest be proactive and not reactive, contributing something genuinely useful in this current climate of confused courses of action.

Source: www.islam21c.com

[1] Alexander Tsesis, Destructive Messages, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p82.

About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.

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