It has been heartening to witness the mass protests erupting all over the UK against the bigoted policies of Donald Trump, particularly his Executive Order banning Muslims from entering the US.
It appears that for many, this has been a step too far. There is a growing realisation that we are on a road that seems all too familiar. Trump has been labelled a fascist and compared with Hitler and Mussolini. But the Holocaust comparisons do not end there. Theresa May’s refusal to do anything apart from mildly disagree with Trump’s ban has earned her the unappealing title, ‘Theresa the Appeaser’.
The atmosphere was ripe enough for Mike Gapes to label her as such in parliament and escape the usual widespread condemnation of undermining the Holocaust. Perhaps this is because the survivors of the Holocaust have been amongst the most vocal against the ban recognising that it is a significant milestone on a familiar journey.
Indeed one does not need to be a survivor of genocide to understand that interrogating refugees about their religious beliefs in order to decide whether they should be saved or doomed, is nothing short of chilling.
This was lost on Boris Johnson who did condemn the comparisons of Trump as demeaning to the Holocaust, something that appeared completely justifiable to him since he has after all compared the EU to the Nazis.
However, for many of us who have been campaigning against Islamophobia and the flagrant abuses being committed as part of the War on Terror, the rise of Trump and his policies was something that was entirely predictable. It is something that we have warned about for many years, only to be shouted down for ‘demeaning the Holocaust’ or accused of ‘scaremongering’.
Over the past 16 years, the Muslim communities in the UK, Europe and the US have experienced intense levels of Islamophobia that show no signs of dissipating. This has been fuelled by a virulently hostile media who have been given the green light by the rhetoric and policies of the government.
How the fear- and hate-mongering began
Over a decade ago in October 2006, the month of Ramadan, a heated debate on Islam erupted nationwide following the refusal by then Leader of the Commons Jack Straw to attend on one of his constituents unless she removed her niqab.
For approximately three weeks, minister after minister, newspaper after newspaper, commentator after commentator voiced opinions about the “Muslim problem” and how to solve it.
Straw’s calculated comments about the niqab drew support from a wide array of politicians, including the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and ministers responsible for education, culture and race relations: all those responsible for harmonizing community relations, all called for a complete ban on the niqab.
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell mistakenly labelled it a “symbol of women’s subjugation to men”. Race relations minister Phil Woolas was not to be outdone, declaring it “frightening and intimidating” and something which should be completely banned.
Even traditional friends of the Muslim community, such as Ken Livingstone, the then mayor of London, said that he would like to see a niqab-free society, although he did add that it was something that the community should do itself, rather than it being imposed.
Whereas previously the niqab was exploited by Western politicians to debate the alleged oppression of women in Islam, on that occasion politicians and commentators were compelled to change gear, as it emerged that many of these ‘oppressed’ women wore the veil out of choice, often against the wishes of their families.
Consequently, a new allegation was made – that veiled Muslim women imposed a “voluntary apartheid” upon themselves within British society and thereby expressed their support for “extremism”. To accept the niqab as a symbol of modesty, even one that is not widely practised, was apparently simply not an option in Britain.
Other ministers lined up to point accusatory fingers at the Muslim community for a number of other failures including not monitoring their children, not ‘integrating’ adequately, and not rooting out ‘extremists’ within the community. Suddenly, a discussion about women’s dress developed into a debate about extremism and the Muslim community’s role in fighting it.
In addition to poisonous columns calling on veiled Muslims to leave Britain, newspapers competed with one another to publish the most irrelevant stories, only given credibility because of the Islamic faith held by the central characters.
A London cab driver who refused to allow a blind man to bring his guide dog into his taxi became front-page news because the driver was a Muslim.
A Muslim police officer who was given leave from protecting the Israeli embassy, in what the police stated was standard procedure, was vilified as the enemy within.
Even the marital problems of an ex-BBC News presenter became headline news for the Daily Mail as his wife felt reluctant to move with him to Qatar, where he was to take up a new job with al-Jazeera. The headline ‘Our marriage is in crisis because I won’t go with Darren to live in a Muslim country’ says it all. The Daily Telegraph could not decide where to publish all these stories, and so began a new section of the newspaper, Muslims in Britain.
And then the hate filtered down to society
While this debate took place at relatively higher levels, Islamophobes and racists, empowered by ministerial comments that legitimized their own prejudices, decided to enter the discussion at a societal level. Muslims throughout Britain became targets of hate crimes ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults. Mosques and Muslim-owned properties were vandalized and firebombed with imams being attacked within their own mosques.
Muslims arriving for Ramadan prayers were stoned with bricks and rocks. A Bosnian Muslim family was shot at in a carpark in West London. Muslim women in hijab and niqab were sworn at, sexually harassed, spat upon and even physically attacked. Most worrying was the lack of assistance forthcoming from the eyewitnesses of violence and brutality, reminiscent of the wave of anti-Semitism that spread through Europe during the 1930s, when to be a Jew was to be tolerated at best and exterminated at worst.
This image of history repeating itself and of laying the cause of every social problem at the door of Muslims was not lost on some commentators, such as Jonathan Freedland, who wrote in the Guardian that if this onslaught were against Jews he would be reaching for his passport. India Knight was even more blatant with an article in the Sunday Times entitled ‘Muslims are the new Jews’, a comparison later also drawn by Ken Livingstone, mayor of London.
The fake news and alternative facts against Muslims did not cease, triggering Peter Oborne to conduct a detailed analysis in 2008 of the media coverage of Muslims. In addition to exposing the truth behind many of the false stories covered by the press, Oborne also questioned how leading British columnists like Rod Liddle and Polly Toynbee could openly claim that they were proud to be Islamophobes.
All these instances of aggression by the British media and members of Parliament opened a permissive culture to ‘otherise’ Muslims and treat them as somehow being victims of their own faith – they effectively needed saving.
Islamophobia becomes a front for preserving white power
Approximately five years after Straw’s niqab comments, in January 2011, then chair of the Conservative Party Lady Saeeda Warsi warned of Islamophobia having become socially acceptable and having “passed the dinner table test.”
Her comments were criticised at the time but could easily be justified just a few weeks later. On 5 February 2011, over 3000 members of the Far Right English Defence League converged on Luton where the streets were empty apart from a large police presence. It was not surprising that Luton was empty because the last time the EDL marched there, Muslim homes, businesses and mosques were attacked by the thugs, with little or no protection from the police.
Rather than condemn the intimidation and aggression on the Muslim community, then Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech in Munich (how appropriate!) condemning ‘Islamist extremism’, denounced multiculturalism and called on Muslims to embrace British values of “freedom”, “democracy”, and “equal rights”.
Cameron had the opportunity to show Britain’s Muslims that he stood with them against the far right homegrown fascists who constitute a real and significant threat to their safety and security. Instead, he chose to mimic their language in the land where the brutal consequences of fascism are still fresh.
As noted by Professor Brian Klug at the University of Oxford, the notion of muscular liberalism is not one that is about social cohesion, but has racism and xenophobia built into its DNA:
““So weak are we that we have been “too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them.” In short, we have lost our nerve. The solution is to flex our muscle. It is “we” who must hold – or, rather, take back – the keys to the kingdom. Certainly, there ought to be a “shared national identity that is open to everyone”. But the colour of that identity, under the skin, is white. Anyone who, regardless of their features or complexion or extraction, is willing to become white – white in the sense of thinking like us, doing religion like us, basically being like us – is welcome; what is more, we celebrate their difference. When you scrape away the surface inclusiveness in the speech, this is the meaning of “muscular liberalism.””[i]
The far right rise again under a front of ‘free speech’
Naturally, Cameron’s speech was welcomed by the far right. EDL leader Stephen Lennon (a.k.a. Tommy Robinson) is reported to have said, “He’s now saying what we’re saying. He knows his base.” Leader of the British National Party (BNP) Nick Griffin described the speech as “a legitimisation of our message” and “a further huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream.”
Even in Europe, Cameron’s words were received with adulation. The leader of France’s National Front praised Cameron for what she said was an endorsement of her party’s views on multiculturalism and immigration. “It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life [in France] for 30 years,” she told the Financial Times. “I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him.” Six years on, Le Pen is a favourite to win the French presidential election later this year.
In the years that followed, Islam and Muslims continued to be demonised in the media through mockery and caricatures, exemplified by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. When Muslims complained, the publishers hid behind the shield of ‘Freedom of Expression’ and the cartoons were staunchly defended by leaders of the world.
Those who proudly declared ‘Je Suis Charlie’ in the wake of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo, should ponder as to whether they would have ever worn an ‘Ich Bin Julius’ badge in the 1930s in defence of Julius Streicher’s freedom of expression in Der Stürmer.
Streicher was not a member of the Nazi military and did not take part in planning the Holocaust or the invasion of any country. Yet on 16 October 1946, he was hanged at Nuremberg after being convicted of crimes against humanity. His crime was to be the publisher of a magazine which for 22 years denounced Jews in the most crude, vicious, and vivid ways.
Despite Der Stürmer not being an official arm of the Nazi government, Streicher’s pivotal role in inciting loathing and hatred of Jews was considered significant enough to include him in the indictment of Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. In essence, the prosecutors and judges took the line that Streicher’s incendiary speeches and articles made him an accessory to murder, and therefore as culpable as those who actually ordered the mass extermination of Jews.
Yet, almost a century after Der Stürmer was first published, the world appears to be suffering from a bout of collective amnesia. In recent years, the rising tide of anti-Muslim hysteria has drowned out all voices of reason and reminders from history. Camouflaged in the rhetoric of anti-terror, counter-extremism, and freedom of speech, the rank hatred and loathing of Muslims and Islam has become the acceptable face of racism today.
If there is not enough bile printed in the Daily Mail and the Sun, ‘hate preachers’ like Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage have hijacked the airwaves. It is incredible that they are permitted to broadcast their racist diatribes to the masses at a time when Muslims are being systematically targeted.
Islamophobia becomes systematic through legislation
No Muslim is spared, no matter how integrated or assimilated they have become. In 2014, researchers at Bristol University concluded that British Muslims faced the worst job discrimination of any minority group “due to growing Islamophobia and hostility against them. Recall the unashamedly Islamophobic campaign strategy run by Zac Goldsmith when contesting the mayoral election against Sadiq Khan. Thankfully, Goldsmith’s blatant racism backfired causing many of his own supporters to vote for his opponent to ensure that bigotry did not succeed. What is critical however is that he felt emboldened enough to embark on such a strategy because of the anti-Muslim environment prevalent in the UK.
While there appear to be cross-party support and almost unanimity that Trump’s ban is divisive and reminiscent of Europe’s shameful past, the condemnations are slightly hollow unless there is recognition and acknowledgment that it is simply the codification of the anti-Muslim policies that successive governments have implemented over the past 16 years.
The ban is condemned because it targets Muslims solely on account of their faith and collectively punishes millions of Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism. Yet identical problems lie within the government’s Prevent programme under which every day lawful activities are effectively criminalised when carried out by those of the Islamic faith. Under the Prevent and Channel programmes, thousands of innocent Muslims have had their lives turned upside down after being wrongly suspected of being involved in extremism.
Children as young as 4 have been reported to Prevent for being radicalised simply because of the way they pronounce words or the clothes that they wear. Primary school children have been interviewed by police officers without their parents being informed. Teenagers are being referred to Prevent by their teachers and lecturers for becoming more religious. University students enrolled on terrorism studies courses have been reported for reading books in the library on terrorism.
Earlier this month, a local education authority admitted that it had racially discriminated against two young brothers (aged 5 and 7) when a school called the police after one of the boys told his teacher he had been given a toy gun as a present. The boys were questioned by uniformed officers after the teachers referred the matter to Prevent.
Those who demonstrate shock that the Trump administration justified handcuffing a 5 year old boy on the basis that his young age did not mean he could not be a threat to national security, should be equally appalled by the Prevent strategy and how it has criminalised young children.
Trump is a natural development that was allowed to happen
While it is uplifting to witness tens of thousands of people on the streets of Britain protesting against Trump and seeing 1.5 million sign a petition to deny him a state visit, those same people should cast their eyes towards our own politicians and media and ask themselves how we got to this point in time.
While I applaud the hundreds of thousands of Americans demonstrating against Trump, I cannot help but fear for a world in which over 60 million Americans voted for him despite, or perhaps because of, his rhetoric against Muslims.
Trump did not come to power in a vacuum. He is a product of a global environment in which the Far Right has gained growing popularity in Britain and across Europe, with politicians pandering to their interests with a view that power is the ultimate form of politics, and that principle is only one tool in all matters of political expediency.
Trump symbolises the extent to which the populations of the Western world have come to acquiesce in the suspension of civil liberties and freedoms as part of the War on Terror. As the mask has come off, the abhorrent nature of what the world is witnessing is simply a reflection of our innermost prejudices that we have denied for 16 years.
Before we are able to tackle Trump abroad, it is essential that we exorcise our own inner demons and the systematic prejudice against Muslim communities within our own borders.
[i] Klug B (2015) Fawlty Logic, ReOrient Journal, p.74
Published by CAGE