Islamophobia in the 21st century: Is history repeating?
By Alexander Bisset, Student, University of Sussex, School of Law.
It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, perhaps an overused cliché lacking relevance in the modern age? For the people of the Jewish faith it is an epithet seared into the living consciousness. ‘Kristallnacht‘, the night Jews and their property were systematically targeted, destroyed and murdered, was believed to have sprung from the well of hatred and marginalisation started in the 1930’s with the rise of Fascism. In truth, the well had flowed consistently from 70CE, with annual Easter Pogroms. The industrial slaughter of six million Jews, in Europe, did not occur in a vacuum, but as the finale’ of a long and sordid process of victimisation. Today, another group, a different religion, asks ‘what does the future hold for us’? They are of the Islamic faith.
Anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe is as historically acute as its Anti-Semitic cousin, having been the bedrock of a militaristic imperialism known more broadly as the Crusades. However, the nature of modern Islamophobia differs, in that sudden spikes in violence and prejudice are reactionary – that is to say, fluctuations are responsive to seemingly external problems. Following the recent Parisian attacks, the Deputy Chief Constable of Police Scotland issued a message of solidarity followed by an announcement that ‘arrests had been made‘, and that the Police would ‘not tolerate any form of Hate Crime‘. The necessity for a Police Officer in Scotland to react so affirmatively to events in an entirely different jurisdiction only highlights the threads that connect Islamophobia globally. Furthermore, a plethora of independent organisations have reported the exponential growth of Islamophobic hate, with one recording a 70% increase in London alone. If it is taken as axiomatic that religious hatred is wrong, and the ‘stirring up of religious hatred‘ actually a crime, the question is begged, why such an increase in hate?
The public sphere is integral to understanding the resurgent nature of Islamophobia, for it is in this arena that ideas are formulated and disseminated. Not since the then UK Conservative shadow Defence Secretary, Enoch Powell, gave his pernicious ‘Rivers of Blood‘ speech regarding race and immigration, has it been so publically applauded to refer to an entire group, in not just robust language, but deliberately dehumanising terms. From a national newspaper platform, reviled Katie Hopkins, journalist, was able to label the majority Islamic immigrants of North Africa ‘cockroaches‘.
It would be easy to dismiss this as the ramblings of a populist bigot, but highbrow academia can be equally odious. Douglas Murray, director until 2011 of the Centre for Social Cohesion, recently published a book entitled ‘Islamopilia‘, which excoriates apparent ‘surrenders to Islam’, by highlighting their self imposed ‘subservience’. Even the word Islamophobia itself is open to derision, labelled ‘useless and meaningless‘ by noted author Christopher Hitchens. Politically, also, limited leadership is evidenced. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, announced in 2010 that ‘multiculturalism has utterly failed‘, before permitting the admittance of some 1.5 million primarily Muslim immigrants. The far right see such statements as a respectable validation, while the general public are not so ignorant as to not detect a serious inconsistency between these positions. Martin Aimis, once professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, remarked ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order‘. Is a 70% increase of hate crime sufficient suffering for Mr Aimis? This increasingly vocal group is, however, broadly a dangerous symptom.
Terrorism is increasingly the central driver of Islamophobic hatred, or more specifically, fear of terrorism. Contrary to Christopher Hitchens claim, Islamophobia is a legitimate term, as fear of 1.6 billion Muslims globally remains irrational. None the less, fear of terrorism itself is rational, and its increasing media presence and global impact is bound to have repercussions. Following the death of Lee Rigby, the British soldier savagely murdered in Woolwich, by two self styled ‘soldiers of Allah‘, Islamophobic hate crime ‘soared‘; even witnessing a severed pigs head left outside a Mosque. Fiyaz Mujhal, director of Faith Matters, asserted: ‘When you target a Mosque, you are targeting the whole community‘. This chilling series of reprisal attacks, originating from a single hate incident, demonstrates the domino characteristic of hate crime, and subsequent ripple effect throughout the community. All the while community leaders condemned the attack and urged restraint.
There is a dangerous symbiosis evident in this chain of events: the public atmosphere is filled with legitimately treated free expression, in the form of Islamophobic discourse (generally dehumanising and applied unanimously) which appears justified in the public imagination when a terrorist attack, claiming Islamic inspiration, is carried out. It is in reality a strange alliance of two groups who claim to vehemently oppose one another. The greatest attackers of the Islamic faith, as adumbrated earlier, also claim to be the vanguard in the defence of liberal democratic traditions. The contradiction is apparently lost, that the vilification and marginalisation of a large group is not only contrary to that very tradition, but is precisely the wedge a genuine fundamentalist wishes to drive deep into European society. Regularly, each group churn out literature arguing an inherent ‘clash of civilisations‘ or ‘war on Islam‘, a pernicious and frightening concern.
Though these intertwined forces appear to be the main driver of Islamophobia, other, often paradoxical considerations have an effect. The UK has one of the most extensive body’s of legislative protection for minority groups in the world. It is an offence to ‘stir up racial or religious hatred‘, through the use of threatening words, behaviour, or the distribution of threatening visual images or sounds. On the surface, this illustrates a strong public condemnation of Islamophobia, while the reality can be radically different. In effect, the law is very narrowly applied, not covering ridicule, insult or abuse. If the base position of the process of victimisation is prejudiced attitudes, such as unchallenged jokes, can ‘ridicule’ be defended, particularly at such an incendiary time? Equally of concern, Professor Klas Borell draws attention to the inadvertent, yet common counter reaction to publicised hate incidents. By definition, a hate crime is a ‘message crime‘, the public highlighting of which may cause a negative reaction from both within and without the community.
Perhaps it is premature to attribute to 21st century Islamophobia the pernicious attributes of 20th century Anti-Semitism. However, as already stated, genocidal Anti-Semitism was the conclusion of some 1500 years of victimisation. Clear in the previous text are the seeds of serious hatred towards Muslims, and they are germinating in an environment of public, political and social marginalisation. If the odd collusion of intellectual and extremist is not confronted now a darker force may emerge, leaving us with the worrying question, is history repeating?