Although still a small minority in the UK, Muslims are highly visible - thanks in part to the over-represented coverage they receive in the media and on the (often-hostile) blogosphere. This visibility seems to be increasing. There seems to be a race going on in sections of our media to portray negatively, or have a laugh at, this community. Obviously, this is not a good sign for Britain.
One satirical piece that recently drew wide condemnation both inside and outside the Muslim community was an insidious and hateful parody by columnist Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail. Littlejohn is used to controversy; indeed his column (and career) relies on it. His defence, when offence is caused, is usually humour ("this is satire").
In his piece "Jolly Jihadi Boy's Outing to Legoland", he attempted to criticise the Muslim preacher Haitham al-Haddad, whose organisation had booked Legoland for a private family fun day (before the park officially opened for its main season). Although the piece was supposed to be satire, Littlejohn laid thick with crude slurs commonly found in racist and far-right websites, which read pretty much as though they were against all Muslims and not just Haddad ("Anyone found with a bacon sandwich will have their hands chopped off"; "Rear coach packed with explosives stops in Parliament Square"; "Mobile phones are also prohibited because they may inadvertently set off the hi-viz suicide vests being worn by our own security personnel").
The piece was accompanied by large pictures of discredited figures such as Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed (founder of the extremist group al-Muhajiroun), attempting to attract maximum ridicule. I do not want to defend Haddad or his views, but it never seemed to occur to The Daily Mail that there might be a difference between a fun day involving children, and the violent extremist groups. They obviously wanted the Legoland to cancel the Muslim group's visit to the theme park, and they succeeded.
In response to a joint letter to the paper by prominent Muslim leaders asking them to retract "the most hateful stereotypes of Muslims to attack an individual", assistant editor Charles A Garside deployed the usual (and tired) defence of satire. Would he use similar hateful stereotypes when writing about other communities? Of course not. There would be uproar.
In contemporary Britain, it is amazing that a segment of its people is vilified in this way without any decency and fairplay. It is also disheartening that such drivel is not robustly challenged by others. Apart from a few fair-minded individuals in the wider society, there is an eerie silence on this. Is it because its Muslim population is different?
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When it comes to Islamophobia our political class appears to be ambivalent. This does not bode well to the long-established and hard-fought-for British sense of even-handedness.
Muslims are now distinctly newsworthy in Britain; they attract sensational headlines for all sorts of reasons from all sorts of quarters. The 7/7 atrocity in 2005 gave this impetus. It surged again in the aftermath of the bloody murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013 by two self-deluded Muslim individuals (actions which were utterly condemned by every mainstream Muslim), despite attempts by a couple of journalists to downplay a backlash which even police sources confirmed was underway.
The Muslim community and mainstream Muslim bodies unequivocally condemn any atrocity carried out in the name of their religion, but this appears to get little appreciation by our media and political class.
In recent times, media guns have been turned towards Muslims on a number of social issues as well - such as the heinous crime of sexual grooming, female genital mutilation (FGM) and segregation at university campuses. Front page coverage in some newspapers is guaranteed if some Muslim is linked with any of these and other controversial or unacceptable practices. This is exacerbated by the dearth of robust responses from the Muslim community (partly due to a traditional lack of capacity in Muslim organisations) as well as lacklustre responses from our social and political leadership.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote an article pleading that no section of British society should be treated with suspicion, but things appear to have worsened, especially after the Lee Rigby murder. Muslims have, in reality, become a "suspect community".
The primary reason behind this depressing situation is the continuous treatment of Muslims as "suspects" due to successive governments' Prevent initiative. This has put the community in the dock ever since former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair initiated the first Prevent. Although it was found to be counter-productive by a review under a parliamentary committee towards the end of Gordon Brown's government, the Tory-led Coalition government continued with the general theme.
Today the government strategy is based on the so-called "conveyor belt" theory of radicalisation, developed by neoconservative think-tanks mainly in the USA, and leaning over-heavy towards Muslim radicalisation and not enough on concurrent far-right threats, too. This theory contends that "individuals start off disillusioned and angry, gradually become more religious and politicised, and then turn to violence and terror".
This theory lacks evidence, but Prevent is doing incalculable damage to the image of Muslims and their confidence as a community.
The current government has decided that it will not engage directly with mainstream national Muslim organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), as they are, in their understanding, "non-violent extremists". This ideological stride by the government has led them to treat Muslim bodies with mistrust. The government now talks at the Muslim community, not to it.
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After the horrific murder of Lee Rigby, as mosque attacks soared and bombs exploded outside West Midlands mosques, the Coalition government initiated its new "Taskforce on tackling radicalisation and extremism" to confront extremism - in communities, schools, prisons, faith institutions, universities and the internet. No reputable mainstream Muslim body was even consulted or involved, a ridiculous situation that sooner or later is going to backfire.
Islamophobia, as cultural racism with a religious element, has now flourished and is becoming entrenched in people's psyche. In the current socio-political environment, Islamophobes and anti-Muslim bigots from the counter-jihadist sphere (those who think Islam is the problem, and that Muslims are "taking over") have become emboldened and as a result, public space for Muslims has been curtailed.
Muslims' right to civic and political participation, particularly when it comes to criticism of domestic and foreign policy, is frowned upon. Right-wing groups are able to get away with demonising Muslims easily. Even standing up to Islamophobia is often seen as a "victim mentality" by some.
Headline after headline is alienating many young Muslims. The latest counter-terror arrest of four people, including former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg (who has been charged with terrorism-related offences), and comments on Syria terrorism, is scary for the Muslim community. Muslim charities who are working to help Syrian refugees are confused. Yet, it would seem Muslims are not worth talking to - something which at least, during the Labour administration, happened. What we see today is unfortunate for Britain as a whole, not only for Muslims. The community is at a loss to understand why it is being scapegoated for the actions of a few.
The government needs a deep reappraisal of its Prevent policy and a political will to work with Muslims who have proved to be loyal citizens. With a higher youth population, they are an asset for our country. The British sense of fairness is now on trial - but not, I hope, on borrowed time.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an author and commentator on social and political issues. He was the former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari
Source: Al Jazeera