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UK hysteria over 'Islamist' threat is fuelling race hate

Britain's panicked take on 'Islamists' has enabled the spread of racism and emboldened the far-right UKIP party.

Last updated: 07 May 2014 08:37
Rachel Shabi

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.
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Muslims attend Friday prayers in the courtyard of a housing compound in east London [Reuters]

Once again, the British press is panicking over the "Islamists" that are apparently lurking with malicious intent on every street corner in the UK.

While tabloids fret over imagined Islamic plots to take bacon off Britain's streets, the broadsheets reflect a more highbrow hysteria over an extremist Islamism that has apparently taken root on British soils.

Meanwhile, the political class is doing its bit, too. Tony Blair, the Middle East war-mongering former prime minister turned Middle East peace envoy, has declared "radical Islam" to be the biggest threat ever, in the world. The British government itself has launched an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood, which, according to Prime Minister David Cameron is to "establish a complete picture" of the organisation.

And the UK Charities Commission - headed by William Shawcross, formerly of the neo-con Henry Jackson society - has declared "Islamist extremism" to be the most "deadly threat" facing charities in England and Wales thereby raising alarm that legitimate Islamic charities may have funding choked off by association, through a spread of fears over handing out hard-earned pennies to hot-headed jihadis.

Convoluted approach

As many commentators have already pointed out, the British government has taken a curiously convoluted approach to political Islam. While the Muslim Brotherhood has suddenly been fingered for investigation, the Islamist, power-sharing Ennahda party in Tunisia is of course still fine - but then, so are Muslim Brotherhood rebels in Libya, whom the Brits helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated rebels in Syria, whom Britain also backs. Is it really too much to ask of our political leaders to at least make sense and be consistent?

The very act of ordering an investigation has signalled that there are grave dangers associated with all political Islam, thereby collapsing all its variations - including non-violent, democracy-participating groups - into one violent, menacing version.

And rather than being premised on national security considerations, this just-ordered investigation is thought to be intended mostly to appease allies - Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that hate the democratically-elected but now deposed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Analysts tell me that, despite this ally-appeasing gesture of an inquiry, they think it highly unlikely that the Brotherhood would be banned in Britain.

But if the government has taken a path of political expediency, it has done so with utter disregard for predictable outcomes. For the very act of ordering an investigation has signalled that there are grave dangers associated with all political Islam, thereby collapsing all its variations - including non-violent, democracy-participating groups - into one violent, menacing version.

In other words, the space for legitimate political expression just got squeezed even smaller - which is exactly what Muslim community workers have for years been warning is itself creating a dangerous breeding ground for potential extremism.

After all, if the political framework you are encouraged to join is telling you that your non-violent Islamist views cast you under suspicion of being a throat-cutting jihadi, why would you maintain any sense of faith in the system? Meanwhile, the move has once again placed the entire Muslim population of Britain - political or not - under the microscope, hard-wiring the perception of a "problem" community.

This is, by the way, a conflation that we would never dream of casting upon any other group: Who, for instance, would attempt politically to associate all British Jewry with the nutty, violent fanaticism of Jewish ideological settlers in the occupied West Bank? Nobody demands of the UK's practising Buddhists that they denounce Buddhist violence in Burma daily, before being accepted as normal members of society.

And let's not pretend this doesn't have consequences. A steady drip-feeding of politically driven panic over violent Islamists taking root in in the UK has helped create a sense in which British Muslims are now pretty much the punchbag of choice. Muslim community workers speak of a toxic climate, the worst it has been in over a decade - in other words, since the attacks on 9/11.

Poisoned political debate

When the political class is pushing fears that fuel such a climate, is it any wonder that the far-right, Islam-bashing UKIP party - which tops the opinion polls for the forthcoming European parliamentary elections - is able to flourish? This party has so badly poisoned political debate that a recent proposal from a UKIP member of the Europeans parliament that British Muslims sign a "declaration denouncing parts of the Quran" is only one horrifying element.

A UKIP candidate was suspended a few days ago, after tweeting, among other things, that Muslims were the "devil's kids". That followed another UKIP candidate leaving the party "by mutual agreement" after he compared Islam to the Third Reich - and also said British comedian Lenny Henry should "emigrate to a Black country".

And let's not forget the UKIP candidate for Oldham, greater Manchester, who suggested on her Facebook page that Britain should "ban Islam and knock down all the mosques". 

There are seemingly no legal consequences for people making statements that should be construed as hate speech because, campaigners say, it seems as though Britain has not yet codified what that actually means when practised against Muslims (cue all those tediously wrong-headed claims, crowding message boards all over the Internet, that anti-Muslim comments can't be "racist" because Islam isn't a "race").

Meanwhile, Britain's main political parties are so worried about hemorrhaging voters to UKIP that they have forgotten one of their primary responsibilities as public officials: to take a firm, loud stand against such unequivocal racism. A frankly bewildering political position has sprung up in the UK, whereby it is somehow "wrong" to call UKIP racist, because it alienates and erroneously labels UKIP supporters.

In 2014, after so many hard-won successes of the anti-racism movement through the years, the only morally responsible position is to call out racism wherever you see it. This principle is pretty clear-cut. And we must not forget that it applies just as much to the racism barely acknowledged as being one, the racism routinely indulged and set loose by political leaders: that against the Muslim community.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

Follow Rachel Shabi on Twitter: @rachshabi

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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