In politics, as in war, success belongs to those who can seize the initiative.
The figures keep going up, but still the reaction to them seems to stay the same. With each heinous jihadi terror attack in a Western city, there’s a concurrent increase in attacks on Muslims living in Western cities, too. And so it was after the coordinated atrocities in Paris in November, in which 130 people were killed.
According to TellMama UK, a public service project which measures anti-Muslim attacks, physical and verbal, these jumped by 275 percent in the period after the Paris attacks – with the vast majority perpetrated against women. Likewise in the United States, such attacks shot up after those deadly attacks in Paris, and rose another notch after a Muslim couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
In both countries – and in others, too – mosques, Muslim businesses and homes have been targeted, while there are instances of verbal assaults in public places, such as on buses and trains.
Little opportunity to counter Islamophobia
There is a frighteningly everyday quality to the incidents in which Muslims have been verbally accused, threatened or assaulted. But our response to this wave of anti-Muslim abuse does not seem nearly as serious as it should be, given the severity of the claims and the palpable fear caused.
Why is that? Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic are tiny – much smaller than you might presume, given the clamour over some kind of impending Islamic takeover or demographic time-bombing that has become so dismally routine within sections of the media.
As long as the fear of terror is a real factor in the West, as long as that threat is a distinct possibility, this fear trumps any other.
British Muslims make up just 3 percent of the population, while in the US it is less than 1 percent. So, paradoxically, while people often think that Muslim populations are far larger than is the case, those same communities don’t have either the visibility or the social clout to draw attention to the spiralling and increasingly horrible abuses faced.
Take the UK, for instance: who are the prominent Muslim commentators that constantly raise the issue in newspaper columns, which then get picked up by flagship news programmes or become regular talking points on TV?
Politicians, meanwhile, see no political capital in speaking out on such issues; indeed, as we can see so appallingly in the US Republican presidential debates, the operational assumption among some candidates seems to be that Muslim-bashing is good for electability.
Meanwhile, those small population percentages also mean that there is little opportunity to counter, even if only in real-life encounters, the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Muslims in the media or as spouted so dangerously by certain politicians.
British criminologist Imran Awan was bombarded with hate mails and online threats after publishing a report on Islamophobia – in other words, his work, which focuses on intimidating, hate-filled and fear-inducing online anti-Muslim abuse, met precisely the same abuse.
Pointing to a recent front page story in Britain’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, claiming that one in five Muslims have sympathy for jihadis, Awan says that “sensationalised reporting” has created a “general perception that Muslims are suspicious and there is no capacity to be anything else”.
That Sun report has since been slammed as dangerously misleading and disowned by the company that produced the (misconstrued) poll on which it was based.
The old “us and them” narrative
But if British Muslims are perceived as dodgy and dangerous, they cannot also be deserving of sympathy – which may go some way towards explaining the apparent paucity of attention over hate crimes directed at these communities.
You can’t simultaneously be “the problem” and also the victim. This, incidentally, both explains and is exacerbated by the lack of media focus on the fact that Muslims are on the receiving end of terror: after all, the death cult Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is killing and terrorising mainly Muslim populations in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, if there exists a perception of a community as “suspicious”, that seems swiftly to be followed by an assumption of guilt. Fiyaz Mughal, director of TellMama, says: “Time and again, particularly on social media, males will say they [Muslims] bring it on themselves.” The perpetrators of hate crimes against Muslims are overwhelmingly white men aged between 15 and 35.
But there is something deeper and more corrosive going on here, too – a kind of hierarchy of fear that dictates who is “entitled” to feel afraid and who is either making it up, or just not deserving of our concern.
As long as the fear of terror is a real factor in the West, as long as that threat is a distinct possibility, this fear trumps any other. Never mind that the risk of being attacked is the same for anyone living in the UK – Muslims included – it seems we’ve decided that anti-Muslim abuses cannot be given due weight in this climate.
That’s certainly been the experience for Imran Awan, whose report on Islamophobia just after the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby, by two Islamic extremists, in 2013, he says, prompted exactly this reaction: why are you focusing on Muslims? They are not the victims here.
Similarly, Amanda Rogers, at Georgia State University, whose research on transcultural violence involves monitoring online discussion forums on such themes, says that this is a frequent rejoinder. “More than denying it’s a problem, I’m seeing people try to minimise it,” she says. “A repeated theme isn’t that Muslims are making things up; it’s that we shouldn’t be worried about their feelings when there is 9/11, or when the priority is to keep us safe.”
In other words, the “us and them” narrative of the war on terror has also created a zero sum game in terms of sympathy and suffering. So, we can add that to the list of ways in which this narrative has been manifestly counterproductive, undermining the values we claim to uphold and corroding our societies.
Because of course we can’t be selective over compassion and empathy – that’s a fundamental cornerstone of any functional community of people.
And it should be obvious that, apart from anything else, demonising and simultaneously attacking Muslim minorities is spectacularly unhelpful in any fight against radicalisation and extremism.
Which is reason enough, you would think, to start taking the issue seriously and tackling the anti-Muslim abuse that has increased so sharply in Western countries – since it is horribly clear that the reality of Muslim women staying at home for fear of being abused on the streets is just not cutting it as a cause for concern.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.