Islamophobia

It's not just Robert Kilroy-Silk who rants against Arab culture and Muslim faith. Prejudice against

There are few things, you would imagine, that Labour's Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane, Margaret Thatcher, the British National Party and the daytime television host Robert Kilroy-Silk would all agree on. Nevertheless, as events of the past week have shown, a deep disdain for Islam is one subject on which they can all concur whole-heartedly.

Their various remarks about Muslims are revealing, in that they show the degree to which prejudice is - as so often - mixed with quite astonishing ignorance. Baroness Thatcher famously sounded off on the failings of "Muslim priests", apparently unaware that Islam has no such priesthood and indeed accepts no intermediary between God and man. Denis MacShane recently echoed her by criticising British Muslim leaders for failing to speak out against terrorism, apparently unaware that they have done little else since 9/11.

Meanwhile Kilroy - that eminent Brummie orientalist - in a blatant incitement to racial hatred published in the Sunday Express of 4 January, described Arabs as "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors", and implicitly suggested that the British thought that all 200 million of them were "loathsome" and "threatening" "terrorists" and "asylum-seekers". He also denied that Muslims had contributed anything to civilisation (algebra, optics, the pointed arch and Arabic numerals did not feature in his column) and went on to reveal his expertise in the field by writing that Iran is an Arab country.

Yet what is more alarming than the public airing of such idiocy - ill-informed diatribes against Islam are, after all, far from uncommon in the British press - is the support that Kilroy has clearly found among the British public. Many other examples of his disturbing disdain for ordinary Muslims have since emerged: in one column Kilroy wrote that "Muslims everywhere behaved with equal savagery . . . they throw acid in the face of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and ritually abuse animals"; in another, he described the looting of Iraq as being the work of "a load of thieving Arabs". Nevertheless, since the suspension of his TV show by the BBC, the tabloids have rallied to his defence and the Express claims that 97 per cent of callers to the paper - about 22,000 people - have agreed that the BBC was too harsh with him. There has been a huge surge in anti-Arab racism as radio phone-ins, internet chatrooms and other media forums have been deluged with racist comments about "towel-heads" and "camel-jockeys".

There are moments when it is possible to believe that Britain is beginning to shed its racist past, and to hope that we do now live in a genuinely tolerant, colour-blind and multicultural society. Yet it is still clearly acceptable to most people in Britain to make the sort of straightforwardly racist remarks about Arabs and Muslims that would now be considered quite unacceptable if made about Jews, Catholics or blacks.

At the very least, the furore has shown how badly the British need to be educated about Islam and the Arab world. At the moment, the Islamic contribution to world civilisation is completely ignored in the British school curriculum: at my own school, I came across Islam only in the negative and confrontational context of the Crusades.

But the problem is bigger than that. Islam has now replaced Judaism as Britain's second religion, and it sometimes feels as if Islamophobia is replacing anti-Semitism as the principal western statement of bigotry against "the Other": the pre-war Blackshirts attacked the newly arrived East End Jews, and today we have their modern equivalents going "Paki-bashing". The massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 never led to a stream of articles in the press about the violent tendencies of Christianity. Yet every act of al-Qaeda terrorism brings to the surface a great raft of criticism of Islam as a religion, and dark mutterings about the sympathies of British Muslims.

We have had, for example, Michael Gove of the Times warning us of the dangers of all the fanatical Muslim terrorists lurking in our midst: "They are already there in their thousands. And they are not going to respect weakness any more than Lenin did." Meanwhile, over at the Telegraph, the proprietor, Conrad Black, characterised Palestinians as "vile and primitive" while Black's wife, Barbara Amiel, concluded one of her double-page rants by comparing Arabs to "animals". Such offensive prejudices against Muslims, and the spread of idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and beliefs, have been developing at a frightening rate since 11 September 2001. It is especially ironic that much of the criticism of Muslims comes from the right, given that British Islam has successfully preserved traditional conservative values: an emphasis on the family, chastity before marriage, respect for elders and weekly attendance of a place of worship, as well as observance of various important religious feasts.

Today, we have a situation in London where the number of mosque-going Muslims is fast catching up with the number of church-going Christians. Nor is there any obvious drop-off in the faith of second-generation British Muslims. There are now nearly a thousand mosques serving Britain's 1.8 million Muslims, the great bulk of them having opened within the past 15 years. Islam is the fastest-growing religion not only in Britain but also in France and the US, and this is as much to do with conversion as immigration. The constant media refrain about "what went wrong" with Islam - to paraphrase Bernard Lewis - ignores its self-evident success and its increasing popularity.

Indeed, in the past few years Britain, and especially London, has become one of the world's principal centres of Islamic publishing, as well as a major Muslim intellectual and cultural centre. According to Fuad Nahdi, founder editor and publisher of the Muslim magazine Q-News, "There's no other place in the world where you get quite as global a variety of Islam as here, and the result is the beginnings here of a cosmopolitan and distinctively British form of Islam."

Yet for all this, British Muslims remain firmly on the margins of our national life. Britons of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than the white population, and three times more likely to be on low pay. Considering the size of our Muslim community, it is scandalous that there are only four Islamic schools in the state sector. It is even more alarming that there are only four Muslim peers, two Muslim MPs and one lone British Muslim MEP. One of Tony Blair's most senior advisers recently told me that Labour did not take Muslim sentiment seriously as there was yet to emerge a serious lobby for Islam, capable of reacting in a politically coherent manner.

British Muslims are used by now to endless abuse, discrimination and violence. Little of this gets reported, whether to newspapers, monitoring groups or the police.

Eighteen months ago I was wandering past a mosque near Brick Lane in east London when I came across a group of elderly Bangladeshis sweeping up broken glass - the result of a thrown brick. It emerged that such vandalism was considered by them entirely routine, and that they never bothered reporting it to anyone, least of all the police. In the course of writing this article, I found it impossible to find any statistics on incidents of Islamophobic violence - in contrast to the situation with anti-Semitism, where accurate and up-to-date statistics are readily available from a variety of websites.

This is not just a British problem. In the United States recently, a Republican congressional candidate compared Palestinians to "pond scum". And while in France Jean-Marie Le Pen may rail against Muslim North African immigrants and howl for their mass repatriation, his outbursts look positively benign beside those of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane in Israel: "The Arabs are a cancer, cancer, cancer in the midst of us . . . let me become defence minister for two months and you will not have a single cockroach around here! I promise you a clean Israel!" Equally vicious is Bal Thackeray in Mumbai (Bombay): "I believe in constructive violence . . . these people must be kicked out. Even if a Hindu is giving shelter to these Muslims he also must be shot dead."

Yet perhaps the most worrying thing about this trend is the extent to which it has gone largely unrecognised and uncriticised: indeed, despite centuries of prejudice and violence against Muslims, the term Islamophobia was coined only within the past decade. Moreover, intellectualised versions of this anti-Islamic revulsion have come to find acceptance in defence and political circles. Not long ago, Nato's then secretary-general, Willy Claes, told the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung that "Islamic fundamentalism is just as much a threat to the west as communism was"; he went on to contrast barbaric Islam with "the basic principles of civilisation that bind North America and western Europe". In America, Samuel P Huntington's ideas in his book The Clash of Civilisations made much the same point. These ideas have been warmly embraced by Donald Rumsfeld, Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi.

Significantly, one of the bestselling non-fiction books in both France and Germany last year was the horribly anti-Islamic Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, by the French salon philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. The book was well reviewed in both countries, and few reviewers bothered to note Levy's profound and rather disturbing hatred of ordinary Pakistanis, whom Levy portrayed throughout as fanatical Orientals who "scowl" as he passes and "narrow their eyes . . . with a tarantula-like stare".

Yet almost as worrying as the way Levy managed to get away with his crudely anti-Muslim comments was the true story of the abduction of Pearl, a journalist. The man who kidnapped Pearl in Karachi was a highly educated British Pakistani, Ahmed Omar Sheikh. Sheikh attended the same public school as the film-maker Peter Greenaway and later studied at the London School of Economics. Yet such was the racism he suffered, that he was drawn towards extreme jehadi groups and eventually came to be associated with both Harkat ul-Mujahideen and al-Qaeda.

If intelligent, successful and well-educated British Muslims such as Omar Sheikh can be so readily drawn in to the world of the jehadis, we are in for trouble. The combination of widespread hostility to the Muslims in our midst, pervasive discrimination against them and huge ignorance is a potentially lethal cocktail.

It has become increasingly clear since 9/11 that western intelligence agencies have completely failed to understand or to penetrate the networks of Islamist ultra-radicalism. No intelligence agency predicted the attacks on New York or Washington, DC. Nor were there any warnings of the attacks since then in Kenya, Bali or Morocco. Intelligence briefings linking Saddam Hussein to anthrax attacks in the US, or to a nuclear and chemical weapons programme in Iraq, have all proved wildly inaccurate or, as in the case of the documents detailing Saddam's search for nuclear materials in Niger, they were simply made up.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair's neoconservative chums in Washington, immune to the justifiable fears of the Muslim world, talk blithely of moving on from Iraq next year to attack Iran and Syria. They have also invited Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist who has branded Islam a "very wicked and evil" religion, to be the official speaker at the Pentagon's annual service - and this immediately prior to his departure for Iraq to attempt to convert the people of Baghdad to Christianity.

All the while, the paranoia and bottled-up rage in the Muslim world grows more uncontrollable, and the attacks by Islamic militants gather pace, gaining ever wider global reach and sophistication. As long as British Muslims remain at the receiving end of our rampant Islamophobia, and remain excluded from the mainstream of British life, we can expect only still greater numbers of disenfranchised Muslims in the UK to turn their back on Britain and rally to the extremists.

As Jason Burke points out at the end of his excellent book Al-Qaeda, "The greatest weapon in the war on terrorism is the courage, decency, humour and integrity of the vast proportion of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. It is this that is restricting the spread of al-Qaeda, not the activities of counter-terrorism experts. Without it, we are lost. There is indeed a battle between the west and men like Bin Laden. But it is not a battle for global supremacy. It is a battle for hearts and minds. And it is a battle that we, and our allies in the Muslim world, are currently losing."

This month's upsurge of rampant Islamophobia in Britain, widely reported in Muslim countries, is the last thing we need in such a desperately volatile climate.