I am often dumbfounded by what some of our prominent newspaper columnists have to say about Islam and Muslims. But not too surprised. Stereotyping is an old and, dare I say it, almost respectable institution in Britain. Muslims have been pigeonholed as violent, inferior fanatics for centuries; it provided a good excuse for colonising their lands.
Consider this example from Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, a year and a half ago. British Muslims, she screamed, "rarely speak out against terror" and "excuse, rather than refute, the many ferocious verses calling for the blood of infidels in their holy book, verses that justify terror". This is not simply a statement of monumental ignorance and arrogance, but also one of the finest examples of demonisation. It ascribes terrorism to Muslims through a double bind. If the Koran justifies terror, and all Muslims by definition believe in the Koran, then all Muslims by definition are terrorists. If Muslims reject and refute what the Koran says, then they cease to be Muslims. So the only way for Muslims not to be terrorists is to denounce their religion, join Toynbee and become dogmatic secularists. QED: "they rarely speak out against terror".
Then there was this from Will Hutton in the Observer: Islam is "predominantly . . . pre-Enlightenment". This statement has several layers of ignorance. It projects Islam "predominantly" as monolithic. It suggests that being "pre-Enlightenment" is inferior to being post-Enlightenment. It assumes that "Islam" and "Enlightenment" have nothing to do with each other - as if the European Enlightenment emerged out of nothing, without appropriating Islamic thought and learning. It betrays an ignorance of postmodern critique that has exposed Enlightenment thought as Eurocentric hot air. And, of course, it frames Muslims as "pre-Enlightenment" irredeemable barbarians.
Toynbee and Hutton are among a dozen newspaper columnists whose work is examined by Nasar Meer, a postgraduate student at Bristol University, in a brilliant paper published in the latest issue of Journalism Studies. The paper reveals how such demonising logic has become bread and butter for commentators of all political persuasions.
Meer shows how conservative nationalists (such as Charles Moore and Kevin Myers of the Telegraph, and Melanie Phillips and Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail) as well as liberal secularists (such as David Aaronovitch of the Times) project "white fantasies" of ethnic others. The convergence of anti-Muslim opinion on the left and right enhances the falsehood that the presence of Muslims on British soil is an insidious danger to Britain.
Meer identifies a number of themes: by nature, Muslims are anti-modern and antipathetic to democracy and human rights. Muslim - but not Jewish and Christian - faith schools are a way of protecting young minds from modernity. A distinct Muslim identity is dangerous for Britain; assimilation "into the canon of Britishness" requires Muslims to abandon all ideas about preserving their identity. Muslims are a fifth column, a product of the policy of multiculturalism. Muslims are trying to strip Britain of its culture and traditions. Muslims are afforded special treatment at the expense of other beliefs and groups. Muslims lack self-criticism; and they charge everyone who criticises them with Islamophobia. It may not be long, Charles Moore suggests, before they are "extending the logic of their concentration in places like Bradford and Leicester" and seeking to "establish their own law within these areas". And so it goes on.
Newspaper columnists do not only determine how public issues are understood; they also shape knowledge of these issues. What we have here is a conscious construction of, as Meer says, an "apocalyptic vision" of Islam and Muslims in Britain. This knowledge, or rather this intellectually respectable racism, is being used to justify the claim that certain commentators have the right to tell Muslims how they should live their lives, what they should believe, and how they should conduct their community affairs. It also comes in handy in keeping alive the myth, first invoked by Enoch Powell, that racism is perpetuated by the very presence of ethnic others.
If you were to describe Jews or gay people in a similar manner, you would rightly be hounded out of what is left of Fleet Street. Indeed, you could easily end up as a guest at Her Majesty's pleasure.
Muslims are fair game. But not for long. A generation of young Muslim intellectuals, such as Nasar Meer himself, is about to come to the fore. They are not going to let insipid racism pass without confronting it head-on. Knowledgeable, versed in pre- and post-Enlightenment thought, they also know a thing or two about argument. I look forward to the time, in a not-too-distant future, when they take on the media's finest and pulverise them intellectually before my delighted eyes.
"'Get off your knees': print media public intellectuals and Muslims in Britain", by Nasar Meer, is published in Journalism Studies, Volume 7, Number 1, February 2006