Tommy Robinson, lately the cause célèbre of the so-called “alt-right”, isn’t the only person to rally a small band of fundamental libertarians, fruitcakes and closet racists behind him while the public looks on in despair. Who’s the other one? Step forward Boris Johnson. Who else?
This week, even the Prime Minister was moved to call on the ex-foreign secretary to apologise for claiming Muslim women in burqas “look like letter boxes” and comparing them to “bank robbers.” Boxed into a corner, Boris turned freedom of speech into the last refuge of a scoundrel, claiming his critics were trying to shut down debate about “difficult issues”.
If a woman’s right to choose to wear a headscarf or niqab offends our liberal values, maybe those values are suffering an existential crisis. But what happens when that free speech incites Muslim hatred? A figure like Johnson, whatever those on the left think of him, has enough of a popular following that his words can potentially incite Islamophobes to take the law into their own hands, however far from the intention.
The main problem with Johnson’s Telegraph article isn’t just the offence against Muslims, but the fact the bar to racism and bigotry has been lowered that bit further. That creates real problems in the lives in the Muslim community.
In national newspapers, on TV and in politics Muslims have been pathologised, homogenised and stripped of all aspects of their individuality.
Take Rod Liddle’s piece in the Sunday Times arguing why Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson should be allowed to “have his say”. The piece itself was not unexpected, coming from a journalist who has made his career off “controversy-baiting”. His suggestion that Yaxley-Lennon “might even be right”) is not even that unusual – he was forced to apologise in 2013 for describing the Woolwich attackers as “black savages”.
What is unsettling, however, is how Liddle is repeatedly given the platform to write in national newspapers and magazines, despite these views. It’s as if when it comes to racism, there’s an exemption when the racism in question is anti-Muslim.
In 2016, Louise Casey, the government’s former “integration tsar” produced her much-awaited review into “integration issues”. In it, she mentioned Muslims in the UK 249 times, compared to, for example, 14 mentions of the Polish community. But the outrage about the disproportionate focus on Muslims was short-lived. The “integration problem” narrative, on the other hand, was incredibly powerful. It had already been kickstarted in 2001 by the northern riots, the Islamist terrorist attacks in the US, the UK and Europe, and then whipped up further by Ukip (and other Brexit-supporters) in the EU referendum vote in June 2016.
The narrative plays out against a backdrop of rapid technological change, globalisation, and austerity cuts that disproportionately affect lower socio-economic groups of all ethnicities. Yet when it comes to explaining this squeeze on lower-income households, immigrants and Muslim communities get the blame. This is, of course, without any need to explain why banning burqas, deporting Muslim refugees and preserving “whiteness” will solve their concerns about jobs, housing, poverty and cuts in public services.
Whatever the reasons and motivations, there is no question that in the last two decades there has been a fundamental shift in the bigotry and hatred towards Muslims. In national newspapers, on TV and in politics Muslims have been pathologised, homogenised and stripped of all aspects of their individuality (and ordinariness) and presented as the alien “Other”. From headlines around sex grooming gangs and child marriage to documentaries such as My Week As A Muslim and the fictional Homeland series, the Muslim community risk finding themselves reflected negatively every time they open a newspaper or switch on the TV.
So-called liberals have sat by while far right commentators from Geert Wilders to Steve Bannon have presented the demonisation of Muslims as “not racism”, but simply voicing “legitimate fears and concerns about Islam”. And yet the language uses the same cultural pathologies and stereotypes that have been used to demean and vilify racialised minorities for decades. This ranges from the portrayal of people of colour as sexually deviant, to the equating of physicality with fear of crime. Back in the 1980s, the fear of the moment was black muggers; today it is Muslim rapists. Both examples paint the entire community with blame, either for committing the crime or somehow allowing it to happen. We know that street crime and sexual abuse of children spans all communities. Yet when it occurs in white families, they are not accused of “not sharing our western values”.
There has been a concerted effort by the far right (with much complicity in the media) to separate Muslims from other racialised groups. As Claire Alexander argued in the Runnymede Trust’s report on Islamophobia last year there has been a deliberate shift by the far right to focus racisms on “narrow biological markers”, thereby stripping it of its social, structural and historical context. This means denying that Muslims are a racial or ethnic group (thereby undermining their claims of racial discrimination compared to those of Sikhs or Jews) and positioning “Islamic identity” as a choice that Muslims can make, rather than viewing it as something which is attributed to them, regardless of the extent to which they practice their religion. All diversity within the religion – nationality, ethnicity, language and history – has been erased and Muslims are presented as a homogenous group, inseparable from Islamist extremists and incompatible with Western civilisation.
Anyone who argues that anti-Muslim sentiments are not racist because they focus on “religious or cultural practices”, rather than on ethnic or racial characteristics, is being disingenuous. Suggesting that there is a clear line between hatred and fear of Islam (the ideology) and prejudice against ordinary individual Muslims (who may or may not practice the religion) is being deceitful. And conflating and erasing all the diversity and differences within Muslim minority communities so you can vilify them as a group is manifestly racism in every other guise. Let’s not pretend that anti-Muslim racism is anything else.