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Islam on the brain

Concerns over the 'Muslim threat' and Islamophobia are both symptoms of British insecurity.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The more aggressively some commentators attack Islam, the weaker they sound.

The Sunday Telegraph’s ‘Will Cummins’ complained about the ‘bullying ingratitude’ of the ‘Muslim foreigners who have forced themselves on us’, and drew parallels with Mohammed’s seventh-century conquer by the sword (1). In the Spectator, Anthony Browne warned of ‘the triumph of the East’, and said that Muslims were gearing up to take over the world (2). Meanwhile, a church leader described Islam as an ‘evil religion’ that ‘has devastated large parts of the world through the force of violence and the power of the sword’.

The spectre of the ‘Islamic threat’ is really a projection of a Western sense of impotence. It is perhaps a sense of the flimsiness of their own values that leads some to imagine that the sword of Islam is hanging over their heads.

Outside London’s notorious Finsbury Park mosque last night, there was little sign of the Muslim takeover. ‘People who live here are fairly tolerant’, said 27-year-old Andrew Denney, who noted that Muslim and non-Muslim businesses all ‘use each other’s custom’. He said that it would ‘take a deeply paranoid person’ to think that Britain was under threat from Islamic invaders. Simon Mason, who lives across the road from the mosque, said there isn’t much trouble and ‘terrorism is not such a big issue’. A young Muslim man from Africa didn’t seem to be looking for converts, saying that ‘personally, I respect everyone as long as they respect me’.

Figures such as Cummins are pretty easy to knock down. The man rants about the Crusades from behind the cover of a pseudonym, for God’s sake; a Harry Cummins from the British Council was reported to be the author, but he has made informal denials and is currently being investigated. And when Browne was put under pressure on BBC2’s Newsnight, he said that he didn’t really have any agenda, and was only reporting the things that some Muslims were saying.

But the paranoia about Islam runs deeper than these few individuals – just think of the hysteria that greeted Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s visit to the UK back in July. Al-Qaradawi himself seemed fairly mild – he claimed to have visited London for ‘over a third of a century’ and was even a trustee of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. He had defended suicide bombings in Palestine and opposed homosexuality, but this hardly makes him a threat to civilisation as we know it. Yet he was splashed over the front pages of the tabloids, his events were picketed by protesters, and Tory leader Michael Howard demanded that he be banned from Britain.

Every threat or aside made by figures such as al-Muhajiroun’s Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza (formerly of the Finsbury Park Mosque) is greeted with gasps and plastered over the papers. Fairly insignificant figures are treated as if a few words from them could bring the whole country tumbling down. Home secretary David Blunkett is also fighting ongoing battles to exile Abu Hamza, among others – casting these preachers as a menace to national security.

Behind this fuss about Islam lies the rather shaky state of British society. Today’s Britain is notably lacking in strong social bonds, and suffers from uncertainty about what it stands for. A problem about us – about our lack of identity and mission – is translated into a problem about ‘them’. By these accounts, it’s not that we believe too little; it’s that they believe too much, and are aggressively trying to force their views on us. Our sense of vulnerability is projected on to an imagined Muslim threat.

There is also something of an attempt to regain the moral high ground. By presenting Muslim preachers as rape-condoning, homosexual-beating, female-circumcising demons, commentators get to draw themselves up tall in disgust. They can proclaim the staunchness of their ‘tolerance’ against this terrible immorality.

The other side to Britain’s fixation with Islam is a hypersensitivity, an attempt to do everything possible to avoid offence. The Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR), which documents media reports about Islam, tends to carry ‘be tolerant to Islam’ stories and ‘Islamic threat’ stories in equal measure (3). In the past week, it reported that prosecution lawyers in the West Midlands will be sent on courses to learn about Islam in cases involving Muslim defendants – as if Muslims needed special treatment and understanding compared with other defendants. The Welsh Assembly announced that it would introduce Halal food provision in all its schools, describing this as a ‘basic right’; and the head of the Welsh Eisteddfod cultural festival announced his desire to ‘reach out’ to Muslims and include all the ‘rich cultures of the Middle East’.

Since 9/11, prime minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush have bent over backwards to profess their respect for Islam, including publicising the fact that they’ve read the Koran. Individuals who have criticised Islam tend to come under immediate fire – former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey’s criticism of authoritarian Islamic regimes and ‘anti-modern’ Muslim scholarship caused a furore (4). Meanwhile, David Blunkett has proposed new laws against inciting religious hatred, which could be used against those putting forward anti-Islamic views.

These two instincts – to lash out against Muslims, or to make a show out of being ‘sensitive’ – spring from the same insecurity. Just acting normal, which would mean treating Islam like any other religion and Muslims like any other individuals, doesn’t seem to be an option.

This obsession with Islam breeds problems for itself. The more that people hype up radical Islamic preachers, the more these preachers play to the crowd. Much of the bluster of organisations such as al-Muhajiroun about taking over Britain is directed straight at reporters – the preachers oblige by feeding society back its own nightmares. And the attempt to be sensitive to Muslims’ every need is more likely to create discomfort all round, than to improve community relations.

A better option would be for Britain to get Islam off the brain, and start taking a long hard look at itself.

(1) See We must be allowed to criticise Islam, Sunday Telegraph, 11 July 2004

(2) Spectator, 24 July 2004

(3) See the FAIR website

(4) Carey’s Islam comments condemned, BBC News, 26 March 2004

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Topics Politics

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