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Are Muslims being persecuted?

Ignore the crass comparisons between 1930s anti-Semitism and 'Islamophobia' today: some Muslims are wearing victimhood as a badge of honour.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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Even before those Danish cartoons satirising Islam caused uproar, many commentators were drawing analogies between anti-Semitism in 1930s Europe and ‘Islamophobia’ today.

‘It would be a catastrophe for the left to bow to the witch-hunt and turn its back on the Muslim community’, said Lindsey German, a leading member of the Stop the War Coalition and the George Galloway vehicle, the RESPECT Coalition. ‘When socialists and communists joined Jews in London’s East End in the 1930s to defeat fascism, they did so because they realised that if we do not defend those under attack today, we would all be under attack tomorrow.’ (1) If this wasn’t blunt enough, one publication starkly reckoned that Muslims could soon be victims of a ‘New Holocaust’ in Europe (2). Is it the case that Muslims are facing systematic persecution? Are they being cast out as ‘a race apart’, as the Jews were in the 1930s and 40s?

The argument that Muslims are uniquely facing persecution rests on presenting a catalogue of abuses involving Muslims. Whether it’s the war in Iraq, the oppression of Palestinians or the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, the message is clear: Muslims are getting it in the neck all around the world. It is certainly the case that, when it comes to Western interference, Muslims appear disproportionately in the firing line. Nevertheless, these Western interventions are driven from within rather than from without. Waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or chasing the phantom-like al-Qaeda, is not motivated by anti-Muslim feeling; instead such actions are an attempt by Western elites, lacking legitimacy at home, to cohere themselves around a sense of purpose and mission. During the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, it happened to be Bosnian Serbs caught in the West’s opportunistic crossfire. And as it happened, the Bosnian Muslims’ cause was championed by conservatives and liberals alike.

For all the newsworthy flashpoints involving Muslims, today Islamic beliefs and values are not being demonised by Western leaders. In Iraq and Afghanistan, allied soldiers are instructed to show respect and awareness of Islamic customs and practises (see Gulf War meets Culture War, by Brendan O’Neill). If Western leaders are intent on crushing Islam, why did US President George W Bush insist that it is integral to the post-Saddam state? The same picture emerges within the West, too. Muslims are rightly allowed to practise their religion without any state hindrance. So much so that even UK Conservative Party counsellors feel uneasy about publicly celebrating Christmas and Easter lest it offends Muslims, while the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill was drawn up with alienated British Muslims in mind. According to one religious affairs commentator, ‘being a Muslim has now become a viable career option’ (3). This is hardly a picture of a persecuted religious minority.

In light of the Danish cartoon debacle, however, the questionable and ahistorical comparison of anti-Semitism in 1930s Europe and Islamophobia today continues to flourish. Those cartoons are considered displays of ‘cultural racism’ that ‘legitimises persecution and, ultimately, violence’ (4). In other words, ridiculing Islam should be interpreted as an expression of racism. This is not true. To be critical of Islam is akin to being critical of environmentalism, conservatism or anarchism. It is to be critical, even hostile, to a set of ideas and beliefs. This is fundamentally different to judging individuals negatively because of their skin colour. Whereas an individual’s ideas and beliefs are changeable and open to challenge, physical appearance is largely fixed. Thus, to ascribe negative characteristics based on physical appearance – to racialise – is intellectually wrong and ultimately dehumanising. Even so, it is questionable whether racial minorities should receive the protection of the law; when they do, such as through the Race Relations Act, racial divisions become institutionalised by authorities keen to act as ‘neutral’ arbitrators and thus sustain existing divisions.

It is worth pointing out that racialisation isn’t based exclusively on physical appearance, but how far groups are considered alien to the social fabric. In Victorian Britain, for instance, the first section of society to be seen as ‘a race apart’ was poor working-class whites. There is no similar process under way against Muslims. Commentators who attempt to peddle crass stereotypes about Muslim practises, such as Robert Kilroy-Silk, will find themselves ostracised from public life or even face a police investigation. The police themselves, meanwhile, are keen to avoid using the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘terrorists’ together in case it negatively stereotypes all Muslims. Clearly, these are not the actions of an impending campaign of genocide against European Muslims.

Even so, many Muslims – particularly young Muslims – do see themselves as somehow persecuted rather than a part of European societies. Identifying with a romantic Islamic brotherhood holds stronger appeal than identifying with a society bereft of values and core beliefs. This has less to do with any magical powers in the Koran than with what ‘identity’ really means today. In some form or other, identity is essentially a badge sulkily denoting a background of hardship and oppression – particularly as a consequence of Western modernity. This is why Islam is the most potent expression of identity around. Whereas black particularists have to bang on about pre-industrial slavery in order to flash a genealogy of suffering, young Muslims can point to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Guantánamo Bay, and even to those daft cartoons as here-and-now examples of persecution. This is not the same as a politicised opposition to imperialism or racial inequality. Rather, such examples are used to flatter a personal identification with suffering and victimhood. This is why so many young Muslims are more likely to dress in Islamic garb today than were their parents. It has become a symbol of outsider hurt against dominant Western modernity.

Ironically enough, the positive identification with victimhood is created and shaped in the West itself. As a set of values, victim-identity represents a complete inversion to what modern society was built on – ambition and success, achievement and advancement. While such values are now tainted as being arrogant and exclusive, victimhood endows individuals with the status of being noble and authentic. If this is Western society’s hierarchal pecking order, it’s no wonder that particularistic groups seek to court and sustain victimhood at every opportunity. So for the Muslim students I teach, anti-racism and equality hold no appeal – it would undermine their ‘special’ status as a persecuted religious minority.

On a broader level, these sentiments go some way to explaining some Muslims’ hostility towards Jewish people. Although the Israeli state’s oppression of Palestinians is used to justify these feelings, increasingly Muslims and some liberals resent the taboo surrounding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. A common riposte to editors re-publishing those Danish cartoons has been ‘you wouldn’t have done that if they were anti-Semitic’. The purpose of highlighting such ‘double standards’ is to invite the question ‘what’s so unique about the Holocaust anyway?’. It’s no surprise that some Muslim leaders have been asking this too. Whether it’s the Muslim Council of Britain wanting Muslims to be mentioned on Holocaust Memorial Day, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declaring the atrocity a ‘myth’, there’s an envious resentment that Jews occupy the high ground of persecution. As Al-Qaeda’s alleged ‘number two’, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sulkily puts it: ‘No one dares to harm Jews or to challenge Jewish claims about the Holocaust.’ (5)

There is no doubt that countries with Muslim populations have been caught up in the West’s firing line. Likewise, the hair-brained ‘war on terror’ has seen innocent Muslims incarcerated and killed. As terrible as these actions have been, this is still not the same as being persecuted solely because of Islamic beliefs. If this was the case, Muslims would be banned from practising their religion or participating in European public life. Thankfully, Muslims are not being cast out as a race apart. Unfortunately, wanting to be venerated as victims might be just as degrading.

Neil Davenport is a sociology and politics lecturer and freelance writer.

(1) Guardian, 13 July 2004

(2) ‘The Next Holocaust’, New Statesman, 5th December 2005

(3) Guardian, 27th February 2006

(4) Guardian, 27th February 2006

(5) BBC News, 5 March 2006

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Topics Politics

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