Islamophobia Debate in London
By Dr S. Akhtar Ehtisham
Bath , NY
The meeting was held at the London Muslim Center not too far from the Financial District. On the way, I came across a lot of women covered in burqa. Asians in London are less Anglicized and less afraid than the 'desis' in America. It is not only a factor of numbers, but also of the respect for law in the country.
The meeting was well attended: people of Asian, Mid-Eastern and African origin constituted the majority. There was a notable sprinkling of 'white people'. Most of the women had some sort of head covering; a considerable number wore a regular 'burqa'. Speakers from Germany, France and Britain addressed the conference.
The most notable speaker was Tony Benn, Britain's well known liberal, a veteran politician who had given up his hereditary peerage so that he could continue his membership of the parliament and had been a minister in the Labor Governments from mid-1960s to late 1970s.
The first speaker was Dr Robert Lambert, currently a lecturer at the Center for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University and previously head of the Muslim Contact Unit in the London Metropolitan Police.
He talked about the approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the Northern Riots in Britain.
He thought that the elite promoted hatred and that Muslim females were especially vulnerable.
Incidents of discrimination and arson were numerous. A PhD student was recently arrested for conducting research on Al-Qaeda and held for six days.
The next speaker was Dr AbdoolKarim Vakil, lecturer in the Department of History and Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at Kings College , London. He thought that state funding of Muslim schools was important as Muslims were here to stay. The funding was much less than that for Catholic and Jewish schools. The media did not offer adequate coverage for cases of discrimination.
Muslims were getting more and more involved in the anti-war movement and a coalition with the Left was developing.
He scathingly criticized Cameron, the British PM, for a speech he made in Munich condemning Muslims for non-integration and calling for Muscular Liberalism to combat orthodoxy.
The third speaker was Laura McDonald, lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Her special interests were gender and Islam and women's activism. She thought that violence was not based on individual prejudice but had become normative. The war on terror had transformed the perspective. It had become institutional. Muslims were accused of not interacting, women were scared of going out, the young felt that others think negatively about them. Islamophobia had become internalized and communities had become marginalized.
Weyman Bennet is the Joint National Secretary of Unite against Fascism and an active campaigner against the British National Party and English Defense League, both right wing racist/fascist groups.
He said that the charge that Muslims self-segregate was false. The police paid Muslims not to join demonstrations. Politicians like Sarkozy, David Cameron and Angela Merkel use the race card.
John Reese, founder member of the Stop the War Coalition and author of Imperialism and Resistance, roundly condemned the Muscular Liberalism speech of David Cameron. He felt that the idea was to cover up cutting back on social services. One Labor led council had taken out non-English language newspapers and removing non-English language books was being considered.
He claimed that it was actually the elite who came mostly from public schools (private schools are called public schools in England) were not integrating. Cameron's cabinet had 18 millionaires in his 23-member cabinet. He thought that the central moment was when war launched against Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of Islamophobia with the idea of enlightening them by bombing.
Defeat of war against terror and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was a part of the war against Islamophobia. People had a right to worship and dress as they see fit. Freedom of speech as a concept arose in the 17th century England when Protestants were not allowed to worship in their own way.
France was worse.
The problem was that Muslims were not united, but a Red-Green alliance was developing.
In the US Civil Rights Movement, people went on Freedom Rides. We need Freedom Rides to Paris.
In the Q&A session several persons commented on how they should combat Islamophobia.
I said that as a physician I was trained to look for the cause of a disease before prescribing treatment. No speaker had talked about why there was so much hatred for Muslims and not, for example, for Hindus.
My remarks were greeted with intrigued stares of the panelists at one another.
The German lady, Liz Fekete responded by saying that it was a long standing problem. Another speaker said it went back a long time before 9/11.
There is no doubt that the war on terror is part of the neo-imperialist larger scheme of things. They provoked the USSR into moving into Afghanistan, promoted Al-Qaeda and Taliban. But Muslims also colonized a large part of the world in their turn.
The problem with all apologist groups is that they don't like taking any responsibility for the outrages perpetrated by the fundamentalists.
In the next session Aisha Alvi, a barrister and one-time candidate for a parliamentary seat, informed us that she and her sister had won the right to wear hijab at their school in the early 1990s after a two-year struggle and after being told to go back to her country.
Hatred was not so widespread then. It is not based on ignorance but was deep-seated and was cruelly exhibited in Bosnia in 1992. Genocide was committed on people who had integrated, intermarried with Christians and were not conformist Muslims.
She asserted that hijab was a part of freedom to practice faith openly and freely (here a question is pertinent. Would Muslims tolerate bikini clad women on the streets in Muslim countries?).
Chris Nineham, an HR activist, offered that Muslims were facing the same situation Jews had faced in the 1930s.
Dr Sabine spoke about the debate on our views of Islam. The media showed pictures of outrages side by side with pictures of Muslims praying. Islam was portrayed as a violent religion which oppressed women (no discussion of the status of women in Islam). Der Spiegel, a widely circulated newspaper, showed pictures of veiled women to indicate failure of integration. Stern, another newspaper, asked why so many Muslims were terrorists. They used freedom of expression selectively. The media worked to polarize.
Liz Fekete, an academician, Executive Director of the Institute of Race Relations and author of 'A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe,' said the phobia was dehumanizing and was based on stereotyping. It was a tool to distract attention from economic problems during crises when services were cut back. 9/11 gave a structure to the phobia. Oppressive laws were enacted. France, Belgium and half of the German states banned the hijab and Switzerland prohibited minarets on mosques. Right wing had become mainstream. Secularism should not identify with any religion. All religions should have civil rights, right of women to choose what they wore.
Cultural exclusivity was being imposed as it was on gypsies and others who were different.
Marwan Muhammad, a statistician by profession from France and author of 'Foul Express' in which he explored the impact of financial markets on North/South relationship, said that it was a fight for justice. France was the worst. Phobia was the weapon of mass distraction. He contended that change did not come from the mail box. People responded to incentives. Islamophobia had become cool.
Tony Benn said that weak leaders develop enemies to become strong, use religious differences to gain strength and use them to wage war.
Azad Ali, chairman of the Muslim Safety Forum and member of several activist groups, offered that Muslims were increasingly practicing self-censorship. Leaders were scared. Moderate Muslims did not mean anything as moderately pregnant did not. Bigots smear/target organizations and call for creation of acceptable Muslims.
Hiba Aberwein, an activist involved with Muslim women groups, contended that women's dress code was used to hide economic crisis, it was Orientalist and part of colonial discourse and projected Western superiority. Veil was offered as a sign of backwardness and had become a metaphor for the entire Muslim world, terrorism and fundamentalism.
Kenza Drider, a French Muslim, was arrested twice for not taking off her burqa (full veil), refused to pay the fine, was seated on dais in full burqa. She claimed that Islamophobia had been on the rise in France since 1980s, the president was demonizing Islam in schools, work places and industries and using it to justify military intervention. The same was done to the Jews in the 1930s. Anti-Semitism was condemned, Islamophobia was not.
Les Davidov of the Campaign against Criminalizing Communities formed in March 2001 in response to banning of 21 organizations under the 200 Terrorism Act, said it was internal colonialism. He condemned in strong terms Cameron's statement on Muscular Liberalism and claimed that it would lead to segregation. In Britain, people were detained without trial.