Owen Jones, co-chair of the Socialist Youth Network, argues for the left to put fighting Islamophobia at the centre of its activities.

We will not be silent

Labour Left Briefing, December 2006

Islamophobia is the anti-Semitism of our age. As anti-Semitism once paraded itself in the rhetoric of anti-capitalism, today Islamophobia clothes itself in the rhetoric of secularism. The 19th century German socialist August Bebel once referred to anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”: today it could be equally be said that Islamophobia is the “secularism of fools”. Much to their amusement, Islamophobia is no longer the preserve of the BNP (who, after all, now almost exclusively target their hatred against the Muslim community). Islamophobia is the political mainstream.

Worryingly, even some on the left have been reluctant to defend the Muslim minority against the onslaught begun by Jack Straw on the grounds that the veil is a clear form of female oppression. This entirely misses the point. Jack Straw did not denounce the niqab on the grounds that it oppresses women: he attacked it as a “sign of separation and difference”. Of course the left must support the emancipation of women from all forms of subjugation – including from the veil. However, such a profound cultural shift can only be achieved through the struggle of Muslim women themselves. The anti-Muslim hysteria triggered by Straw’s comments will surely only drive thousands of Muslims into the arms of Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, there are reports of niqab sales trebling since Straw’s disastrous intervention.

Above all, it is necessary to understand the nature of Islamophobia. There was a shocking audacity to Straw’s description of the veil as a barrier to good community relations because of his prominent role in the murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq (little else has done more to antagonise, alienate and radicalise British Muslims). However, the “war on terror” is fundamental to understanding the basis of Islamophobia. Western armies occupy Iraq and Afghanistan; western militarism currently encircles Iran; and western power backs Israel in its war against the Palestinian and Lebanese people. In other words, the West is at war in Muslim lands and against Muslim peoples.

Historically, racism has accompanied and justified western imperialist interventions. For example, the “Scramble for Africa” of the late 19th century was accompanied by the Social Darwinist dehumanisation of African people as backward and uncivilised. Anthropologists such as Madison Grant and Alex Carrel published pseudo-scientific racist tracts claiming the innate “inferiority” of black people. While simultaneously purporting to be bringing civilisation to Africa, the European powers slaughtered tens of millions in their quest for cheap access to natural resources.

Similarly, Islamophobia has been used to portray the Muslim people as innately violent and brutal at a time when western armies are responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the search for oil this time, under the cover of “democratisation”. History will damn the dark irony of commentators such as Leo McKinstry of the Daily Express who described Muslim attitudes as “repulsive, barbaric, prejudiced or superstitious” or for not showing “any willingness to embrace the tolerant values of western democracy” in the same week that Lancet revealed over 650,000 civilians had perished because of the western invasion of Iraq.

Muslims are being demonised by the British ruling class in a manner that no ethnic minority has had to suffer for at least a generation. As attacks mount on this impoverished community – a community already deeply alienated by a murderous and unjust foreign policy – it is clear that Islamic fundamentalism will only grow further in strength. However, Islamophobia may be on the ascent but it is not unstoppable. The left must act now to defend the Muslim community from this rising tide of Islamophobia. To fail to do so would be a betrayal of our finest traditions.