Muslims, it seems, are a problem. No, I should rephrase that. Muslims, it seems, are perhaps the problem of our times. Or at least one might be forgiven for believing that after the last few weeks and months. We've just had Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons, and former Foreign and Home Secretary, tell us that Muslim women who cover the face with a veil or niqab make community relations "more difficult." And this is because, he says, concealing the face is "a visible statement of separation and difference."
So what is Straw saying? He's not just saying that he finds it "uncomfortable" to talk to a Muslim woman whose face he can't see. He's saying that the fact that some Muslim women choose to cover their face is a direct cause of communal tension, and a confirmation from Muslim women themselves that they indeed are different, and do not wish to engage in society.
Straw later went on to elaborate that he'd rather those Muslim women who wear the veil simply don't do so at all.
Straw's little outburst comes hot on the heels of a series of remarks, observations and political maneuverings consistently pointing at the various problems that Muslim pose to British, and western, society. In August, we had the 'liquid bomb' plot which both former and active military and intelligence experts have found to be either impossible or barely existing.
President Bush took the opportunity provided by the scare to declare that: “The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.”
The same phrase, a phrase he had never used before, he had also used that month to describe Israel's conflict with Lebanon. A conflict in which the preponderance of casualties was amongst Lebanese Muslims (as well as Christians).
And here in the UK, politicians, police and commentators described how the 'liquid bomb' plot proved that the threat came from British Muslims who, without any clear reason, without any obvious profile, from any social background even including a university education and a handsome employment, spontaneously decided to become suicide killers. By implications, we have a significant British Muslim problem. A problem of British Muslims spontaneously converting into Islamic fascists.
We then had Home Secretary John Reid's admonition to Muslim parents in East London that they ought to watch out for "tell-tale" signs of their childen undergoing this spontaneous profile-devoid, inexplicable process of conversion. What are these "tell-tale" signs? Rather than pointing, for instance, to the dangerous activities of notorious, entrenched, and proscribed extremist networks with terrorist connections like al-Muhajiroun and its successor groups, Saved Sect and al-Ghuraabah (and now al-Sabiqoon al-Awwaloon), Dr. Reid qualified his statements in an article in that most credible of tabloids, the Sun: "I appeal to you (the Muslim community) to look for changes in your teenage sons -- odd hours, dropping out of school or college, strange new friends."
Sorry excuse me, it's just that this sounds a lot like me when I was, erm, busy failing my A-Levels at seventeen years old. Maybe I was spontaneously turning into an Islamic fascist but didn't realise? Maybe I should turn myself in?
Around the same time, the Pope decided to pipe in with a speech in which he quoted a Byzantine Emperor saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Some have suggested that angry Muslims took the quotation completely out of context, but an inspection of the rest of his text shows this not to be the case. The Pope, unfortunately, used the citation uncritically, and in support of his wider theological argument (a very questionable one at that) about the fundamental difference in Christian and Islamic views of the rationality of God's actions.
It took the Israeli military veteran and peace activist Uri Avnery, a self-described Jewish atheist, to take the Pope to task as follows:
"Every honest Jew who knows the history of his people cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude to Islam, which has protected the Jews for fifty generations, while the Christian world persecuted the Jews and tried many times "by the sword" to get them to abandon their faith.
The story about 'spreading the faith by the sword' is an evil legend, one of the myths that grew up in Europe during the great wars against the Muslims--the reconquista of Spain by the Christians, the Crusades and the repulsion of the Turks, who almost conquered Vienna. I suspect that the German Pope, too, honestly believes in these fables. That means that the leader of the Catholic world, who is a Christian theologian in his own right, did not make the effort to study the history of other religions.
Why did he utter these words in public? And why now?
There is no escape from viewing them against the background of the new Crusade of Bush and his evangelist supporters, with his slogans of 'Islamofascism' and the 'Global War on Terrorism'--when 'terrorism' has become a synonym for Muslims."
More recently, Tory Party leader and Prime Minister-wannabe David Cameron declared his brave plans to break up Muslim ghettos in British cities. That's right folks, Muslim ghettos: another big problem that Muslims pose to Britain, encapsulated in the phenomenon of (in Cameron's words): "Immigrant families who only ever meet people with the same country of origin. We need to find ways to avoid this."
Without even attempting to offer serious policy options to deal with the institutional discrimination and massive social deprivation behind the creation of "Muslim ghettos", Cameron suggested instead that "Islamic schools should in future admit a quarter of their pupils from other faiths", as if Islamic schools are actually a significant part of the problem. He didn't pause to wonder whether any Muslim schools in the UK had ever officially banned or prevented non-Muslims from attending (certainly not to my knowledge), or whether indeed non-Muslims might even be vaguely interested in attending a Muslim faith school, enough to fulfil his quota.
So Straw's remarks should not by any means be viewed in isolation. They are part of an inexorably growing western trend of problematizing Muslims, a phenomenon that is conjoined to concerted practices of western-backed imperial violence against largely (though not exclusively) Muslim populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Occupied Territories, Lebanon and elsewhere, practices which are fast converging on an impending imperial onslaught against Iran. The casualty figures in dead and seriously injured from these extant military interventions is more than several million, mostly Muslim, civilians. Such processes actively facilitated by our governments in the Middle East and Central Asia cannot be compartmentalized away from processes of problematization of Muslim communities at home, where in the UK for example more than a thousand Muslims have been indefinitely detained under the Terrorism Act, out of which only half a dozen have been convicted. These external and internal processes are products of the same system, the same imperial social configurations.
As the 2005 report of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) on ‘Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims in the EU’ has documented, attacks on Muslims in western Europe have increased dramatically. Across western Europe, such attacks have accompanied an unprecedented escalation in
"... widespread negative attitudes toward Muslims; unbalanced and stereotypical media reports portraying Muslims as 'alien' to EU societies and as 'an enemy within'; verbal and physical attacks on Muslims and Muslim institutions and property; discrimination against Muslims in employment and other areas; aggressive political rhetoric used by right-populist parties to target Muslims;and security and immigration measures contributing to public perceptions of Muslims as a 'fifth column'."
One of the most authoritative studies of discrimination against Muslims in Britain was undertaken recently by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in London, where I used to work as a researcher years ago. The IHRC survey has been described by the leading peer-reviewed Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, as providing “rich information from a large sample [whose research findings] are unparalleled in their focus and detail on a subject that has largely been overlooked and understudied.” The findings are rather shocking: overall, about 80 per cent of respondents reported experiences of discrimination because they were Muslim. In the face of this, the widespread feelings of discontent and victimization amongst Muslims is not only understandable, they are to some extent a perfectly rational reaction to an extremely disturbing national and international trend of hostility towards Muslims, expressed in forms of cultural, political and economic violence.
German social scientist Dr. Wolfram Richter, a professor of economics at the University of Dortmund, expressed his resulting concern as follows: “I am afraid we have not learned from our history. My main fear is that what we did to Jews we may now do to Muslims. The next holocaust would be against Muslims.” What we have been seeing over the past few months is the tail-end of a process that has continued since 9/11; a concerted political and cultural campaign the effect of which has been to portray Muslims as a dangerous, unpredictable group of 'others' who pose a problem to western civilization -- a problem that requires a "solution"; perhaps even a "final solution", if Dr. Richter's well-researched fears might suggest. It would be easy to dismiss Dr. Richter's comment as merely a groundless exaggeration. And while it may indeed be exaggerated, it is, unfortunately, not groundless.