September 2015: Angela Merkel (CDU) welcomes Nurhan Soykan, Coordinating Council of Muslims, to a meeting with representatives of associations and groups helping arriving refugees at the federal chancellery in Berlin. Michael Kappeler/Press Association. All rights reserved.AfD is headline news again. The far-right party that was only formed in 2013 but has been growing in strength in the past few years, has taken 94 seats and entering the 709-member Bundestag for the first time. Having taken nearly 13% of the vote, it is now the third largest party in Germany. “One million people, foreigners, being brought into this country are taking away a piece of this country and we as AfD don't want that," Gauland of AfD said, who sees Muslims and Islam as clashing with European culture and society and pledges to “fight against foreign invasion”.
In the past two years, the number of racist attacks on refugees and asylum shelters have risen across Germany, particularly in the East. Last autumn I visited several towns in Saxony that have seen the increase in such attacks, most of them encouraged by the AfD and involving its supporters. The situation is so severe that many asylum seekers live in fear and several shelters require the increase of police patrols for protection. The threat of racial violence is making life hell for refugees and asylum seekers in Germany. The threat of racial violence is making life hell for refugees and asylum seekers in Germany.
An anti-refugee, anti-migrant racism are part and parcel of the anti-Muslim, counter-jihadist movements across Europe and the US. Such racism isn’t only found in the margins of society but has long been practiced in immigration and asylum policies all over Europe. AfD’s demands to close EU borders and set up holding camps abroad to prevent migrants from leaving for Germany, have little conflict with the EU’s current asylum policy – especially if you look at the EU’s recent deals with Libya.
It’s important to look at anti-Muslim racism in a comprehensive way, which you’ll find in the latest edition of the brilliant book The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Hatred of Muslims (Pluto Press), by Nathan Lean. It’s an account of anti-Muslim campaigning across the continents, from the War on Terror to Trump’s travel ban. It looks at a world of alt-right bloggers and writers, politicians and evangelical religious leaders united in their effort to demonise Muslims as the new enemy of ‘Western civilisation’. It examines their tactics, traces their sources of funding and exposes the racism that drives their lucrative propaganda machine. It demonstrates how the campaign of hatred works – from the far-right fringe to the centre of the establishment.
The case of AfD’s election campaign is a case in point. The party hired the services of Vincent Harris, a US media consultant and CEO of Harris Media, an online communications consulting firm. The election campaign made the most use of social media and billboards, to spread the fear of a threat of an “Islamic takeover”. One of the ads shows bloody tire tracks on the streets of Europe with the caption “the tracks left by the world chancellor in Europe”. One of the party’s campaign posters with two women in bikinis sported the caption, “Burkas? We like bikinis.” Another ad has a pig with the caption “Islam? It’s not right for our kitchen.”
Harris has a track record in manufacturing hatred, as he worked for Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 and Donald Trump in the following year. During Trump’s election campaign, Harris kept his focus on the theme of the “Muslim threat”. He warned that the US mustn’t lose control of its borders like Germany, showing a video imagining a Germany becoming part of Islamic State. Media consultancy played a substantial part in paving the ideological ground for popular support for the anti-Muslim Trump administration.
Entering the mainstream
The Islamophobia Industry looks in detail at how mainstream media produce and reproduce anti-Muslim racism. In this day and age when social media is setting its own agenda and increasingly becoming a primary source of news, mainstream media absorb information in this arena and circulate it out to a much wider audience. Racist news sources outside the mainstream could easily become part of the circulation. For instance, news disseminated by the far-right news website Breitbart is often uncritically cited by Fox News and in turn quoted by newspapers like the Daily Mail.
Anti-Muslim racism has exploited the way new media works, to its advantage, with cyber space serving as a springboard where a variety of individuals come out of the corners of social media and into the chairs of broadcasting studios. Rightwing bloggers, writers and personalities have made their way into the mainstream media as they find their “niche” in the anti-Muslim, anti-Islam media market space. The HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, for instance, shows how anti-Muslim web content can creep into cable TV. It didn’t seem to concern anyone that Maher once said “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia”. (Recently, he used the N-word a second time and refused to apologize. In a New York Times interview, he said that “I think most people understood that it was a comedian’s mistake, not a racist mistake”.)
In Britain, mainstream media also play a huge part in reproducing prejudice against Muslims. Studies have found media reporting about Muslim communities contributes to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards Muslims and Islam. A latest example is the work of Andrew Norfolk, the chief investigative reporter of the Times, who reported that a “white Christian child” had been left distressed after being placed with two Muslim households in the borough of Tower Hamlets over a period of six months. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he acted “in the public interest” by investigating alleged concerns brought to his newspaper by a social services employee.
Hysteria was mounting over this case in a similar way that the British press became hysterical regarding Romanian Roma communities a few years prior to Britain’s lifting of work restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals. Back then, the popular media created the image of the “thieving, child-stealing Gypsies” at the height of its frenzy over immigration from these two countries.
This manufacture of enemy images is also evident in the reporting of Andrew Norfolk, following which Tower Hamlets council had to look into the case. Unsurprisingly, they found major inaccuracies in his report. His sensationalist claims that “the child was placed with a family that wouldn’t be able to communicate with her” and that “the child was being stopped from eating bacon or having a crucifix necklace removed” were found to be false.
In fact, the council established that the child was being fostered by an English-speaking family of mixed race, undermining the central issue in the initial media reports. What also challenged Norfolk’s narrative was the court order that revealed that the grandmother of the child is a “non-practising Muslim”, who does not speak English, and had expressed a desire to “return to her country of origin and care for the child there”. The order also revealed that the police had removed the child from her birth mother’s care over significant concerns for her safety.
What stands out in this new edition of The Islamophobia Industry is also Nathan Lean’s depiction and analysis of the rise of liberal Islamophobia, as a major player in manufacturing racism against Muslims and Islam across Europe. The features of Islamophobia on the liberal left can be different from those on the Right. As Lean points out, one approach is to use Muslims to help advance particular narratives about the purported deficiencies of Islam and Muslim communities. While they borrow a lot from the Right by identifying Islam as a candidate for suspicion and scrutiny, they focus on the urgency of reforming Islam, and suggest that Muslims are those who should be responsible for battling extremism. They adopt the Right’s categorisation of Muslims into two camps: the good Muslims (moderates) and the bad ones (extremists). They demand Muslims come out and condemn terrorist attacks whenever it occurs. Within these narratives of reform, the issue of Muslim women is of particular importance to liberal Islamophobes.
Within these narratives of reform, the issue of Muslim women is of particular importance to liberal Islamophobes. This Orientalist mindset closes the distance between them and the far right, in the process legitimising the racism of Anne Marie Waters of UKIP and her ilk, in whose narratives “Islamism” has become a code word. These are so prevalent that I’m sure we’ve all heard of such conversation topics at dinner parties or down the pub. Many of these liberal-left Islamophobes – who would hate to be called racists – end up supporting the foreign policies and military interventions that have led to death and destruction and as a result, terrorism. Many of them also support domestic security policy that target and criminalise Muslim communities.
Also worth noting is the phenomenon of the New Atheist, characterised by a militant view of all religious groups, but especially Muslims. ‘Pillared on the work of Christopher Hitchens, and moved forward by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, aided by a self-named “former extremist” like Maajid Nawaz, the New Atheist movement adopts the driving ideology of the War on Terror architects, and posits that Islam is sui generis, it exists as a unique thing in the world and as such is laden with problems,’ writes Nathan Lean. ‘Thus, “they” (Muslims and Muslim extremists) hate “us” (non-Muslim Americans and Western Europeans) because of “our” liberal values and dominant civilisation. When Richard Dawkins says “to hell with their culture”, when Sam Harris barks that “we are not at war with terrorism, we are at war with Islam”, the divide that they see between Islam and the rest of the world is made clear.’
The prevalence of Islamophobia in liberal discourse is part of the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-migrant racism that many believe to be the territory of the far right. The Islamophobia Industry explains that process. It is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding and fighting racism.
The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Hatred of Muslims by Nathan Lean, is published by Pluto Press.