The status of Muslims in the west is under threat. The increased prevalence of anti Muslim hate crime is only one of the more visible consequences. In the UK, Muslim schoolchildren are suffering a ‘backlash’ of abuse, according to the teaching unions; Muslim women are the victims of more than half of Islamophobic attacks, says Tell MAMA.
Though violent crimes against Muslims are understandably a key issue for Muslims and the anti-racist movement, it would be a mistake to think that Islamophobia is just a problem of racism by a small minority on the streets, or those on the fringes of politics. In fact it is deeply embedded in our politics and society, and a more serious problem than many writers have recognised. Moreover, while most accounts of Islamophobia suggest that anti-Muslim racism is simply a matter of prejudice, which may have social consequences, it needs to be understood as more than a problem of racist ideas.
Obviously these are a key part of Islamophobia but to be effective such ideas need to be practically developed—to be actively produced, spread and institutionalised in new policies and practices. Anti-Muslim racism is sustained by what we call the ‘five pillars’ of Islamophobia.
The first and most important is the institutions of the state—most notably the sprawling ‘counter-terrorism’ apparatus, the key nexus of institutions and practices which targets ‘extremists’ and those said to have been ‘radicalised’. The imprecision with which these concepts are defined and operationalised in official discourse, together with the routine practices of the police and intelligence services, means that many thousands of people, including non-Muslims, are regarded as a legitimate targets for suspicion, surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
Some academic authors see the state as progressive, or at least neutral, and capable of helping challenge anti-Muslim racism by creating spaces for Muslim cultural and civic engagement. But in our view the state is not neutral. Counter-terrorism policy disadvantages Muslims (and others) through exceptional legislation, pre-emptive incapacitation and intelligence and surveillance. And the counter-terrorism apparatus has spread from its traditional home in the police and intelligence services to occupy almost every branch of the state, from schools and universities to libraries.
A relatively new front in the war to drive Muslims from the public sphere is the NGO sector. The Charity Commission, headed by the neo-conservative Lord Shawcross, has presided over a significant increase in investigations of Muslim charities. The think tank Claystone reported that the Charity Commission had marked 55 British charities with new issue code ‘extremism and radicalisation’, without the organisations’ knowledge, and that Muslim charities were disproportionately affected.
The other four pillars of Islamophobia are social or political movements which bolster the state or push it further right—social movements ‘from above’, as the sociologists Laurence Cox and Gunvald Nilsen put it. By this they mean the ‘collective agency of dominant groups’.
The first is the most well known—the far right. Its traditional representatives in neo-fascist parties have all taken an anti-Muslim turn, but they have been joined in recent years by a plethora of new parties (such as the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party and UKIP in the UK), street movements such as the English Defence League, PEGIDA in Germany (and the UK, Austria, Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and the ‘counter-jihad movement’, which operates in almost every EU country, as well as in the US.
But it's Islam they have in mind—a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden last December. Flickr / strassenstriche.net. Some rights reserved.
The far right is not neatly bounded and there are all sorts of overlaps with other strands of the social movements from above, which are themselves interpenetrated. They include the neo-conservative movement, strongly active in the EU as well as in the US, its country of origin; the Zionist movement; and a number of left/liberal currents such the pro-war or ‘decent’ left. All three are transnational movements from above and have connections to groups further to the right, as well as to the more mainstream conservative movement and indeed right-wing, neo-liberal think tanks.
These social movements, though divided on some matters, do work together—in combination with the state—to produce, reproduce and enact anti-Muslim racism, in the process putting in place the policy frameworks and practical arrangements which ensure the subordination of ordinary Muslims.
Take the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society, a think tank which brings together key US and UK neo-conservatives, including William Kristol and Richard Perle. Among the key financial backers of the HJS has been the Conservative peer Stanley Kalms, the former treasurer of the Conservative Party and life president of DSG International (formerly Dixons). Kalms is a prominent member of Conservative Friends of Israel, though in 2009 he flirted with UKIP. He has supported the Henry Jackson Society and its predecessor the Centre for Social Cohesion through his Traditional Alternatives Foundation and the Stanley Kalms Foundation, and his links with more mainstream conservatism are illustrated by his financial backing for the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Social Justice.
Kalms appears to have quite ‘radical’ views on Muslims and Islam. According to Tony Lerman, the writer and ‘lapsed’ Zionist, Kalms was present at a meeting on 17 November 2006 where he said: ‘Most Muslims didn’t want to integrate ... Ultimately they would line up behind the fundamentalists.’ Social movements from above, including the far right and elements of the neo-conservative and Zionist movements, play an important active role in fostering anti-Muslim racism.
We will not turn back the tide of Islamophobia only by confronting the threat of UKIP in politics, or the EDL and other parts of the transnational ‘counter-jihad movement’ on the streets. We also need to focus our attention on elements of the (also transnational) neo-conservative and Zionist movements which provide information, ‘research’ and advocacy which can drag the state and politics to the right and sharpen Islamophobic polices, as we have seen in the UK with the revision of the ‘Prevent’ programme in 2010 (drawing on the material of the neo-conservative Centre for Social Cohesion) and in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
Most importantly, we need to understand that it is the state itself and its machinery of surveillance and repression that is at the forefront of ensuring that Muslims are collectively pushed to the edge of public life with extremely serious short-, medium- and long term consequences for democratic politics. The intention seems clear: dissent, whether by Muslim organisations, social movements or trades unions, is criminalised to protect our rulers from pressure from below.
It is a sad commentary on the state of hysteria about Islam in the UK today that even documenting evidence on Islamophobia is seen as evidence of ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalisation’. Simply in writing this article we have potentially entered what the police have called the ‘pre-criminal space’, which is enough to warrant unwelcome attention from the intelligence and policing agencies—never mind those of conservative newspaper columnists.
This article is based on a paper delivered at the Understanding Conflict conference at the University of Bath, 8-11 June 2015.