The enemy within? Fear of Islam: Britain's new disease

Suspicion of the Muslim community has found its way into mainstream society – and nobody seems to care. By Peter Oborne

Three years ago, four young suicide bombers caused carnage in London. Their aim was not just to kill and maim. There was also a long-term strategic purpose: to sow suspicion and divide Britain between Muslims and the rest. They are succeeding.

In Britain today, there is a deepening distrust between mainstream society and ever more isolated Muslim communities. A culture of contempt and violence is emerging on our streets.

Sarfraz Sarwar is a pillar of the Muslim community in Basildon, Essex. He is constantly abused and attacked, and the prayer centre he used has been burnt to the ground.

Mr Sarwar, who has six children and whose wife is matron of an old people's home, is a patently decent man. His only crime is his religious faith. He and his fellow worshippers now meet in secret to evade detection, and the attacks that would follow.

The first abuse that Mr Sarwar's family suffered was in October 2001 – just after the 9/11 attacks – when pigs' trotters were left outside their door, the walls of their house were covered with graffiti and two front windows were broken.

Since then, the family has suffered many attacks, including a failed fire-bombing. In February, the tyres of Mr Sarwar's new car were slashed; in March his windows were broken again. He has now installed CCTV cameras, replaced his wooden back door with one made of steel and erected higher fences.

An investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches programme discovered many violent episodes and attacks on Muslims, with very few reported; those that do get almost no publicity.

Last week, Martyn Gilleard, a Nazi sympathiser in East Yorkshire, was jailed for 16 years. Police found four nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat. Gilleard had been preparing for a war against Muslims. In a note at his flat he had written, "I am sick and tired of hearing nationalists talking of killing Muslims, blowing up mosques and fighting back only to see these acts of resistance fail. The time has come to stop the talking and start to act."

The Gilleard case went all but unreported. Had a Muslim been found with an arsenal of weapons and planning violent assaults, it would have been a far bigger story.

There is a reason for this blindness in the media. The systematic demonisation of Muslims has become an important part of the central narrative of the British political and media class; it is so entrenched, so much part of normal discussion, that almost nobody notices. Protests go unheard and unnoticed.

Why? Britain's Muslim immigrants are mainly poor, isolated and alienated from mainstream society. Many are a different colour. As a community, British Muslims are relatively powerless. There are few Muslim MPs, there has never been a Muslim cabinet minister, no mainstream newspaper is owned by a Muslim and, as far as we are aware, only one national newspaper has a regular Muslim columnist on its comment pages, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent.

Surveys show Muslims have the highest rate of unemployment, the poorest health, the most disability and fewest educational qualifications of any faith group in the country. This means they are vulnerable, rendering them open to ignorant and hostile commentary from mainstream figures.

Islamophobia – defined in 1997 by the landmark report from the Runnymede Trust as "an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination" – can be encountered in the best circles: among our most famous novelists, among newspaper columnists, and in the Church of England.

Its appeal is wide-ranging. "I am an Islamophobe," the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote in The Independent nearly 10 years ago. "Islamophobia?" the Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle asks rhetorically in the title of a recent speech, "Count me in". Imagine Liddle declaring: "Anti-Semitism? Count me in", or Toynbee claiming she was "an anti-Semite and proud of it".

Anti-Semitism is recognised as an evil, noxious creed, and its adherents are barred from mainstream society and respectable organs of opinion. Not so Islamophobia.

Its practitioners say Islamophobia cannot be regarded as the same as anti-Semitism because the former is hatred of an ideology or a religion, not Muslims themselves. This means there is no social, political or cultural protection for Muslims: as far as the British political, media and literary establishment is concerned the normal rules of engagement are suspended.

"There is a definite urge; don't you have it?", the author Martin Amis told Ginny Dougary of The Times: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. Not letting them travel. Deportation; further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children." Here, Amis is doing much more than insulting Muslims. He is using the foul and barbarous language of fascism. Yet his books continue to sell, and his work continues to be celebrated.

And we found the language of Islamophobic columnists such as Toynbee, Liddle, or novelists such as Amis, duplicated by the British National Party and its growing band of supporters.

All over Europe, parties of the far right have been dropping their traditional hostility to minorities such as Jews and homosexuals; in Britain, the BNP has come to realise that anti-Semitism and anti-black campaigning won't work if they are serious about electoral success.

To move to mainstream respectability, they need an issue that allows them to exploit people's fears about immigrants and Britain's ethnic minority communities without being branded racist extremists.

They have found it. Since 9/11, and particularly 7/7, the BNP has gone all out to tap a rich vein of anti-Muslim sentiment. The party's leader, Nick Griffin, has described Islam as a "wicked, vicious faith" and has tried to distance himself and the party from its anti-Semitic past. Party members are now rebuked for discussing the Holocaust and told to focus on terrorism, the evils of Islam, and scare stories of Britain becoming an Islamic state.

Griffin's strategy has been inspired by the press. He said: "We bang on about Islam. Why? Because to the ordinary public out there it's the thing they can understand. It's the thing the newspaper editors sell newspapers with."

Last month, we visited Stoke-on-Trent, a BNP heartland with nine BNP councillors, a council second only to Barking and Dagenham in far-right representation. The party has made this progress in large part by mounting a vicious anti-Muslim campaign. Stoke has one of the lowest employment rates in the country since the pottery industry collapsed. The BNP has tried to link this decline to Muslim immigration.

Other campaigns have focused on planning issues over mosques, a flashpoint elsewhere too. The BNP accuses the Labour council of cutting special deals with Muslim groups in exchange for support. Wherever we explored tension between Muslims and the local community we tended to discover the BNP was present, fanning discontent.

Many categories of immigrants and foreigners have been singled out for hatred and opprobrium by mainstream society because they were felt to be threats to British identity. At times, these despised categories have included Catholics, Jews, French and Germans; gays were held to subvert decency and normality until the 1980s, blacks until the 1970s, and Jews for centuries. Now this outcast role has fallen to Muslims. And it is the perception that Muslims receive special treatment that fuels the most resentment. When we investigated clashes at a Muslim dairy in Windsor, we found the perception that police had failed to investigate what seemed to be a racist attack by Asian youths on a local woman played a powerful role in fanning resentments.

But by the same token we believe that Muslims should be given the same protection as other minority groups from insults or ignorant abuse. This protection is not available. Ordinary Muslim families are virtually a silenced minority.

We should all feel ashamed about the way we treat Muslims, in the media, in our politics, and on our streets. We do not treat Muslims with the tolerance, decency and fairness that we often like to boast is the British way. We urgently need to change our public culture.

Peter Oborne's Dispatches film, "It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim", will be screened on Channel 4 at 8pm on Monday. The pamphlet Muslims Under Siege, by Peter Oborne and James Jones, is published next week by Democratic Audit

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