Islamophobia must be purged from the criminal justice system

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The Independent Online

There is little mystery about what fuels Islamophobia. The terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, the atrocities - such as the Bali bombing - which followed, and the recent kidnappings and beheadings of Westerners in Iraq have all served to identify terrorism with Islam. The irrefutable fact that some terrorists believe they are acting in the name of a particular strain of Islam, however, does not mean that all terrorism has its roots in fundamentalist Islam. Still less does it mean that all Muslims - or people who look or dress in a particular way - are terrorists in the making.

There is little mystery about what fuels Islamophobia. The terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, the atrocities - such as the Bali bombing - which followed, and the recent kidnappings and beheadings of Westerners in Iraq have all served to identify terrorism with Islam. The irrefutable fact that some terrorists believe they are acting in the name of a particular strain of Islam, however, does not mean that all terrorism has its roots in fundamentalist Islam. Still less does it mean that all Muslims - or people who look or dress in a particular way - are terrorists in the making.

Ever since the 11 September attacks on the United States, Tony Blair and other leading politicians have rightly been punctilious about drawing a distinction between a tiny number of terrorists or potential terrorists on the one hand and, on the other, the peaceful, law-abiding citizens who make up the overwhelming majority of Muslims in this country. Regrettably, it seems, this message has still not been sufficiently absorbed, not just in the country at large, but - crucially - in the law enforcement agencies, including the police force.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, has now warned in no uncertain terms of the danger that such prejudices present. Interviewed on the first anniversary of taking up this office, Mr Macdonald noted sharp increases, both in racist crime and in the number of young Asian men being stopped and searched by the police. Very few of these stop and searches, he noted, led to prosecution. Terrorism, he warned, was creating divisions within Britain's diverse population. There was a real risk that whole communities could be alienated.

The figures tell their own story. Crimes categorised as racist have seen a 50 per cent increase over the past two years. It could be argued that the rise provides evidence that the 1999 law defining race attacks as a separate group is now being used as was envisaged. But this does not alter the reality that the incidence of such attacks is scandalously high. The violence against Iraqi asylum-seekers in Swansea, reported in The Independent today, reflects the same malign trend.

The starkest figures, though, relate to stop and searches of Asians, which have risen by more than 300 per cent in a year - although from a low base. Mr Macdonald makes a direct comparison between the current use of stop and search by the police and the disproportionate application of the "sus" laws against young black men in the Seventies which helped trigger the race riots in Brixton and Toxteth. Tensions between young Asians and police do not pose such a danger - yet - Mr Macdonald says, but he notes warnings from Asian community leaders that their young people risk being criminalised unless the police exercise their powers with more sensitivity.

The police and the judiciary must do their utmost not to heighten existing tensions. Mr Macdonald's undertaking - "We have to be careful that we respect diverse cultures and we prosecute cases without discrimination" - should serve as watchwords for us all.

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