Incitement to hatred

Politicians and the media are creating an ominous climate by exploiting fear and ignorance of Muslims

Watching the news or reading the papers, you’d think that Muslims were Britain ’s No 1 problem. Everyone, it seems, is frantically racing to offer magic cures for this chronic disease. Islam and Muslims are only ever invoked as objects of fear and horror: terrorism, forced marriage, honour killing and fanaticism. Over the past few days, hostility to Muslims has dominated the media: from the saga of the Muslim policeman excused guard duty outside the Israeli embassy to the violent attacks on a Muslim-owned dairy in Windsor and Jack Straw’s complaints about Muslim women who cover their faces. An ominous climate is being created.

Sinking in the Iraqi quagmire and lost in the Afghan labyrinth, Tony Blair turns on Muslims at home, demanding they clear up the mess he and his neocon allies have created. His communities secretary, Ruth Kelly, joins the rightwing French interior minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, in his war on multiculturalism. The hawkish John Reid launches his bid for the leadership of the Labour party by lecturing Muslim parents on how they should bring up their children. Image-obsessed David Cameron seeks to lure rightwing voters with a promise to “break Muslims ghettoes” and Straw seeks to revive his flagging fortunes by flexing his manly muscle at vulnerable female Muslim constituents.

Diplomatic talk about Islam “the great religion” aside, the truth is that Muslims have become, in the eyes of the media and political elite, a security threat and a convenient vehicle for exploitation and political opportunism. The aggressive racist discourse once confined to the BNP is now penetrating the mainstream. Instead of a serious effort to address the many problems Muslims face, attention is directed only at terrorism. While filling the air with talk of integration, citizenship, rights and obligations, the political elite and much of the media practise the logic of religious and ethnic categorisation, seeing nothing but race and religion. Muslims are not citizens; they are only Muslims. Their problems are not societal, but communitarian. It is they who must resolve them, while society stands guard.

Instead of facing up to their moral and political responsibility for combating ignorance, our politicians are doing the reverse. They are indulging in scaremongering, playing on the public’s fears and exploiting people’s lack of familiarity with the Muslim world. It is thus hardly surprising that 53% of Britons now see Islam as a problem.

With their politics of fear and demonisation, Britain and Europe seem to be on their way to substituting the Muslim problem for the Jewish problem. Muslims are now the object of the racist discourse that has in the past been targeted at Jews and black people. Under the impact of the horrors of the Holocaust, these prejudices have increasingly been forced into the shadows. The energy of hatred is today being reactivated against the Muslim “other” under the guise of combating terrorism and Islamo-fascism.

Hatred of the other has never been solely on racial grounds. It can also look to culture and religion for justification. The problem is that we are ill-equipped to confront this old-new phenomenon – we lack even the appropriate terminology to designate it. We could call it culturism, along the lines of racism. The two are intimately intertwined and equally dangerous and destructive.

Europe cannot afford to recreate the horrors of its not so distant past. It is time for those who believe in a tolerant Britain to come together in a broad coalition reflective of society’s diversity. The political mercenaries and voices of hatred and bigotry cannot be allowed to dictate Britain ’s fate.

· Soumaya Ghannoushi is director of research at IslamExpo,  [email protected] (

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