It could have been like any other day for Rehana Sidat as she walked to work in Leicester that morning. On her mind was the training course she was to attend and tasks to complete. Suddenly, a man who had been walking in the other direction turned towards her and pulled her veil off. "Get that off," he said. As he then proceeded to walk away. She turned around and said: "How dare you?" To this, he shot back: "I do dare!"
The story does not end there. Sidat took the matter to the police and her assailant eventually ended up in court and was ordered to pay £1,000 in compensation and also received a jail term of 16 weeks, suspension for a year and 150 hours of community service. She agrees, when asked, that justice has now been done. Sidat, who runs a centre for people with learning difficulties, had never before been a victim of this kind of assault. She has, however, over the years been verbally abused many times, as have many of her friends and relatives. "Since this incident I have been approached by women who have gone through similar experiences," she tells Weekend Review.
Victims of prejudice
What happened to Sidat appears to be far from an isolated occurrence. The media for quite a while has been brimming with disturbing, at times bizarre, stories involving Muslims. At the prestigious London School of Economics for instance, in an incredible display of callousness some students who were part of the rugby team decided to dress-up in Guantanamo Bay outfits with their faces painted black, and proceeded to carry out mock Muslim prayers in open view of everyone. Or how about another case which also took place in London, where a woman in her 40s was wrapped in a carpet by a burglar and set alight with the words: ‘This is your Eid present, you Muslim.'
It is worth noting that according to a Soros report, Muslims in the United Kingdom are the most patriotic in Europe. At the same time, according to a survey by Angus Reid Public Opinion, Britain would vote to ban minarets if the Swiss referendum was repeated in the UK.
"I believe there is hope," says Sidat, "because there are many people of all faiths and no faith who strive for peace." She says the situation against Muslims has been exacerbated by 9/11 and the 7/7 attacks. "Unfortunately, this means we are all tarred with the same brush," she says.
Ken Livingstone was mayor of London when the 7/7 terror bombings took place. He chairs the organisation United Against Fascism and spoke to Weekend Review about what is fuelling Islamophobia.
"It was quite clear," says Livingstone, "that from the end of the Cold War the United States didn't want to wind up its arms industry and looked for another demon, with communism gone. And you had academics such as Samuel Huntington saying that there will be a clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and the West and China."
"So I think, mainly it helps fuel the armaments industry in America," he says. "Because half of all the military spending in the world is by America, so it is a huge part of their economy. If they were to adjust to a more peaceful world, there would be a massive dislocation and problem for finding work for all those people who are at present in the arms industry and in the military."
Is Livingstone then saying there is a link between foreign policy and Islamophobia? "Absolutely," he says. "I mean there is a long historic thing that in Europe hundreds of years ago you had a point where the Ottoman empire shared a boundary through southeastern Europe, Hungary, Yugoslavia, that sort of area. For a long period of time there was this massive power of the Ottoman empire. ... In a lot of the literature and mythology of the West is the Muslim hordes at the gates of Europe. So when they needed to find a new demon, here was one that came readymade, in a sense."
When 7/7 happened, did he find the majority of Londoners able to see clearly the difference between Islam the religion and the terrorist acts of these individuals as completely separate?
"We had here an effort by some people to try and suggest that Al Qaida was the true face of Islam," Livingstone says. "Mainly Zionist elements put in that line — Geoffrey Alderman in the Jewish Chronicle. We didn't have any single incident of someone turning on a Muslim and attacking them or verbally abusing them. I mean Londoners recognise this was an unrepresentative small group of violent people. We have small groups of violent white fascists who set off bombs in London. David Copeland did in 1999. They are no more typical of the English as Al Qaida is typical of Islam. And Londoners weren't going to be divided; they stood together."
The head of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, once referred to Islam as a "vicious, wicked faith" and his party is known for its anti-Muslim stance and hostility towards migrants. "The far Right parties have always looked for the most recent wave of immigration," says Livingstone. "So a hundred years ago it was the Jews, then it was the Irish, then it was black immigration. Now it is a combination of Muslims and asylum seekers. So the far Right parties always want a victim they can demonise and stir up fear and hatred of. And at present it is Muslims and Islamophobia."
Livingstone, who will run again for London mayor in 2012, believes there is "real danger" the situation with Islamophobia will worsen. "So far we are holding this [ban on face coverings] off in Britain. But it's clearly a way in which anti-Muslim politicians can get cheap votes. So I don't think it will go away anytime soon. We have just got to try and fight for multi-culturalism. London is incredibly successful because we accept the differences and enjoy them. We don't want everybody to be the same."
Rooted in hatred
Taking the question of Islamophobia to mainland Europe, Weekend Review spoke with Sabine Schiffer, head of the Media Responsibility Institute in Germany and an expert on Islamophobic and racist discourses. "When you see the hate mail I get ... some of it even saying they will carry me dead out of my institute. Nobody is prosecuting them because it is not Muslims who are saying so," she says, adding ironically: "Perhaps it is not that dangerous, I don't know."
Schiffer has a PhD in Linguistics and is the author of Anti-Semitism & Islamophobia: Comparative Study, which focuses on anti-Jewish discourse in the 19th century in Germany and Europe and highlights similarities with the predicament of Muslims in Europe today.
"This is a bit like the situation about the discussion of Muslims and minarets in Switzerland," she says. "It's a Europe-wide discussion with different facets in each country. But what is omnipresent is this fear of, let's say, a conspiracy. In the 19th century it was a Jewish world reigning conspiracy. Today it is the so called Islamisation of Europe as if there is a master plan by Turks in Germany and Arabs in France and so on to Islamise Europe."
She points to the discussion over the building of mosques and how there were almost the same arguments against the building of synagogues in the beginning of the 19th century. "After Napoleonic law allowed the building of synagogues, a lot of discussion began if this fits into Christian countries and so on," she says. "We have the same discussion about Muslim teachers today and Jewish teachers in the 19th century. It was discussed if they could be good and loyal teachers to the state because they were Jews. We have the same mistrust about mosques, imams and their teachings. We had the claim at the last period of the 19th century that we have to translate all the Jewish school books and Talmud and so on to know what they are preaching.
"They are very much alike in the mistrust and fear of a minority in this country. But what is an important difference, of course, is that at that time there had not been any Jewish country," Schiffer says. "Or any other mighty institution speaking for all the Jews in the world like what we have today — there are so-called majority Islamic countries and these different governments that are at least claiming they are Islamic."
No surprise Schiffer's work hasn't exactly made her Miss Popular. "You know this creates fear in Germany because my thesis is that we learnt our historical lessons by heart but we didn't really understand them," she says. "And what we learnt by heart is that in former times Jews were bad and now Jews are good. So this is still the same generalisation. This is not an enlightened behaviour towards our Jewish minority or the Jews in the world. There are so many different opinions. If I came to generalise these then I didn't learn anything about history. And what is also lacking is that we understand how the subtle mechanisms, how the metaphors of demonising other communities work. I mean I can demonise every community, it musn't be another religion," she says.
"If we really learnt what went on and how it came to the idea that there is a threat coming from Jews which finally legitimised what the Nazis knew to use, and many people didn't say anything against it any more," Schiffer added. "This feeling of legitimisation, how this could be installed is something very important and we have to learn this. It was not only working towards Jews, it still is, but it is also working towards other communities. Today ... it has become quite dangerous, I suppose, towards Muslims and Islam as the idea of a world conspiracy."
The media's role
Schiffer, 43, began to study anti-Islamic sentiments in the French media back in the early 1990s. Then a little later she began to notice similar sentiments in the German media. The subtle Islamophobia in the media included the connection of Islam with violence, oppression of women and backwardness. The anti-Islamic coverage became more explicit in the media after 9/11 and for many people it appeared logical because the Islamophobic picture of the world was already installed in their head.
"An important part of Islamophobic argumentation is based on claiming pro-Jewish and anti anti-semitic attitude combined with anti-Islamic attitude," says Schiffer. "So let's say the trick of some spin doctors is to say we are not racist, we are not Right-wing, we are pro-Israel which means pro-Zionism. We are pro-Jews, we are anti anti-semitic, we are good and, therefore, we must say that Islam is a big problem because here-and-here and there-and-there is written such-and-such.
"And they go to a fundamentalist text critique of the Quran and so on. [These are] the same things we did with Jewish texts in the 19th century but of course they don't know it. Now I have written a book about that, challenging their arguments. And then they are becoming very nervous."
Schiffer says the image of women in Islam can even be used to legitimise war in Afghanistan. "The frame for oppression of women was initiated with the story of Betty Mahmoudy. Not Without My Daughter, the book and then especially the film, got a big response. I think what I observe today is even many well-meaning people don't contest the idea that all the women in Muslim countries are oppressed."
An investigation into Islamophobia would remain unfinished without taking a journey across the Atlantic, where President Barack Obama himself has been receiving quite a bit of flak from Right-wingers who conspiratorially believe he is a secret Muslim. Deepa Kumar, associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, says Islamophobia exists for two reasons — to curtail civil liberties at home and to justify endless war.
Kumar grew up in a Hindu household in India, flanked on both sides by Muslim neighbours, and remembers listening to the azan. Even though she has lived her entire adult life in the US, she finds "abhorrent" the levels of intolerance towards Muslims since 9/11.
"I don't like the term ‘integration'," she replies, when asked whether Muslims in the US are better integrated than in the UK. "Because there is usually an ‘in' group that decides who belongs and who does not and typically this ‘in' group is the one that has social power in any society. The marginalised never get to speak about questions of integration. For instance, the Native Americans have no literature on whether the Europeans had ‘integrated' themselves. And the US, a society made up of immigrants, today gets to decide who is ‘legal' and who is not — who is ‘integrated' and who is not."
There were many who predicted the presidency of Obama would have a positive impact on the perception of Islam in the US because of his part-Muslim family background. Has it reduced Islamophobia? "No, I don't think so," says Kumar. "Obama did make some rhetorical steps forward. For instance, in his inauguration speech he talked about the US as a country that was home to many religions, including Islam.
"This was perhaps the first time in US history that a president said such a thing at an inaugural address. Also, in his Cairo speech he talked at length about the contributions of Islam and Muslims to world history and civilisation.
"However this shift was merely rhetorical and while it presented some potential to undo the worst of the Bush era, Obama's actual policies have been consistent with the Bush administration's policies," says Kumar. "Ideas don't exist in a vacuum. They are part of a historical context and as such a country involved in an endless war against "terrorism" must marshall every means at its disposal ideologically to justify this policy — Islamophobia is a part of this arsenal."
But given the claims by his opponents of him being a secret Muslim, surely it could be said President Obama is himself a victim of Islamophobia. "The fact of the matter remains that when he was ‘accused' of being a Muslim, he called it a smear. Instead of actually coming out and first of all defending Islam. And second, defending religious freedom. And so the question remains: Is Obama a victim of Islamophobia, or is he a perpetrator?
"I would argue that if you see Islamophobia as sort of the hand maiden of US imperial designs," she says, "because that is what it really is, it serves to justify conquest in the name of democracy because you know Muslims can't be relied upon to bring democracy and so forth. If you see that as an accompanying kind of discourse then Obama's policies are really no different from those of Bush."
But according to a recent poll, 53 per cent of Republicans and 32 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. Irrespective of his foreign policy and irrespective of his perhaps un-PC response to claims of being a secret Muslim, could he also be seen as probably the world's most famous victim of Islamophobia?
"No," says Kumar. "I do not believe that the word victim can be associated with Obama." But are these claims harming him politically? "Well a lot of stuff is harming him politically. If you look at the posters from the Tea Party rallies, they are also comparing him to Hitler. They have got pictures of him with a Hitler moustache. They are also calling him a socialist. So is he the most famous victim of McCarthyism? Is he the most famous victim of the Red Scare and so on? I mean we could say a lot of things in terms of traditional ways of attacking the credibility of politicians and so forth," she says.
"I would use the language of victimhood very carefully because if we see Obama as a victim then we make no distinction between Obama the president who promised to end the harassment of Muslims in this country," Kumar says. "Who promised to close down Guantanamo? Who promised to bring people responsible for torture and so on to justice? He promised all these things, didn't deliver on a single one of them and must take responsibility."
Kumar says Obama could very easily diffuse all of this by taking a principled position in support of religious freedom, in support of Islam, ending torture, ending harassment, etc. "So I am very hesitant to use the word ‘victimhood' when associated with people who actually have a lot of power because it really undermines what ordinary Muslims and Arabs in this country are going through who don't have that kind of power."
But if the president did everything Kumar says he should do — such as coming out in support of Islam — won't he lose a lot of support from people who maybe don't know that much about Islam, are suspicious about it and had voted for Obama? In fact they might even start thinking he is a Muslim — in a negative way, that is. Perhaps that is why he is being so careful?
"Of course, that is what mainstream politicians do. They pander to the Right wing as opposed to stand up on principles," Kumar replies. "Now the question is those of us who believe in religious freedom and think a group of people should not be made a scapegoat, should hold these sorts of people accountable."
"It is like saying during the Nazi Holocaust of Jews during the Second World War: Should we have asked public figures in the Nazi administration if in fact they believed that the execution of Jews was not correct? If there were some closet sympathisers, should we have not pressed them to come forward and stop the kind of harassment that is going on?"
She argues the American population is not as reactionary as the media make them out to be.
"I think the fact that he was ‘accused' of being a Muslim [but] people still voted for him. He became the president of the US and I think we have got to take a lesson from that," Kumar says.
Syed Hamad Ali is an independent writer based in Cambridge, UK.