The portrayal of Muslims as the unfathomable ‘other’ leads directly to treating ‘them’ as less than human, or at least less human than ‘us’.
The calling cards of the fascists and hard right are xenophobia and racism, usually laced with an admixture of misogyny and homophobia. But the cutting edge has been anti-immigrant racism, and the cutting edge of that has been Islamophobia, at a level which parallels anti-Semitism in Germany before the advent of the Nazis in power in January 1933.
How did this mass Islamophobia, reinforced by anti-Black racism (and anti-Latino racism in the United States), arise? Of course, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of mass racism have subsisted in Western societies since the advent of European imperialism (and in the case of anti-Semitism, before).
But today’s Islamophobia is much deeper and much more widespread. Its roots lie in the 9/11 attack and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ launched by American imperialism. It has been reinforced by mass panic over immigration, much of which comes from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where most people are Muslims.
There has been a disastrous synergy between the hard right forces in Western politics and the terrorism of Al-Qaeda and then of Isis. Terrorist attacks on civilian populations carried out by people who profess allegiance to Islam, have been weaponised ruthlessly by the political right, using the hugely powerful mass media to establish a series of stereotypes about Muslims.
The most important of these of course is the association of Muslims with terrorism, when evidently the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose and repudiate terrorism. Linked to this has been mystification about the religious and family practices of Muslims, culminating in the caricatures of women who wear the hijab or niqab.
The complete collapse of centre right and centre left politicians in front of anti-immigrant rhetoric that prepared the ground for the far right. Anti-immigrant rhetoric, the constant promise to get tough on immigration, is standard fare for mainstream parties that long proceeded Donald Trump and the new rise of the far right. As Kenan Malik explains:
“Too often when we discuss hateful portrayals of migrants or Muslims or other minorities, we focus on the far right, or on groups such as Pegida, or on countries such as Hungary and politicians such as Viktor Orbán. It is certainly important that we call out such organisations and politicians and eviscerate their arguments.
“But we need also to recognise that the truth about dehumanisation is far more uncomfortable and far closer to home. The ideas and policies promoted by the far right and by populist anti-immigration figures have not come out of nowhere. They have become acceptable because the groundwork has already been laid, and continues to be maintained, by mainstream politicians and commentators.
“There is a tendency among liberals to see a great divide on immigration between the mainstream and the populists and between a more liberal western Europe and a more reactionary east. That is to distort reality. For, while differences clearly exist, the divisions are not nearly as sharp as often suggested. It is the rhetoric and the policies emerging from the mainstream and from western Europe that have helped legitimise the hostility to immigration expressed by the populists and in eastern Europe.”
The fear of ‘excessive’ immigration, of being – as both Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron put it – ‘swamped’ by an alien peoples and cultures, is what lay behind the discourse of the anti-immigrant mainstream, beefed up by fake arguments about how immigrants lower wages, use excessive amounts of health care and live on welfare benefits.
The Daily Mail may describe Tommy Robinson as a racist thug, but the racist ideology and hostility to immigrants which brings Robinson and his fascist bands to the fore, has been a constant theme of the Mail, the Express and Sun, and constant relayed in the discourse of Conservative and New Labour politicians and their favourite media outlets like the Telegraph and BBC.
It is this atmosphere that created the ‘hostile environment’ proclaimed by the Home Office under Theresa May and led directly to the Windrush scandal.
Anti-immigrant racism has led directly to the failure of the European Union countries to develop a strategy for aiding migrants and the toleration of the deaths of many hundreds who have drowned while trying to reach the West. Aiding them would involve countries throughout the EU accepting immigration, and not trying to bottle up immigrants where they first landed, mainly Greece and Italy.
The portrayal of Muslims as the unfathomable ‘other’ leads directly to treating ‘them’ as less than human, or at least less human than ‘us’. Not only are we resigned to letting hundreds drown, while a Royal Navy ship looks out for illegal boats and fails to rescue a single struggling immigrant in the water, we are resigned to allowing tens of thousands of them to die directly or indirectly at the hands of Western military forces or in Western sponsored wars like that in Yemen. And then we wonder why they want to escape and come to Europe.
Muslims have become the ‘perfect enemy’ for the hard right and for right-wing politicians of every kind. They are strange, evil, violent and have incomprehensible atavistic obsessions. Donald Trump’s campaign trial promise to keep out visitors to the US from Muslim countries “until we find out what is going on” says it all. What we do know is that they mean us harm and this justifies the new militarism and repressive regimes at home.
Most of all, it helps provide an ideological framework for xenophobia and nationalism, habitually used to divide and dilute mass protest against austerity and poverty at times of capitalist economic crisis.
Modern racism and xenophobia, of which Islamophobia is the cutting edge, play a key role in dividing the working class and other oppressed sections of society, tying important popular layers to a pro-capitalist and pro-austerity discourse.
Many of the millions who voted for Trump and Brexit, and who vote for organisations like the FN in France, the Liga in Italy and the AfD in Germany, are convinced that immigration is responsible for economic crisis and is a threat to their traditional way of life.
Islamophobia is maintained at numerous levels in the US and Europe. First, state action and new laws targets the Muslims communities. In the United States a raft of measures in the Patriot Act is are designed to survey and control the Muslim community.
In Britain the Prevent strategy is designed to make teachers and social workers police the thoughts and attitudes of their students and clients, and a big majority of referrals have targeted alleged Islamic extremism – only 10% of referrals has targeted right wing extremism. The objective of the Prevent strategy is to intimidate Muslims and create a climate of fear – fear that any kind of protest or activism will get you labelled ‘extremist’.
Islamophobia has generated a massive increase in violent attacks on Muslims, including in the United States especially a series of shootings. A disproportionate number of these attacks have been on women wearing the hijab or niqab.
Discrimination against Muslims in employment and housing is rife in the UK, across Europe and in the US. In Britain Muslims are more likely to live in social housing, more likely to have low paid jobs or be unemployed and more likely to live in poor areas. Even the conservative and pro-NATO OSCE says:
“Intolerance and discrimination against Muslims has become increasingly prevalent in the OSCE region in recent years. The “war on terror”, the global economic crisis, anxieties about national identity and the difficulties in coping with the increasing diversity in many societies have led to a growth in resentment against Muslims and Islam that has sometimes been fuelled by intolerant language in media and political discourse.
“As a result, many Muslims experience a range of discrimination, including verbal harassment, hate speech, violent attacks and religious profiling. Many are also confronted with a lack of equal opportunities in employment, housing, health care and education, and face restrictions on the public expression of their religion.”
State action is backed up by a barrage of anti-Muslim propaganda. Nathan Lean has explained how a multi-million dollar ‘industry’ has grown up in the United States to spread anti-Muslim propaganda. This includes grass roots anti-Muslim organisations like ACT for America, right-wing Christian organisations, bloggers and pundits like Pamela Geller and Milo Yanopoulos, and a huge array of ‘alt-right’ organisations.
These groups have access to massive amounts of funding and their views are constantly relayed in the mass media. And of course support for ‘our boys’ – the US and British military fighting wars in Muslim countries, is drenched in Islamophobia.
The net result of all these things is to strengthen Islamophobic prejudices throughout society. Nathan Lean says all these things interact with one another:
“There is a mutual relationship between all of these things. If anxieties about Muslims – or even blatant prejudices about them – did not exist organically, to some degree, the ground would not be very fertile for anti-Muslim agitators of the Islamophobia industry.
“But, of course, the argument can easily be made that the Islamophobia industry is responsible for the images, narratives, memes, tropes, axioms and even policies that engender a climate of fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims. People are not born prejudiced.
“As the South Pacific song goes: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear”. Some of the people doing that drumming today are those who comprise the Islamophobia industry.”
Extracted from Islamophobia and the rise of a new fascist movement by Phil Hearse