On television and in parliament the daily bombing of Palestinians passes without the mix of outrage and sympathy that others could rightly expect.
The government here does not light up its buildings in a show of sympathy for their dead, nor will Palestinian flags be flown from town halls. Instead, it demonises as terrorists and antisemites those that dare to speak out against the carnage.
That the conflict in the Middle East has so encouraged anti-Muslim sentiment is shocking, but the prejudice is neither new nor accidental.
It is part of a decades-old, state-inspired doctrine which aims to silence Muslims—and all those that dare to speak out against imperialism.
It should be clear to all that this Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism.
Yet some people argue that hatred of Islam is not racism because Islam is not a race, but a religion. And they add that people can choose their religion but cannot choose their race.
For them, hate speech that characterises Islam as “backward” and “incompatible with Western values” is classified as “legitimate debate”—and certainly not racist.
This way of thinking suggests there is an objective and scientific definition of “race” that is somehow very different from the way religious adherents are categorised.
But that’s wrong. Race is an invented social construct that is constantly in flux, with new groups being racialised in ways that assume they have inescapable, shared characteristics. And reactionary forces are wholly capable of collapsing distinctions between race and religion.
Here we need only think about antisemitism and the way Jews in Europe were subject to racialisation in ways that led ultimately to the Holocaust. Thankfully, there are few people today that repeat the claim that Jewish people suffer only religious discrimination, not racism.
Most Muslims living in the West belong to “racial groups” that have long been the main subjects of racism and discrimination. Seven out of ten British Muslims are South Asian with the others being mostly of African or Arab descent.
The effect of Islamophobia is to overlay a negative religious stereotype on top of a pre-existing negative racial stereotype—and merging the two.
No wonder then that rampant Islamophobia is behind racism directed at people who are perceived to be Muslims—and that abuse often combines older racist slurs, such as “Paki”, and more recent ones, such as “terrorist”.
Islamophobia is racism because it ascribes to all Muslims a culture and thought patterns markedly different from those considered “British”.
These racialised differences are said to be unchanging and inescapable, whether you are top TV chef Nadiya Hussain, or Shamima Begum, the young British woman lured to join Isis, now passportless in a refugee camp in Syria.
Regardless of status, all Muslims have ended up under an Islamophobic microscope, constantly monitored in case they have, or are hiding, “radical” beliefs. Yet Islamophobia, despite the way it now pervades the mainstream, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In the 1970s the character of racist abuse directed against Muslims was largely the same as that used against all Asians, Africans and Arabs in Britain. But by the end of that decade things began to change.
Soon to be prime minister Margaret Thatcher talked about Britain being “swamped by people of an alien culture”. That signalled a shift in racist ideology, from ideas of “biological inferiority” to notions of “cultural incompatibility”.
For the racist right, this became a new lens through which ideas of racial difference could be explained. And it is from this point that we start to see forms of racism directed specifically at Muslims, a group already suffering disproportionate levels of deprivation.
Segregation in education and housing weren’t the result of council policies to keep Asians out, claimed the right. Instead, it was the result of Muslims’ “self-segregation”, they said. But it was the West’s need to control the Middle East and Asia—and resistance to it—which really turned a growing prejudice into a global racism.
The 1979 popular revolution in Iran kicked out the Shah, a ruthless dictator and key Western ally. It immediately targeted the United States that had used the Shah as a means of controlling the region’s oil resources.
Students occupied the US embassy in Tehran, and carefully pieced back together thousands of pages of shredded secret documents. These showed the West’s complicity with the Shah’s regime, which was based on torture and death chambers.
And they took the US diplomats hostage, demanding that the Shah be returned from America to stand trial for his crimes against the people. The Iranian street chant, “Death to America”, resonated across the Middle East, inspiring Sunni and Shia Muslims alike.
The West responded with a tirade of abuse aimed at Muslims, with newspapers in Britain talking endlessly of “Mad Mullahs” which controlled their congregations.
In the US, Khaled Beydoun wrote, “The fear stoked by the mainstream news also warned of a Muslim takeover stateside, corroborated in the minds of viewers by the rising Muslim population and the ‘significant rise in the number of mosques and Muslim associations in the 1970s and 1980’s.”
The growing Islamophobia of the 1980s was the perfect backdrop for imperialism’s response to the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001. The political right and many liberals both declared the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a “Clash of Civilisations”. Now the superior West would impose modern, Enlightenment values upon Barbarian societies based on terrorism, they insisted.
Warmongering prime minister Tony Blair, said, “This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life and we, the democracies of this world, are going to have to come together to fight it together and eradicate this evil completely from our world.”
The “new evil” were those Muslims that rejected Western domination with arms, but also included those who fought imperialism with ideas.
The British state, along with many others, became obsessed with what Muslims were thinking. So much so that they developed security initiatives designed to pressurise public sector workers to pass on information about possible radicals.
It was part of a package of demonising an enemy at home and abroad—and was mutually reinforcing. Chief among the state’s stereotypes were Muslim women. They occupied a dual position in Islamophobic ideology.
Certain styles of dress, including the wearing of the hijab or jilbab, were said to be a way of “hiding” jihadist politics—supposedly a symbol of difference and incompatibility.
But racists also charged that such veils and scarfs were symbols of the very opposite of radicalism—a control of Muslim women by men. The racist right, along with some liberals and feminists, charged that Muslim women were devoid of agency, because Islam was a “uniquely backward” religion.
This type of racism flowed freely from those at the top of society. The then prime minister Boris Johnson talked about those who wore a veil being akin to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.
And as ideas of Islamophobia flowed downward, there were always those ready to take action by ripping hijabs from women’s heads while showering them in the abuse the prime minister had himself taught them. But the tide of Islamophobia has never been uncontested.
Across Britain the anti-racist and anti-war movements have taken up the challenge —and involved Muslims and non-Muslims in battle. Far right political forces that tried to build on Islamophobia have faced tougher opposition in Britain than in the US and much of Europe. And the hate the state made has had another, less foreseen result.
Today, Muslim women are in the forefront of the movement for Palestine. Brimming with confidence, they are on the streets carrying megaphones and leading the chanting. And they are among the movement’s organisers and shock troops.
It is as though the racism directed at them so specifically has led to what the US in Afghanistan termed a “blowback”—a description of what happens when an imperialist policy explodes in its own face.