Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Can British Muslims survive?

In the wake of the increasing number of attacks on British Muslims, many are now asking whether they could eventually be forced from their homes, writes Irfan Raja

Is it unimaginable to think that British Muslims may someday have to “go back to where they came from”? This may sound like a very sensitive issue, but it is certainly a valid question to ask in the current climate.

History is full of the stories of the displacement of Palestinians, native Australians, and the destruction of the Indians at the hands of British colonialists, and, in more recent times, of the victims of British military adventures abroad, namely the illegal wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya. All this raises the question of whether the presence of Muslims in Britain will be tolerated for much longer.

If the Jews can be persecuted in Europe, then what is so special about British Muslims? The evidence shows that the Jews were well integrated in Europe, whilst the Muslims historically were responsible for much of the prosperity of Spain, enriching European civilisation forever.

In the wake of last year’s vote in Britain to leave the European Union, the so-called Brexit, and particularly the recent tragic incidents in London, once again calls are being heard in the UK for Muslims to “go back home.” They are increasingly being made from different platforms, particularly from extreme-right politicians and hate-filled individuals across America and Europe.

Muslims are now deemed to be a grave threat. Given the evolving political and geographical circumstances, although it is an uncomfortable idea it is becoming more and more likely that many British Muslims will be obliged to leave Britain in the face of growing intolerance or at least will be forced to adopt more secular values in post-Brexit Britain.

In the same way that US President Donald Trump has been calling ever more loudly to be tougher on American Muslims with his attempts to issue a travel ban on the citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering America, British far-right politician Nigel Farage has endorsed Trump’s idea of a “Muslim travel ban,” concurring with his viewpoint on “Islamic terrorism”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also became the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election by visiting the White House in Washington, although her action was not much appreciated in either the British or the American media. Only time will tell whether May and Trump will have a relationship similar to that enjoyed by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, or more recently by former British prime minister Tony Blair and former US president George W Bush earlier this century.

Many politicians in Europe are following Trump’s ideology, among them Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician who has expressed his desire to ban the Quran and close mosques in the Netherlands. Perhaps these are the early signs of more drastic episodes to come from far-right movements in Britain and Europe that are gaining more traction coupled with ever-growing public support. Recently, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis prevented the Muslim woman Sevil Shhaideh from running as the country’s prime minister, for example.

This new wave of anti-Muslim sentiment has provoked a sense of fear and heightened anxiety among British Muslims already struggling to destigmatise their community that is often tagged as containing terrorists or extremists who incite radical extremism within society. Often they are linked with foreign groups like Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS) or are presented as the “enemy-within” and “dangerous” and “untrustworthy”.

Events over the past decade or so in the UK have raised the Islamophobia thermometer to boiling point. First, former UK home secretary Jack Straw made comments on the hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, in 2006 that sparked anger and fear among the public and polarised views about the wearing of the veil. After the veil debate had calmed down, former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made remarks over the application of Sharia Law in Britain that set the country back in terms of Muslim integration.

The growing Islamophobia in Britain has led Baroness Warsi, a Muslim member of the ruling Conservative Party, to say that “Islamophobia is now socially acceptable” in the UK, arguing that it now passes the “dinner-table test” of what can be discussed in establishment society. Meanwhile, several British politicians, such as Jeremy Browne and former prime minister David Cameron, continue to support the idea of banning the veil in Britain.

More and more British people are also viewing Muslims as a threat, something that has increased with terrorist incidents across Europe and Britain. For example, the London bombings (2005), the Glasgow Airport attacks (2007), the Woolwich attacks in London (2013) and the Charlie Hebdo (2015) shootings in Paris have all exacerbated anti-Muslim behaviour and rhetoric. As soon as British Muslims pass one test, another challenge awaits them. The UK Conservative Party politician Enoch Powell’s controversial “Rivers of Blood” speech in the 1960s presented immigrants to Britain as a future threat, and it seems that his sentiments have now become reality in contemporary Britain.

We continually hear the same rhetoric that the “British way of life” is under threat from Muslims because they are unwilling to adopt “our” values. Often, British politicians, media figures and even public bodies accuse British Muslims of creating “no-go zones” across the country, being unwilling to integrate into British society. Many think that because of this many young British Muslims are being radicalised and might start to “take over” some British cities.

There has been rising hostility towards mosques in Britain and accusations that the majority of British Muslims want to establish Sharia courts. Media stories connected to forced marriages, social benefit fraud and all sorts of other social ills allegedly connected to British Muslims are continually presented in the media, making them “outsiders” and “incompatible” with British values.

Past history tells us that such forms of fear-mongering against minority communities have taken place throughout British history. They include terrifying tales of witch hunts, the expulsion and persecution of the Jews in the 12th and 16th centuries, and the tribulations faced by the Irish and Scots during various periods of British history. Other marginalised communities and groups such as the Romani Gypsies and Irish travellers should also not be forgotten.

It may be shocking for many people to countenance the idea that Muslims may be forced to leave Europe. However, past and recent historical events tell us that there is a real possibility of this happening. Spanish Muslims were forced to flee from their homes in 1492, and the genocide of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica and the present-day exclusion of Serbian Muslims from Sandzak or Sanjak, a Muslim-majority province of Serbia, are case studies of the exclusion of Muslims from European soil.

As if this was not enough, the former British Empire mistreated and tortured Indians, Africans and native Australians in the past. More recently, before British Muslims became the new “enemy within” and a “threat” to British society, the ill-treatment of the country’s working classes and the use of the disrespectful word “chavs” to describe them has showed that life can be testing for many minority groups at any time in Britain.

Recently, racist attacks on Muslim women on London buses and on the underground transport system have been characterised by the use of the cutting and abusive phrase “go back home,” a slogan also heard in politicians’ speeches both in the UK parliament and in the public sphere. In chatrooms and on social media, people are debating whether the departure of Muslims from the UK is imminent. This could be due to the inexorable rise of far-right politics in the UK, which abuses and limits the rights of Muslim people.

Whether the rise of anti-Trump campaigns can resist this anti-Muslim hatred is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The damage has already been done through the polarising words of the US president, these having simply exposed the hatred that has been bubbling underneath the surface.

Although there was massive opposition to the 2003 Iraq War by the British, the Europeans and the Americans, this did not stop Blair and Bush from invading Iraq in a crusade based on the made-up intelligence that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.”      

The weakening of the liberal left in Britain has meant that it has been increasingly unable to resist the rising demonisation of Muslims in the wake of Trump’s presidential campaign in the US. This is to be regretted since the left should be a correctional force that can educate the misled admirers of figures such as Farage in the UK, Marine Le Pen in France and Wilders in the Netherlands.

The writer is an academic, writer and campaigner from Pakistan.

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