Britain’s first Muslim minister, Shahid Malik, declared on a Channel 4 Dispatches programme this month that: “I think most people would agree that if you ask Muslims today what do they feel like, they feel like the Jews of Europe.” Foreign readers ought not to fear that they’ve missed something here. There actually aren’t any concentration camps for Muslims in Britain. No Nuremberg laws have been passed. Only the most excitable observer would attempt to claim that Belmarsh prison is truly Treblinka. But that paranoid assertion is gaining currency. Its first victims are Muslims in Britain who, instead of being persuaded to face up to their problems and eject the extremists from their midst, might easily be flattered into believing that it’s not even their problem.
In December 2005 the writer Ziauddin Sardar wrote a piece on European attitudes to Muslims in New Statesman. It was headlined “The next holocaust”. A year later Muslim News wrote that “insightful critics of this Government and faith-based commentators [are] drawing parallels between how the Muslims are being stigmatised and demonised now is horribly reminiscent of the way in which the Jews were in Germany in the prequel to the Holocaust”.
Like fashion journalists searching for “the new black”, some guys just love identifying “the new Jews”. Never mind that with violent attacks on Jews in the UK at an all-time high, the new Jews might be, well, the old Jews: the search to identify criticism of Islam or Muslims with anti-Semitism is not only mistaken, it is calculated and deliberately diverting.
Leading the effort is the former political editor of The Spectator, Peter Oborne, whose Channel 4 programme, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim was the catalyst for the minister’s comments. You couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of the confusion that has befallen British debate today than to look at the story which appeared alongside Malik’s intervention. For on the same day Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, was quoted across the press explaining why the Archbishop (or Grand Mufti) of Canterbury had been right to argue last February for elements of Sharia to be incorporated into British law. Thus on the same day that we see a serious advance in the fight for accommodation of Islamic law into Britain, a prominent Muslim claims that British Muslims are living through a period of Nazi-paralleled intolerance. While gaining new rights prominent Muslims compare themselves to people who were stripped of all rights. Nice work.
The central argument of Oborne’s programme was that many stories in the press about Muslims are not true and that those that are don’t portray Muslims in a positive enough light. It’s hard to know how you would report most of these stories in a positive light. But put that aside for a moment and let’s just look at the evidence that many stories about Muslims in Britain are made up.
Channel 4 showed that a claim by The Sun that a Muslim gang attacked a soldier’s house in Windsor was almost certainly baseless. What is not baseless is that in January four Muslim men pleaded guilty to attempting to kidnap a British Muslim soldier in Birmingham and behead him “like a pig”.
Channel 4 showed that a February 2008 Sun allegation that some Muslim medical students were refusing to scrub properly was baseless. What is not baseless is that in September last year Dr Omer Butt was admonished by the General Dental Council for refusing to treat a Muslim patient unless she wore a headscarf. For sure, certain stories have been under-sourced and over-hyped and I’m surprised that a hack could be surprised at such a trend in hackery. But for every such dubious story many true and resonant stories exist.
What is happening here is a deliberate and damaging shift. There is now a concerted effort to delegitimise factual analysis and reporting of Islam and ignore the justifications for their actions that some of its adherents actually explain. It centres on a single word.
The term “Islamophobia” is a crock for two reasons. The first is the fact that it is a deliberate attempt to conflate criticism of a belief-system with hatred of a people for the colour of their skin. Thus “Islamophobia” is neatly allied with the real horrors of racism.
But “Islamophobia” is also a nonsense term – though this is a far less popular aspect to point out – because a “phobia” is an “irrational fear”. “Claustrophobia” is irrational because enclosed spaces tend not to kill you. Being scared of small rooms is irrational. Exaggerated and faked stories abound in journalism. But despite this, and as a mounting death-toll asserts, there are a considerable number of reasons to be fearful of some – though certainly not all – aspects and versions of Islam. Women, gay men and Jews have particular reason to be fearful. As do commuters in major European cities and continental film-directors. It’s not “phobic” to be worried about Islam. It is eminently rational.
But to think that the answer to any criticism of Islam or Muslims is a delegitimising of critics and an indulgence in self-pity is not to make an advance. It is to pave the way for self-harm. For all of us.