There are weeks to go before a general election and the main parties are struggling. Cue the filthy politics of scapegoating and divide and rule. If it were only the fascists of the British National Party and their street-fighting associates in the English Defence League it would be bad enough. But so widespread and respectable has demonising Britain's Muslim and immigrant communities become that unscrupulous mainstream politicians are tempted to slide from the gutter into that sewer. The ground is sadly fecund for them, fertilised by mountains of manure from not only the right but from people who consider themselves liberals. This is one of the especially pernicious features of Islamophobia - racism against Muslims. Even the medieval scholastics would have been hard pressed to come up with the kind of specious distinctions which so many journalists and academics resort to in an effort to claim that sweeping generalisations about Muslims or identifying their core practices with fundamentalism do not amount to a form of racism.
The same sleight of hand was in play a century ago, when old religious prejudices against Jews became fused with anti-immigration rhetoric and transformed into a prejudice directed at an ethnic, cultural group, which increasingly became defined as that scientifically inaccurate category - race. It is no exaggeration to say that you can pore over parliamentary debates, politicians' speeches and media exposes a century ago in London’s East End and, by substituting Muslim for Jew, find exact parallels with today's prejudiced ravings. In 1902, Tory MP for Stepney Major William Evans Gordon complained that English families were being "ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders" and that in some schools "few English children are to be found." He complained of widespread Yiddish advertising and the opening of synagogues. Lurid stories circulated about Jewish religious customs and beliefs. Had the technology existed, there would certainly have been an undercover hatchet job on some Jewish organisation or other.
Maybe other, more liberal, politicians might have engaged in theatrical walkouts from a traditional wedding and denouncing gender separate seating arrangements in the yellow press. Still others might have claimed that it was not Jews per se they were against, but the participation of Jewish community organisations, such as the Bund, in British political parties. Anyone who’s followed the recent smears against the Muslim community in east London will get the picture. There are affinities between anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Both are driven not only by scapegoating of newcomers domestically, particularly in times of economic hardship. They also have an international dimension and are the product of a world view. Nearly a century ago Jews were held to be responsible for a Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy which, preposterously, was supposedly pulling the strings of the socialist movement and the international banking system. Today, Muslims practising their culture and religion are held to be part of a global continuum stretching over to Osama bin Laden, a breeding ground for a fundamentalism which threatens our very way of life.
Every war requires a justification. Wars of aggression cannot be made popular by presenting their true motivation. So ideology is needed, lies. And that ideology is inherently racist, because you have to find a way of getting people not to empathise with a score of civilians blown up on an Afghan road in the same way they would if there was a tragic pile up on the M1. Islamophobia is the ideological handmaiden of the so-called war on terror. Here, it shows family traits with other ideological props of war. One of the most disgraceful allegations against Muslims in east London is that they, in the form of one of the largest community organisations here, have been "infiltrating" British political parties. On the one hand Muslims are told they must engage in British democracy. On the other, when they do they are denounced as infiltrators. The Tory Sunday Telegraph seemed perplexed that there was both a big increase in votes in the East End for Ken Livingstone when he ran for mayor two years ago and large numbers of people registering to vote this year.
It immediately summoned up the spectre of hardcore fundamentalist manipulation. The more plausible explanations are that Ken - supported by Respect, which commands a big vote in east London - won support because of his policies and opposition to Boris Johnson's dog-whistle politics and that, in an election year with every council seat up for grabs and a referendum on an elected mayor to boot, it was quite natural that registration would rise in a highly politicised place like Tower Hamlets. But the "infiltration" claims resembled nothing more than the anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s and '60s - the ideology of the cold war. Coincidentally - or maybe not - the Israeli intelligence services have warned of action to undermine the alliance between the left and Muslim communities in Britain, in London in particular, embodied in the movements against war and for Palestine. The demonisation of Muslims disfigures our society and is set to feature strongly over the next few weeks. That's certainly so in Tower Hamlets, where the Labour Party's head honcho has smeared the town hall - and by extension all who work there - as "a centre of Islamic fundamentalism." One of his Facebook friends charmingly suggested he should go there armed with "pork scratchings."
The Stop the War Coalition and others are working on a major conference after the election to confront Islamophobia. It aims to draw in the broadest range of participants, trying to win a principled position among those way beyond its ranks. But the coalition is not waiting until then and nor should anyone who cares about the rising tide of prejudice. The BNP and EDL should be confronted and exposed. And every candidate in this election should be challenged over this question. The Tories should be asked if they are happy to associate with Michael Gove, who's campaigning Swiss-style against the construction of a mosque in his constituency. Labour should be asked why their campaign in Tower Hamlets is bent on dividing Muslims from non-Muslims and sowing divisions in the Muslim community itself. A recent British Social Attitudes survey found that the public is far more likely to hold negative views of Muslims than of any other religious group in Britain. That was so of Jews in the 1930s. We have been warned.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.