Perhaps it’s not surprising that someone who describes himself as phobic about the concept of Islamophobia and thinks that the invasion of Iraq is a "subject of purely historical interest" might struggle to grasp why the relentless campaign of hostile media stories about the Muslim community is toxic and dangerous — or recognise that it is driven by a neoconservative agenda about terror and war.
Last week Andrew Anthony, author of this year’s summer reading of choice for liberal hawks (The Fall-Out: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence), accused me of "wishful thinking and evasion" for highlighting the fabrication of evidence by the Tory-linked thinktank, Policy Exchange, in its report on "extremist literature" in British mosques — and for arguing that jihadist violence is essentially the product of western aggression, occupation and support of tyranny in the Muslim world
The insistence of Anthony and his neoconservative allies that terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere are instead fundamentally motivated by hatred of western freedoms flies in the face of overwhelming evidence: both of how and when Islamist violence emerged, the point at which it was launched in Britain and what the jihadists say themselves. As Osama Bin Laden himself asked in his 2004 US-election timed broadcast, if it was western freedom al-Qaida hated, why didn’t they attack Sweden? And as opinion polls showed after the 2005 London bombings, the real motivation was well understood by the British public.
But of course if you can start to convince people that resistance in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine — and bomb attacks on public transport in London or Madrid — are in fact the product of a socially-disconnected extremist ideology, then Anglo-American warmongering in the Muslim world is off the hook, the bloody and failed occupation of Afghanistan can be presented as well-intentioned peacekeeping and ordinary British Muslims can be held responsible for atrocities, real or attempted, by small groups of followers of al-Qaida.
That has been the thrust of a series of lurid and inflammatory TV and newspaper reports in the last couple of years, encouraged first by Tony Blair and then others in the government and on the Tory front bench. Policy Exchange’s current offering, The Hijacking of British Islam, which was exposed by Newsnight as based in part on faked material, is only the latest.
Anthony tries to cast doubt on the compelling evidence against Policy Exchange (see other criticism here and here on earlier Policy Exchange "research" into the Muslim community) by claiming that I "made pretty much the same accusations" against Undercover Mosque, a Channel Four programme on the "preaching of hate", broadcast in January.
Er, no. I said, correctly, that the documentary had been found by the police and Crown Prosecution Service to have "completely distorted" what speakers had said. Subsequently, Ofcom — the government-appointed, industry-friendly quango in charge of broadcasting, headed by Blair’s former media adviser — disagreed. That hardly settles the question, let alone addresses the wider inflammatory impact of such programmes.
Nor does the half-hearted and disingenuous letter from Policy Exchange’s director, Anthony Browne, published in the Guardian on Saturday. Crucially, the Tory-linked thinktank still refuses to say whether it believes the supposed receipts for extremist literature exposed by Newsnight as fabricated were in fact genuine (and despite Browne’s attempt to suggest otherwise, only a minority of the receipts have so far been properly tested and investigated).
The point is in any case not that issues of separatism, misogyny, homophobia or jihadist violence within the Muslim community shouldn’t be reported or discussed, but that their disproportionate, sensationalist and unbalanced treatment by the media feeds ethnic tensions and actually intensifies the sense of anger behind the terror threat itself.
In the case of the Policy Exchange report, the "extremism" of the literature it tried to demonstrate is so prevalent in British mosques mostly refers to the kind of ultra-conservative texts which have their equivalents in Christianity, Judaism and other religions — but have precious little to do with jihadist terrorism. And in fact Policy Exchange barely attempted to make a link.
Nevertheless, it is this socially reactionary trend within the Muslim community that is constantly under the media spotlight, while the parallel strains in other religious groups are ignored, despite the devastating violence and suffering unleashed in the past six years by a born-again Christian US president and his messianic, Catholic-convert British understudy.
Anthony claims he wants to treat all "extremism" the same way, regardless of race and religion, and that this "challenge" must "avoid demonising Muslims at large and seek to prevent exploitation by the far right". But he knows perfectly well that’s not what has been happening at all. It is the Muslim community that is under the cosh, not those who offer support to western military aggression and supremacism.
Muslims in Britain have been demonised, and are being demonised, by the very media campaign he defends — and that campaign is not only exploited by the BNP and the far right, but by the political mainstream. The barrage of Muslim-baiting scare stories of the past couple of years — of which the media blitz around the Policy Exchange report in October was just one example — has helped to create a climate where British people are now more suspicious of and hostile to Muslims than are Americans or citizens of any other major west European country, as an international Harris poll found this summer.
On the streets of British towns and cities, [this demonization] feeds anti-Muslim aggression and violence. On Friday, Asaf Mahmood Ahmed was beaten to death, allegedly by two white youths in Bolton, in what the police are treating as a racist attack. The previous Saturday, another Muslim, Ahmed Hassan, was stabbed to death by a white gang in Dewsbury, where police are still investigating whether there was a religious or racial motive. In real life, the dividing line between racial and religious motives is non-existent. But meanwhile people who would have no problem recognising anti-semitism as a form of racism still try to insist that Islamophobia is simply about ideology, not ethnicity.
To equate the threats and intimidation experienced by racial and religious minorities in Britain, as Anthony does, with those experienced by the majority — or the random terror threat faced by all — simply won’t wash. In common with a small but vociferous and well-connected group of pro-war liberals, Anthony has shown himself utterly unable to face up to the huge inequalities of power that underpin both domestic and international politics. Not a mistake so easily made in Dewsbury and Bolton.