Thursday 2 November 2023

Why is there a phobia only about Islam?


Britain was one of the least antisemitic countries before the Second World War, but it is sometimes shocking to read prewar fiction where Jewish characters are described in a way that would be totally unacceptable after 1945. The Holocaust changed minds and prewar antisemitism ceased to exist. We saw what it led to. For thirty or forty years this remained the case and then a new form of antisemitism arose that had nothing at all to do with its predecessor.

Someone like Jeremy Corbyn was not remotely antisemitic in the old sense, nor did he have any interest in the medieval forms of antisemitism. His prejudice was entirely because of Israel. This is the antisemitism that exists most in the modern world.

Not everyone who supports the Palestine people is an antisemite. Decent people can be concerned about the loss of civilian lives. Decent people can hope for a peaceful solution where Palestinians get some of what they want and a better life. There is nothing antisemitic about that.

But treating Israel differently from any other country is antisemitic. Hoping to erase Israel and its population and replace it with a free Palestine is certainly antisemitic. There have been epic amounts of antisemitism expressed in Britain in response to the massacre of Jewish civilians on October 7th. There is more antisemitism today and more antisemites than when Jews were falsely accused of the murder of Hugh of Lincoln in a blood libel. There are more antisemites than when the Jews were expelled in 1290. No wonder Jewish people are scared. But we are told by Keir Starmer that there also has been a rise in Islamophobia.

I have always been of the view that everyone living in Britain should be treated kindly and with respect and should not be discriminated against because of race, religion, nationality, or any other characteristic. Judge people as individuals not as part of a group.

Just as I think antisemitism is wrong, I think that it is wrong to shout something hateful to a Muslim in the street, to use unpleasant language because someone wears a head scarf or to discriminate against Muslims in any way whatsoever. The same is the case for any other race, religious belief or characteristic. It makes no sense to oppose antisemitism while hating Muslims or anyone else.

But I find the concept of Islamophobia difficult. If it means protecting freedom of religious belief and opposing racial discrimination that would be fine, but it doesn’t.

It is not antisemitic to be critical of the parts of the Bible that Christians call the Old Testament. Jewish people won’t be offended if I doubt that God parted the Red Sea so that they could escape the chasing Egyptians. They won’t mind if I argue that King David did not write the Psalms or if I question whether Jonah lived in the belly of a whale. If I doubt the wisdom of something written in the Talmud, I won’t be called an antisemite, nor if I think a part of the Midrash gets its interpretation wrong. Many Jewish people are not particularly religious and in Israel there is complete freedom of religion.

Likewise In Britain there are no such things as Hinduphobia, Sikhphobia or Buddhistphobia and you can certainly say what you like about Christianity. You can mock it, say that it’s all lies and nonsense or even that it is wicked. No one will arrest you or even object.

Rishi Sunak is a practicing Hindu, and he will have in the past experienced discrimination based on his race and family background. But at no point will he have asked for protection from Hinduphobia.

No one in Britain objects to Hinduism. What is there to be phobic about it? Nothing whatsoever. I’ve read a reasonable amount about Hinduism and found it very interesting. The same goes for Buddhism and Sikhism. No one in Britain objects to people being Buddhists or Sikhs. What is there to be phobic about? Nothing whatsoever.

It is right that a Sikh man is not shouted at in the street because he wears a turban or has brown skin. It is right that he is not discriminated against. But he needs no protection from Sikhphobia because it doesn’t exist.

But here is where I find the concept of Islamophobia difficult. I agree that it is wrong to shout something horrible against a Muslim in the street and it is wrong to discriminate against him because of his dress or skin colour. But that isn’t enough. He also wants protection from something called Islamophobia. But what is this extra protection that neither a Christian, Jew, Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist either wants or needs?

The added extra that you get with Islamophobia and no other religion in the UK is that Islam cannot be criticised.

I wouldn’t do it because it would be rude, but if I criticised any aspect of the other major religions in Britain the believer would shrug his shoulders and not be much bothered. If I did something as crass as to make fun of a Hindu god, no one would arrest me or attack me or indeed do anything at all.  

But with Islam its different. Even academic study of Islam has to be careful. The sacred texts of Christianity can be freely criticised. Academics can point out that they think these verses were written later or these are not genuine. People can speculate about who wrote the Gospels or what the historical Jesus really said versus what was recorded. None of this causes any trouble. But there are limits to what you can do with research into the Quran. Push too far and it will be Islamophobic. Push still further. Well, you don’t want to do that.

Muslims in Britain should have freedom of religion, but some want not merely to follow the rules of Islam they want everyone else to follow these rules too. While on some interpretations of Islam it is forbidden to depict Muhammad, this rule cannot sensibly apply to non-Muslims. But as a teacher recently discovered failing to adhere to the Muslim rule meant he had to go into hiding. He had been Islamophobic.

It is natural for people of all religions to have sympathy with fellow believers. I have no problem at all with British Sikhs having sympathy with Sikhs in India. It is likewise natural for British Jews to have sympathy with Israel and for British Muslims to be concerned about the plight of the Palestinians.

But what you can’t sensibly do is to have a crowd of a hundred thousand in London shouting for Jihad and calling for the Jewish people to be wiped out from the river to the sea and then say we’re the victims of Islamophobia. Did you expect the rest of us not to be scared?

Obviously not all Muslims are marching. Not all Muslims are hostile to Israel or want to see the destruction of the Jewish state. But clearly some do. You cannot sensibly express antisemitism and then complain that you are a victim of racism let alone Islamophobia, because you are a perpetrator of racism, and you are terrifying our Jewish community more than anyone has since medieval times.

Muslims have the same rights and responsibilities as all other British people, but I don’t think they alone should have an extra slice of phobia when no one else does.

Much of the specific prejudice that exists against Islam is because of the behaviour of some Muslims and the support of some other Muslims for that behaviour. There is no prejudice in Britain against Sikhs, Hindus or Buddhists because they did not murder rape and mutilate Jews on 7th October. They did not shout “Gas the Jews” in Sydney, and they did not celebrate the world over and march in their thousands through London calling for Jihad. If they had there would rapidly be Sikhphobia, Hinduphobia and Buddhistphobia. But there won’t be any of these things because no one in Britain thinks adherents to any of these religions will do us or anyone else any harm.

Muslims have a right not to be discriminated against, treated as individuals and not be victims of prejudice, but I’m sorry many of us are scared of Islamic fundamentalism. We are scared that Hamas supporters will bring Hamas here.

If you think we are suffering from a phobia, why not help us by showing it to be irrational. Don’t be scary and we won’t be scared.

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