Lifting the veil on racism

Women wearing veils protest against Jack Straw

On 5 October the Leader of the House of Commons, Labour MP for Blackburn, former Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary Jack Straw wrote in his local newspaper about his objections to Muslim women wearing the full veil, or niqab. Almost immediately attacks on Muslims escalated throughout Britain with assaults on women with veils, beatings, intimidation, gang violence and petrol bombings of mosques. Prime Minister Blair and Tory leader David Cameron weighed in with their own variations on the anti-Muslim theme. All this was just the latest ratcheting up of a sustained attack that has been orchestrated with increasing fervour for the past five years against anyone who is or looks like they might be a Muslim.

Liberal commentators and middle class Muslim organisations have labelled this ‘Islamophobia’ and the websites, commissions and forums that have sprung up characterise it as some new type of prejudice or religious intolerance. In reality this is nothing new; it is old-fashioned imperialist racism. The vilification of Muslims in Britain is intrinsically linked to Britain’s wars against the predominantly Muslim people of the Middle East and Afghanistan, in just the same way the racism against Irish people in the 1970s and 1980s was tied up with Britain’s military occupation of the north of Ireland.

Racism is always present as a weapon in class societies but is brought to the forefront and sharpened up when ruling class interests and social stability are under threat. Imperialism justifies conquest of other nations by racist supremacy. It combats the threat of unified opposition at home by encouraging racism. The invaded and occupied nations are depicted as aggressors who threaten Britain and must be disarmed, neutralised and crushed.

Today, British armed forces are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in wars that are increasingly unpopular with the population as a whole and with Muslims in particular. So the ruling class once again favours and encourages racism as a tool of control.

This operates at three levels. At the official state level there is the declaration of hostilities and the introduction of emergency laws. A raft of legislation is introduced, intended to criminalise and limit protest against British occupation. Just as internment and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 were designed to render all Irish people guilty by association with the movement to liberate their country, and aimed to terrorise those living in England into denouncing their compatriots, the current anti-terror laws are aimed at preventing Muslims in Britain showing any solidarity with the resistance to the occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Then there is the unofficial state racism which is unleashed in a flood of opinion and media coverage of issues such as Britishness or women and the veil, which builds a consensus that Muslims are the ‘other’, that they are inherently undemocratic and pose a threat to civil liberties. Finally the fascists who verbally and physically attack and insult Muslim people are unleashed on the streets and in the neighbourhoods. In this way the demonisation of Muslim people is formalised and made acceptable all the way through from military occupation, via the media and into the gutter of racist attacks.

Added to this, certain realignment has been necessary to reinforce pro-war propaganda. The first step is to demolish current race relations structures and replace them with a strengthened patriotic programme. The Commission for Race Equality has been transformed from a lobby for different ethnic groups into a tool for moulding racial minorities into enforced assimilation under the flag of Britishness. Chancellor Gordon Brown positions himself for the post of next Prime Minister by extolling Britishness. The Church of England Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, warns that wearing the veil does not conform to British ‘norms of decency’, teachers at British universities are invited to monitor students to help root out ‘extremist activity’ and Muslim parents are publicly warned to spy on their children in case they become indoctrinated by ‘radical’ ideas. In all cases the politicisation of Muslim people in response to British policies in the Middle East is vilified as ‘radicalisation’, ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.

It is claimed that the refusal of Asians living in the northern cities to integrate into British society was responsible for the 2001 uprisings when youths fought in the streets. There was pretence of shock that suicide bombers on London transport in July 2005, who killed 52 people and injured hundreds, were British. That British Asians should feel vengeful about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and against British support for Israel was presented as a failure of integration into British values and blamed on the ‘diversity agenda of multiculturalism’.

In targeting the Muslim population in Britain the racists are attacking one of the most deprived sections of the working class. Muslims make up around 3% of the population, yet their unemployment rate, at 16% for men and 18% for women, is three times the national average. Among Black African Muslims the rates are worse at nearly 30%. A third of all Muslims in Britain live in the most deprived areas, with 41% living in substandard accommodation. More than 40% of Bangladeshi households are over-crowded, compared with 6% of white British households. One in three Muslim homes has dependent children but no working adults. A third of all British Muslims have no qualifications.

When Straw described the veil ‘as a visible statement of separation’, he set Muslims up to become targets of persecution. Fear and hatred are freely disseminated as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue and Israel threatens the Palestinian people with British and US weaponry. However, the ‘fear’ and ‘Islamophobia’ (fear of Muslims) are extremely selective. The British ruling class does not fear Muslims when they are useful business partners and allies. In 1988 the Thatcher government secured the £40 billion Al Yamamah contract for arms sales to Saudi Arabia that included 132 Tornado and Hawk aircraft from which Mark Thatcher made a personal £12 million in commissions. Muslims are targeted only when they are identified with the fight against imperialism.

In 1979 the first issue of FRFI reported on a successful campaign in Leeds to defend a 15-year-old Rastafarian school student threatened with expulsion unless he cut off his dreadlocks. Black school students and their parents were leading protests against educational cut-backs and inequalities and exposing the colonial mentality of many in the schooling system. In response the full range of racist attacks was unleashed upon the black community including the SUS laws under which thousands of black youth were stopped and detained by the police on suspicion of crimes.

Racism has many forms and disguises but must always be recognised for what it is – a tool of the ruling class. We must stand united against it.

Susan Davidson

FRFI 194 December 2006 / January 2007


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