Saturday, 13 November 2010

Friends and Islamophobes

Recently I came across Islamophobia on Facebook. Not for the first time; ever since 9/11 and 7/7 it’s been everywhere. But this time it was in a discussion under someone’s status update. It was expressed by friends, and for that reason I wish I could be diplomatic, in case they may be reading it. But it was distressing reading, and in a way I found it more disturbing because it was expressed by friends – not close ones, but friends. They are nice people.

The discussion was in reaction to an incident in London, where ‘Islamic extremists’ ceremonially burned red poppies. As I said in the discussion, the action was not something I agreed with, even though I sympathise with the feeling that presumably motivated it: that Muslim countries, towns and villages have been bombed to smithereens by Western forces, and the red poppy symbolism was seen as a kind of glorification of British wars. The reasons I don’t agree with it are, firstly, that it causes unnecessary distress and offence to the families of soldiers killed in war, who feel that their sacrifice is being mocked. And secondly, because there are other ways to protest. If they don’t like red poppies, why don’t they wear white ones instead?

The comments in the discussion came from friends who have loved ones in the armed forces, and who understandably have strong views and feelings on the issue. In fact, I could see and sympathise with both sides. But the actual comments themselves were unpleasant and disturbing. And the comments of other people in the thread were even worse – along the lines of ‘shoot them all’. One said that the offenders should be sent back to wherever they came from, and if they were born in Britain, then to wherever their ultimate roots were. This last one was both disturbing and illogical. Disturbing because it is all too reminiscent of what nice, normal Germans were saying about the Jews in the 1930s. And illogical because, if any one of us were to take a DNA test, we might be surprised as to where our roots lie. Many English people have roots in Britain that only go back a few hundred years or less, and only some of us go back beyond Neolithic times. A recent study in Germany concluded that the first farmers in the region had roots in what is now Iraq. Can there be a greater irony than that?

In response to my attempt to introduce more reason and less emotion to the discussion, my friends urged me not to forget 9/11 and 7/7, and argued that our forces wouldn’t be in ‘their countries’ if they didn’t keep blowing themselves up. I agree that 9/11 was a terrible crime, but the suicide bombers and fighters in Afghanistan do actually have a legal right to defend their country against invaders; they are doing what our own Home Guard would have done if the Nazis had invaded Britain. I am, broadly, a pacifist so I don’t like what they are doing, but as long as they don’t target civilians their actions are within international law, however much politicians and the media portray they as terrorists rather than freedom fighters. Even the 7/7 bombers were motivated in defence of Iraq and Afghanistan, but their actions were far from legal as they did target civilians – some of whom, ironically, were Muslims. It is hard to see how occupying and bombing Muslim countries can stop similar atrocities, when those atrocities are motivated by Western military actions in the first place.

In fact, it was hard to tell in this discussion, whether the participants were referring to the Taliban, the 7/7 bombers, the poppy-burners or just Muslims generally. With regard to the ‘peaceful Muslims’, they ‘only had their own to thank’. But who are ‘their own’? The important distinction is between people who commit acts of terrorism and those who don’t; the 7/7 bombers had more in common with pilots who bomb Afghan villages than they did with the vast majority of Muslims. The language suggests a dangerous generalisation and stereotyping of people as a group – and a group, moreover, of a billion people. And it suggests a further confusion. Did some of the commenters want just the poppy-burners out of the UK, or all Muslims? What about Muslims who are white, whose roots in this country go back as far or further into the past than the commenters? I’m not sure whether the possibility of there being white Muslims had occurred to them, which would mean that Muslims were first stereotyped as violent (or at least as sympathising with violence), and second as ‘brown’ or ‘black’. In which case the commenters were displaying covert racism – something which, unless they were members of the BNP or EDL, they probably wouldn’t regard as acceptable in any other situation.

It’s possible that I’m assuming too much here. But what certainly was apparent was a perception of Muslims as ‘other’. They all come from ‘somewhere else’, somewhere outside the UK and in the Middle East. They don’t really belong; they’re not the same as us. What I tried to get across in my own fairly lengthy comment was that they are the same as us. I have lots of Muslim friends and I know for a fact that they have the same feelings, problems, joys and sadnesses as the rest of us. And why wouldn’t they have? Islam is less than two thousand years old; Homo sapiens sapiens is two hundred thousand years old. Many of my Muslim friends love much of British culture, and they live British lives in almost every respect. It’s the current British wars they don’t like – and with good reason. My ‘English’ friends decried the crimes of 9/11 and 7/7, but made no mention of the torture, the massacres, the imprisonments without trial, and the bombings of towns and villages committed by Western forces. If we don’t try to understand the point of view of the poppy-burners as well as the points of view of many other Muslims (and non-Muslim peace activists, come to that!), and if instead we generalise from the more sensational actions of the few that reach the mainstream media, then what we are doing is widening the gulf between communities. We are separating certain people off as ‘other’, and projecting all our fears and prejudices onto them. Far from recognising that we are all human, and that all sides in war commit crimes just as the majority of all people do good, we are decreasing understanding and increasing the potential for anger, misunderstanding and hate. We are wasting an opportunity to help us grow as a species, and decrease the amount of conflict and destruction in the world. What a loss! What a tragic mistake!

Taking part in this discussion thread was distressing for me because some of the participants were friends. It was difficult to hear such disturbing views uttered by friends, who I know to be good people, living quiet lives and doing harm to no one. It’s a worrying thought, really. If ordinary, decent people are capable of stereotyping and generalising a cultural or religious group in such negative ways, then it’s not just the EDL and the British Nazi Party we have to worry about. And history shows us this. Hitler probably couldn’t have committed the worst atrocities of Nazism – or at least, not so easily – had it not been for the prejudices of ordinary, decent Germans that were just waiting to be exploited. He manipulated his own people through clever use of the media; and this too we can see today, if in a more subtle and gradual fashion. No country is immune from racism and fascism. There are so many parallels between Islamophobia and 1930s anti-Semitism, that we have good reason to be worried.

And there’s another aspect. If ordinary, decent Brits are capable of such confused prejudices, what about their relatives in the armed forces, who are trained to kill the enemy? If they too have the same conscious or unconscious generalisations about who the enemy is (are they only people with guns and bombs, or are they Muslims generally?), then it’s no wonder that massacres happen, that killing is sometimes indiscriminate, that civilians are inadequately protected and sometimes actually targeted. I’m not accusing my friends’ kids of committing war crimes. But why do war crimes happen? And it may be that I’ve read too much into the whole discussion, and that the participants’ prejudices only referred to the poppy-burners, or actual terrorists. But if that’s the case, then why do they so fervently support the actions of the military, who have - far too often for it to be an occasional fluke tragedy - reduced men, women and children to ashes and scattered body parts?

I am, thankfully, still friends with my friends – I hope. But the episode left a nasty taste in my mouth. How many people in this country agree with them? If it’s a large proportion, then the potential for understanding and bridge-building between communities, and for recognising what unites us rather than what separates us, doesn’t look very hopeful.