Friday, 26 February 2010

SEAMUS MILNE EXPOSES RACIST SENTENCING AGAINST YOUNG MUSLIMS PROTESTING GAZA MASSACRES

This tide of anti-Muslim hatred is a threat to us all

The attempt to drive Islamists and young Asian activists out of the political mainstream is a dangerous folly

The Guardian
Seumas Milne [pictured above]

If young British Muslims had any doubts that they are
singled out for special treatment in the land of their
birth, the punishments being meted out to those who took
part in last year's London demonstrations against Israel's
war on Gaza will have dispelled them. The protests near the
Israeli ­embassy at the height of the onslaught were angry:
bottles and stones were thrown, a ­Starbucks was trashed
and the police employed unusually violent tactics, even by
the standards of other recent confrontations, such as the
G20 protests.

But a year later, it turns out that it's the sentences that
are truly exceptional. Of 119 people arrested, 78 have been
charged, all but two of them young ­Muslims (most between
the ages of 16 and 19), according to Manchester
University's Joanna Gilmore, even though such figures in no
way reflect the mix of those who took part. In the past few
weeks, 15 have been convicted, mostly of violent disorder,
and jailed for between eight months and two-and-a-half
years – ­having switched to guilty pleas to avoid heavier
terms. Another nine are up to be sentenced tomorrow.

The severity of the charges and sentencing goes far beyond
the official response to any other recent anti-war
demonstration, or even the violent stop the City protests a
decade ago. So do the arrests, many of them carried out
months after the event in dawn raids by dozens of police
officers, who smashed down doors and handcuffed family
members as if they were suspected terrorists. Naturally,
none of the more than 30 complaints about police ­violence
were upheld, even where video ­evidence was available.

Nothing quite like this has happened, in fact, since 2001,
when young Asian Muslims rioted against extreme rightwing
racist groups in Bradford and other northern English towns
and were subjected to heavily disproportionate prison
terms. In the Gaza protest cases, the judge has explicitly
relied on the Bradford precedent and repeatedly stated that
the sentences he is handing down are intended as a
deterrent.

For many in the Muslim community, the point will be clear:
not only that these are political sentences, but that
different rules apply to Muslims, who take part in
democratic protest at their peril. It's a dangerous
message, especially given the threat from a tiny minority
that is drawn towards indiscriminate violence in response
to Britain's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and rejects any
truck with mainstream politics.

But it's one that is constantly ­reinforced by politicians
and parts of the media, who have increasingly blurred the
distinction between violent and non- violent groups,
demonised Islamism as an alien threat and branded as
extremist any Muslim leader who dares to campaign against
western foreign policy in the Muslim world. That's
reflected in the government's targeting of "nonviolent
extremism" and lavish funding of anti-Islamist groups, as
well as in Tory plans to ban the nonviolent Hizb ut-Tahrir
and crack down ever harder on "extremist written material
and speech".

In the media, it takes the form of relentless attempts to
expose ­Muslims involved in wider politics as secret
fanatics and sympathisers with ­terrorism. Next week,
Channel 4 ­Dispatches plans to broadcast the latest in a
series of undercover documentaries aimed at revealing the
ugly underside of British Muslim political life. In this
case, the target is the predominantly British-Bangladeshi
Islamic Forum of Europe. From material sent out in advance,
the aim appears to be to show the IFE is an "entryist"
group in legitimate east ­London politics – and unashamedly
Islamist to boot.

As recent research co-authored by the former head of the
Metropolitan police special branch's Muslim contact unit,
Bob Lambert, has shown, such ubiquitous portrayals of
Muslim ­activists as "terrorists, sympathisers and
subversives" (all the while underpinned by a drumbeat
campaign against the nonexistent Afghan "burka") are one
factor in the alarming growth of ­British Islamophobia and
the rising tide of anti-Muslim violence and hate crimes
that stem from it.

Last month's British Social Attitudes survey found that
most people now regard Britain as "deeply divided along
religious lines", with hostility to Muslims and Islam far
outstripping such attitudes to any other religious group.
On the ground that has translated into murders, assaults
and attacks on mosques and Muslim institutions – with
shamefully little response in politics or the media. Last
year, five mosques in Britain were firebombed, from
Bishop's Stortford to Cradley Heath, though barely reported
in the national press, let alone visited by a government
minister to show solidarity.

And now there is a street movement, the English Defence
League, directly adopting the officially sanctioned targets
of "Islamists" and "extremists" – as well as the "Taliban"
and the threat of a "takeover of Islam" – to intimidate and
threaten Muslim communities across the country, following
the success of the British National party in ­baiting
Muslims above all other ethnic and religious communities.

Of course, anti-Muslim bigotry, the last socially
acceptable racism, is often explained away by the London
bombings of 2005 and the continuing threat of terror
attacks, even though by far the greatest number of what the
authorities call "terrorist incidents" in the UK take place
in Northern Ireland, while Europol figures show that more
than 99% of terrorist attacks in Europe over the past three
years were carried out by non-Muslims. And in the last nine
months, two of the most serious bomb plot convictions were
of far right racists, Neil Lewington and Terence Gavan, who
were planning to kill Muslims.

Meanwhile, in the runup to the ­general election, expect
some ugly dog whistles from Westminster politicians keen to
capitalise on Islamophobic sentiment. With few winnable
Muslim votes, the Tories seem especially up for it. Earlier
this month, Conservative frontbencher Michael Gove came out
against the building of a mosque in his Surrey
constituency, while Welsh Tory MP David Davies blamed a
rape case on the "medieval and barbaric" attitudes of some
migrant communities.

As long as British governments back wars and occupations in
the Middle East and Muslim world, there will continue to be
a risk of violence in Britain. But attempts to drive
British Muslims out of normal political activity, and the
refusal to confront anti-Muslim hatred, can only ratchet up
the danger and threaten us all.

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