Monday, 25 July 2011

Know Your Right

You have the right not to be killed. Most people agree on that. Who doesn't? Those who value other things more highly than individual lives – personal aggrandisement, or political ideology. Often the two go together, and nowhere are they more comfortable bedfellows than on the far right.

When the attacks in Norway took place, many politicians and media contributors immediately leapt to the conclusion that they must be the work of Islamic terrorists. So did many ordinary people, with the result that there was an immediate rise in the number of Islamophobic threats reported across Europe. Individuals were threatened or told to “go home” (despite the fact many were born in Europe), whilst mosques and madrassas came under attack.

The horror of this is pretty obvious. What may be less obvious is just how ridiculous it is. When you look at the statistics you'll see that the percentage of terror attacks in Europe committed by Islamist groups is very small. The reason they seem more commonplace is entirely down to the way they are treated by politicians and the media. In other words, there is an agenda here. That agenda has two aspects.

For politicians, encouraging a fear of Islamic terrorism is useful. Scapegoats and distractions are always handy in tough economic times. It also helps to justify wars in countries with large Muslim populations when local populations are unwilling to accept other reasons. For newspapers, it's even simpler: fear sells. The papers have always played this game. From anarchists threatening terror to black men endangering white women and gay men endangering children, it's the same thing recycled, generation by generation, finding a convenient monster. The important thing is that the monster has to be demonstrably Other. It can't come from the bedrock of readers or voters. It has to be excluded from the assumed Us.

All this makes it rather embarrassing that the Norwegian attacker turned out to be white, educated, middle class – in all respects the sort of person we Europeans are supposed to think of as one of us. A lot of desperate flailing has followed, from unsubstantiated claims he was inspired by Islamist violence to the bizarre ramblings of Glenn Beck, who, with his usual political incoherence, compared the Utøya victims to the Hitler Youth. A strange apologism for the far right has since developed in parts (thankfully not all) of the press. Perhaps it's fitting. After all, the killer, Anders Behring Breivik, quoted extensively from certainly popular press pundits – most notably Melanie Phillipps – in the manifesto in which he endeavoured to justify his violence. He recognised the right wing press as his allies, and they have been notably slow to disavow his agenda.

Is it fair to blame the wider right for actions like this? Of course the vast majority of them would never condone violence (and many, of course, are economically right wing without sharing this sort of social agenda at all). Any hesitation in so doing must, however, be weighed against that same old eagerness to let all Muslims take the blame for Islamist terrorist attacks.

Perhaps most telling has been the reaction of the English Defence League, which Breivik cited as one of his inspirations. Of course they wouldn't condone the attacker's actions, they insist, but they share his agenda. They have taken advantage of this raising of their profile to argue, as he did, that this centres on the need to remove all Muslims from Europe in order to protect its indigenous people (whoever they are). Breivik felt that sending a message about this made the killings even he called 'atrocious' worthwhile. His logic in this regard is somewhat unclear. Even if one wee to accept his ill-justified contention that Muslims are a threat, how exactly is he protecting people by, um, killing them?

You have the right to free speech, argue the EDL. If we shut down their democratic right to express their objection to our Muslim citizens' presence here, something not unlike the Norwegian attacks could take place in the UK. Worryingly, there are already hints of support for this kind of thinking coming from the mainstream. These Islamophobes are unpleasant, it's said, but we must placate them a little – make immigration laws a bit tougher, allow fewer new mosques to be built – or there could be trouble. This is nothing short of capitulation to blackmail. Why should ordinary Muslims suffer when they are not the ones making threats?

The rhetoric we hear in this situation asserts that it is liberalism that has allowed these problems to develop. Liberals, it is said, are so busy standing up for people's rights that they don't realise Muslims wouldn't grant them the same courtesy.

This is not only a misunderstanding of Islam – it is missing the point. Human rights are just that – part of being human – and they do not depend on one's affiliations or behaviour. What's more, this isn't about liberals versus the rest of the world. It's about everybody who wants to live in a peaceful civilisation versus the right wing extremists who don't.

Ultimately, those extremists vary very little in their aims, no matter which ideological tokens they cling to. Those advocating violence on the far right and those doing so in the name of Islam are much the same. They are all attacking the diversity, equality, and respect for human life that are the cornerstones of our civilisation. They are attacking the true Us. We are the ones who stand together, as the diverse peoples of Norway stood together in their grief, and say that we will not be bullied and threatened into giving up the civilisation we have worked so hard to build. We will not be turned against one another by those who can offer only destruction.

The far right has no place in our society and we must be neither bullied nor embarrassed into giving it one. It is time for right wingers who do not share that agenda to clearly differentiate themselves. That means an end to the use of Islamophobic articles to sell newspapers. It means an end to moronic statements about the 'failure' of multiculturalism from political leaders who should know better. It is time to stop feeding hate and to assert clearly that those who wish to label themselves European must show respect for all of the rest of us, no matter our religion, if they wish to be respected in return.

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