Following the Runnymede Trust report in Britain into Islamophobia in 1997 there was considerable debate both about the term and about the realities and nature of discrimination against, and racism towards, Muslims.
There were two categories (broadly) of those who rejected the idea that Islamophobia is a specific form of racism. All racisms have their specificities, of course.
First, there were out and out right wingers who hid behind the specious argument that calling it racism was a category error: Islam is a religion, not a race.
The most direct answer I have to that – in addition to vast amounts of analysis and argument over the years – is from personal experience. I was stopped and searched on the tube four times in five weeks in the wake of the 7/7 bombings of London. On one occasion, the police officer helpfully explained that I was being stopped because “I looked Muslim”.
He knew what he meant. I knew what he meant. And he knew that I knew what he meant. We all know what it meant – I have a skin tone commonly found in the Middle East and central Asia.
The second group of people in the late 1990s who objected to describing Islamophobia as a form of racism was a small number of conservative and quite sectarian Islamist activists and thinkers who wished – a bit like various Zionists early in the last century – to argue that Islamophobia was utterly distinct from other forms of racism.
They did so because they did not want the fight against Islamophobia to draw on the previous struggles against anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Irish, anti-semitic and other racisms. Hizb ut Tahrir was one such group. Above all they objected to left wing and Muslim intellectuals demonstrating the affinities between contemporary Islamophobia and European anti-Semitism of the interwar years.
The reason for that is that they, again like many political Zionist theorists, saw the oppression facing Muslims as singular and unique, with no possibility of it being broken down by common action between Muslims and non-Muslims. They did not want today’s Muslim communities learning and applying the lessons of yesterday’s Jewish community in the East End of London or Black communities in Lewisham or Handsworth or Brick Lane.
There were also liberals who came in behind the conservative position. But they were not an independent group, just the usual liberal collapsing to the right. Novelist Fay Weldon and Polly Toynbee on the Guardian newspaper epitomised them. It was from that group that the short-lived Euston Manifesto camarilla was formed to oppose the anti-war movement following the Iraq War and to support the US-led occupation which incubated ISIS.
It was against all this that a political struggle and campaign of ideological explanation was conducted by the anti-racist left and by Muslim figures and communities who wanted to resist Islamophobia. We sought to win the understanding that it is a form of racism. Many of us were involved in common meetings, exchanges of articles, discussions and, above all, in building anti-racist campaigns.
The understanding developed and then went on to inform the anti-war movement following 9/11. It rested upon the unity and learning from one another of the anti-racist left and politically engaged Muslims of various intellectual strands.
A decade and a half later, I think that experience led to very solid grounds being established: in practice, with the emergence of Muslim figures on the left and of a left which is engaged with the Muslim community; and in theory, with large amounts of intellectual effort which has demolished the conservative case and has meant that a universal, anti-racist position, rather than an “Islamo-zionist” isolationist position, is hegemonic inside Britain’s Muslim communities.
That all provides a strong base for the anti-racist and radical left to build on today. There is no need to go back more than 20 years to more primitive understandings which the movement has dispensed with. Collectively.
It is, of course, good that Guardian columnist Owen Jones opposes Islamophobia in a piece this morning. But he manages to do so without even mentioning the word “racism”. That is a regression from the positions won in society and in the thinking of progressive people in Britain over these last 20 years.
And associated with that omission is the fact that his central argument for opposing Islamophobia is that assaulting Muslims on public transport, trying to push them under tube trains, burning down mosques, destroying property belonging to Muslims, likening them – a la the Daily Mail – to rats and so on “plays into the hands of ISIS”.
But that is the argument made not by the left, the anti-racist and anti-war movements in Britain, but by the British prime minister, the French president and every other Western government or state leader who wants to further the bombing of Syria.
There is an establishment “national tolerance” perversion of the anti-racist argument. It is that in order to unite the nation in prosecuting war abroad, we must not allow ourselves to be divided at home. The same logic is applied to suppress class antagonisms and struggles in time of war. We are all united in the national interest – so the military budget will increase and student nurses will foot the bill through the withdrawal of training bursaries.
Liberal opposition to Islamophobia, then, is instrumentalised to serve a foreign policy which, because the war on terror means, amongst other things, permanent war on Muslim majority countries, actually generates anti-Muslim sentiment and policy.
Imperialist war necessitates dehumanising the enemy. If not, then we are obliged to feel the same way about those killed in an Afghan hospital as we do those killed in a Paris music venue. And about those fleeing as refugees from Syria but to be excluded by Fortress Europe.
The left’s argument is different. We oppose Islamophobia because it is racist – and we oppose all racism. Further, as with every other racism, our problem is not that it divides and weakens the fighting capacity of the nation at war.
It is that it serves to divide and weaken the working class on our side of the domestic war which is the central division in society. The class war.
So this isn’t about hairsplitting or indulgently saying that we on the left would prefer to see more militant arguments deployed.
It is about whether we have a vision of the left based upon class politics or national unity. It is also about whether we make effective arguments or not.
We do not want to be making the kind of argument which David Cameron will make, which is to wrap his attempt to turbo-boost British militarism in the guise of “defeating ISIS”, when it comes to racism at home.
We have different arguments. That’s because we seek to oppose Cameron, the government, British militarism and the capitalist interests they serve. The left and the labour movement are in conflict with them. They are certainly in conflict with us.
The graffiti on the wall in the picture above is not evidence of “bigotry” or “prejudice”. It is an act of racist violence. The community whose wall it is know that full well. For it is the wall of a Sikh temple not of a Muslim mosque.
This is racism. At home. And that is where our main enemy is.