On 3 December last year, emergency services were called to a mosque in the Hanley area of Stoke-on-Trent after CCTV showed smoke billowing from the windows of the building. A gas pipe from a neighbouring property had been detached and fed through the window of the mosque, before being lit in a clear attempt to cause an explosion.Gary Neill's cover illustration for New Humanist, July/August 2011
Illustration by Gary Neill

This incident, which led to the arrest of four teenagers aged between 16 and 19, was one of the 43 acts of violence against Muslims and their property documented by the Institute of Race Relations last year (just a small sample of the national total – London’s Metropolitan Police alone dealt with 333 anti-Muslim crimes in 2010-11). Of these attacks, 47 per cent involved damage to property, including three incidents where Muslim graves were desecrated, while 51 per cent involved verbal abuse, with Muslims falling victim to intimidation on public transport or in the workplace. Finally, 28 per cent of incidents involved physical attacks on Muslims, including one incident in Bolton, Greater Manchester, where four men armed with knives waited outside a mosque to attack worshippers after Friday prayers.

Against this backdrop there is a growing debate over the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice in the UK. In January this year the Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi caused controversy when she suggested that such prejudice, far from being confined to the kinds of violent attacks documented by the IRR, is in fact an everyday feature of British society. Islamophobia, she declared, has “passed the dinner table test” and is now seen by many “as a legitimate – even commendable – thing”.

For critics of Warsi’s position her use of the word “Islamophobia” was particularly problematic. Taken literally it appears to denote a negative attitude not only towards Muslims, but also towards the Islamic religion itself, with the implication that such an attitude is a form of unacceptable prejudice. “It’s not a useful term,” says Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and the One Law For All campaign, which fights against the use of Sharia law in the UK. “It is used for scaremongering and silencing criticism of Islam by implying it is racist to do so. Xenophobia or homophobia target people, which is why they are unacceptable, but targeting a belief system or religion in general, or Islam in particular, is actually fair play.”

Whatever the debates over terminology, it seems clear that there is a serious problem with anti-Muslim prejudice in Britain and, indeed, beyond. “All across Europe we have seen right-wing extremists moving more and more to using attacks on Islam as a way of using fear to win people to their cause,” says Sam Tarry, a campaign organiser at the anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate. Of the extremist groups tracked by Tarry and his colleagues the most high-profile in recent years has been the English Defence League, which emerged in the aftermath of a protest in 2009 against homecoming troops in Luton by the extremists of Islam4UK, the now-proscribed group led by Anjem Choudary. Drawing on pre-existing networks of right-wing extremists and football hooligans, the EDL positioned itself specifically in opposition to what it called “militant Islam” and organised street demonstrations in towns with large Muslim populations, drawing attendances of up to 2,000 by the spring of last year.

While EDL leaders maintain that their concern is with Islamic extremism, Tarry says their marches target a far broader section of society. “They’ve actually hardened their position over the last two years,” he explains. “Now they are pretty much saying they are against Islam itself as a religion, that it’s evil, that it’s incompatible with the West, and this feeds into a whole other set of arguments that they make about the general Islamification of Britain.” Hope Not Hate estimate that the demonstrations, which have frequently descended into violence, have cost the taxpayer as much as £25 million in policing and have caused serious damage to community relations. “I was there in Leicester [in October 2010] when they managed to break through police lines,” says Tarry. “Around 500 managed to rampage through the city centre and attack a halal fast food restaurant, smashing windows and storming it. In terms of victimising a particular community in this way, we haven’t really seen this kind of behaviour since the days of the National Front.”

But, as troubling as the rise of the EDL is, does it really represent the kind of mainstream, acceptable Islamophobia to which Warsi was referring? Tarry tells me that he thinks the Conservative chair “was bang on the nail” with that speech, so I ask him to explain how anti-Muslim prejudice manifests itself beyond the extremist fringe. “I think there really is something in the idea that prejudice against Muslims has become the acceptable face of racism,” he says. “We see it in the press, not just in tabloids like the Daily Star, but in the more mainstream publications, from the Daily Mail and the Express right through sometimes to even the Telegraph. In some of the stories they publish, if you replaced the word ‘Muslim’ with ‘Jewish’ or ‘black’ you would have all hell breaking loose.”

One story Tarry refers to in particular appeared in the Daily Star last summer, and suggested that a shopping centre in Rochdale, Greater Manchester had become “the first in Britain to introduce Muslim-only toilets”. In that instance, the paper was censured by the Press Complaints Commission over factual errors in the story (the toilets were not “Muslim-only” or paid for by taxpayers’ money, as the Star claimed), but many similar stories appear each year without correction. Numerous examples are documented in a new book, Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, which analyses the treatment of Muslims in the press. In addition to revealing the volume of stories which concern negative perceptions of Muslims (36 per cent of Muslim-related stories published between 2000 and 2008 were about terrorism), the contributors highlight the prevalence of “political correctness gone mad” reporting, in particular factually dubious accounts of local councils banning Christmas, banks banning piggy banks and museums banning the use of “BC”, all because they “offend Muslims”.

Such stories may be laughably preposterous but, in a climate where Islam is often presented as a threat to Western values, their appearance in national newspapers can have less than amusing consequences. “The press would argue that they are just reflecting wider attitudes,” says Julian Petley, professor of journalism at Brunel University and one of the editors of Pointing the Finger. “But what this ignores is that the press also help to create attitudes.” Petley finds the media’s treatment of Muslims reminiscent of the way in which the Irish were represented in the 1970s and ’80s, and points out that there was a shift in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7. “In times of danger, when people feel threatened by violence, the search goes out for scapegoats, for monsters,” he explains. “When the Cold War came to an end it really did seem as though we were casting around for new monsters, and after 9/11 we were presented with the Muslim monster. There’s a huge amount of violence that goes on in this country towards people who are perceived of as in some way ‘Other’. The way in which ‘Others’ are presented in the press is at least extremely unhelpful and at worst positively dangerous.”

Mention of 9/11, however, highlights the problem many people have with the term “Islamophobia”. Terrorism is surely a perfectly valid reason to be critical of Islam, alongside, for example, attitudes towards women or homosexuality. “The term is used to shield not only Islam but Islamism from criticism,” says Maryam Namazie. “So anything from opposing stoning in Iran to demanding an end to Sharia courts in Britain is deemed racist. Whereas it’s actually the opposite – why must people, because of where they or their families were born, have different standards of rights available to them?”

So how can those wishing to make legitimate criticisms of Islam do so without finding themselves branded as racist, or likened to the thugs of the English Defence League? Perhaps it would help to replace the word “Islamophobia” with something more appropriate – Namazie suggests “racism, as that is what it is” – but, as Petley’s co-editor Robin Richardson points out in Pointing the Finger, the word has become too widely used to simply be discarded. “Since the word Islamophobia is now here to stay,” he writes, “the task is to define as clearly as possible what one means by it.”

In Tarry’s view, there is a clear difference between criticism of Islam and Islamophobia. “For me, Islamophobia is not just about negative perceptions of Islam, but often perceptions that are based on falsehoods, or have an agenda of demonising people of that particular faith,” he explains. “I see it on similar lines to anti-Semitism, that there’s something sinister behind it rather than it just being a case of critiquing religion. Criticising a belief system is a perfectly logical position to take, but I think that, particularly given that in this country most Muslims are of an ethnic minority, Islam is really used as a stick to beat them with and that is when it becomes Islamophobia.”

It is essential, therefore, that those wishing to criticise the excesses of Islam avoid making generalisations about the two million Muslims living in the UK. “I don’t have any problem with people critiquing some of the things that are done in the name of Islam,” says Tarry. “Some horrific crimes against humanity are committed in the name of religion, but that doesn’t mean every Muslim walking down the streets of Britain thinks that way. They’re just going to work and living a normal life. Muslims are as diverse as any other group of people living in the UK, yet the attitude towards them is very much as if they are a monolithic block. And often they are defined only by the extremist, lunatic fringe. It’s like saying that every white person should be defined by the English Defence League or the BNP.”

On top of stereotypes and generalisations, the tabloid tales of Muslim-only toilets and the banning of piggy banks hold a further lesson for those looking to critique Islam: get your facts right. “No section of our society should be beyond criticism,” argues Petley, “but if you are going to be critical you also need to be well-informed. Unfortunately, an awful lot of what appears in the press is either inaccurate, exaggerated or downright untrue.” Such factual inaccuracy extends beyond the tabloid scare stories, taking centre stage in the arguments presented by the English Defence League and others positioning themselves in opposition to Islam on the right of European politics. One common assertion, pushed by the populist Dutch MP Geert Wilders, holds that the growth in Muslim population is turning Europe into “Eurabia”, meaning, in Wilders’ words, that “we are heading for the end of European civilisation as we know it”. In fact, demographic projections suggest Europe will have a 15 per cent Muslim population by 2050 (an increase on the current 7 per cent but hardly an Islamic takeover), yet this does not prevent the “Eurabia” argument being repeated by anti-Muslim campaigners both in Europe and the United States, where the Islamic minority is being increasingly demonised.

Caught between the Islamist extreme on the one hand and the lies and distortions of the far right on the other, a rational position on these issues may seem elusive, but encouragement can be found in the approach taken by Hope Not Hate in their response to the EDL. “For us, there is a symbiotic relationship between the far right and extremist Muslim groups like Islam4UK,” says Tarry. “We did a survey of our supporters and asked people, particularly Muslims, to tell us whether they thought we should run a campaign criticising both far-right and Islamic extremism. The results were extraordinary – 97 per cent of people came back and said we fully support you in criticising the militant Islamists, because actually these people cause our communities loads of grief and we’re painted as if we fall into line with everything they say. So we ran a campaign in which people from all communities could make a powerful statement rejecting the extremists on both sides. We called it A Plague On Both Your Houses.”

Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson, is published by Oneworld