Islamophobia: It's Not Just Robert Kilroy-Silk Who Rants against Arab Culture and Muslim Faith. Prejudice against Islam Has Become a Disease, and Attacks on Mosques Are Now Routine

By Dalrymple, William | New Statesman (1996), January 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Islamophobia: It's Not Just Robert Kilroy-Silk Who Rants against Arab Culture and Muslim Faith. Prejudice against Islam Has Become a Disease, and Attacks on Mosques Are Now Routine


Dalrymple, William, New Statesman (1996)


There are few things, you would imagine, that Labour's Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane, Margaret Thatcher, the British National Party and the daytime television host Robert Kilroy-Silk would all agree on.

Nevertheless, as events of the past week have shown, a deep disdain for Islam is one subject on which they can all concur whole-heartedly.

Their various remarks about Muslims are revealing, in that they show the degree to which prejudice is--as so often--mixed with quite astonishing ignorance. Baroness Thatcher famously sounded off on the failings of "Muslim priests", apparently unaware that Islam has no such priesthood and indeed accepts no intermediary between God and man. Denis MacShane recently echoed her by criticising British Muslim leaders for failing to speak out against terrorism, apparently unaware that they have done little else since 9/11.

Meanwhile Kilroy--that eminent Brummie orientalist--in a blatant incitement to racial hatred published in the Sunday Express of 4 January, described Arabs as "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors", and implicitly suggested that the British thought that all 200 million of them were "loathsome" and "threatening" "terrorists" and "asylum-seekers". He also denied that Muslims bad contributed anything to civilisation (algebra, optics, the pointed arch and Arabic numerals did not feature in his column) and went on to reveal his expertise in the field by writing that Iran is an Arab country.

Yet what is more alarming than the public airing of such idiocy--ill-informed diatribes against Islam are, after all, far from uncommon in the British press--is the support that Kilroy has clearly found among the British public. Many other examples of his disturbing disdain for ordinary Muslims have since emerged: in one column Kilroy wrote that "Muslims everywhere behaved with equal savagery ... they throw acid in the face of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and ritually abuse animals"; in another, he described the looting of Iraq as being the work of "a load of thieving Arabs". Nevertheless, since the suspension of his TV show by the BBC, the tabloids have rallied to his defence and the Express claims that 97 per cent of callers to the paper--about 22,000 people--have agreed that the BBC was too harsh with him. There has been a huge surge in anti-Arab racism as radio phone-ins, internet chatrooms and other media forums have been deluged with racist comments about "towel-heads" and "camel-jockeys".

There are moments when it is possible to believe that Britain is beginning to shed its racist past, and to hope that we do now live in a genuinely tolerant, colour blind and multicultural society. Yet it is still clearly acceptable to most people in Britain to make the sort of straightforwardly racist remarks about Arabs and Muslims that would now be considered quite unacceptable if made about Jews, Catholics or blacks.

At the very least, the furore has shown how badly the British need to be educated about Islam and the Arab world. At the moment, the islamic contribution to world civilisation is completely ignored in the British school curriculum: at my own school, I came across Islam only in the negative and confrontational context of the Crusades.

But the problem is bigger than that. Islam has now replaced Judaism as Britain's second religion, and it sometimes feels as if Islamophobia is replacing anti-Semitism as the principal western statement of bigotry against "the Other": the pre-war Blackshirts attacked the newly arrived East End Jews, and today we have their modern equivalents going "Paki-bashing". The massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 never led to a stream of articles in the press about the violent tendencies of Christianity. Yet every act of al-Qaeda terrorism brings to the surface a great raft of criticism of Islam as a religion, and dark mutterings about the sympathies of British Muslims. …

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