Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal MBE. Hifsa is a Prevent co-ordinator in the West Midlands region of England.
It was recently suggested on social media that I was a racist bigot. This is an interesting term to use for a British Pakistani Muslim whose childhood was spent in inner city Leeds and who unfortunately has been on the receiving end of racist bigotry at a very personal level.
In the past, whilst growing up in a city where the neofascist National Front was very active. More recently, via the insidious alliances that have manifested themselves as legitimate political movements, both in Britain and across the waters in Europe and the United States.
As a teenager in the 1970’s, I saw that the National Front were very noticeable and fervent in Leeds. The image of tattooed skinheads wearing Doc Martens boots and marching in our neighbourhoods giving the Nazi salute was chilling. It is not an image one can forget easily either.
Most of the people I grew up with experienced some form of racist abuse at that time. “Pakis go home” was probably the graffiti most often seen on walls. Alongside being verbally called a “Paki” on a daily basis, whether in the playground or just walking in town minding your own business.
There are some incidents I recall quite vividly – a “friend” I was walking home from school with informing me she “hated Pakis but you’re ok Hifsa”, a group of boys attempting to set fire to my hair on a bus, again as I was coming home from school, and human faeces being left in our front garden. In comparison to many others, these were not major incidents, but the impact has remained with me for over 30 years.
New Faces on the Far Right
The face of the far right has changed since my experiences. Their targets have shifted, their visible appearance has transformed and their nom de guerre is new.
From the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s through to the National Front in the 1980s, the far right was largely focused on anti-Semitism, race and ethnicity. The contemporary far right populist movements have redirected their hostilities towards another adversary – namely Muslims.
These movements, whilst seen by many as nothing more than thuggish football hooligans, are actually sophisticated. They include well-spoken university students from middle class families and men in suits, using genuine concerns such as the fear of terrorism, grooming gangs, unemployment, poverty and homelessness to target all Muslims.
Whether focusing their attention on countering jihadism or promoting a racial narrative based on white supremacy, their toxic narratives label all people belonging to one religion as the root cause of all the problems seen in society. They brand Muslims, as followers of the religion of Islam, as the enemy.
This religious intolerance is not a new phenomenon. Since the 17th century, Catholics have faced hostility across Europe and their relationship with Protestants is at the root of the Irish Troubles. Whilst I would love to say anti-Semitism was now outdated, unfortunately this is not the case. Despite our calls for ‘never again’ and learning from the past, the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War was followed by genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Nor did the Holocaust bring an end to anti-Semitism, which, alongside anti-Catholicism, has now been joined by a new focus for religious xenophobia. Muslims are now portrayed as the threat to white civilization, invading ‘our’ country, wanting the implementation of sharia law, expecting everyone to eat halal meat and forcing women to cover up.
Rising Divisions Are Manipulated
In essence, what these street movements have created is what Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner for London’s Metropolitan Police described recently as a febrile atmosphere that is exploited by groups and influencers.
They have divided our communities, attacking the very fabric of social cohesion. They have weaponized genuine grievances around migration, Islamic State attacks, and grooming gangs, radicalizing young and vulnerable individuals. These issues are manipulated to dehumanize all Muslims and as a Muslim, I am genuinely concerned about where this might ultimately lead.
Hatred targeting one group of people is the spark that led to the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Burma. When hate of a particular group of people catches a spark, it spreads like wildfire. Referring to people as ‘worms’, cockroaches’ and ‘parasites’ humiliates and dehumanizes them.
Every year on the 28th January, countless commemorations take place across the country reminding us of the horrors of previous genocides. Genocides that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, were the culmination of biased behaviors. As we move up what they call the ‘pyramid of hate’, the behaviors change, with life threatening consequences. The ‘level of hate’ changes from what may appear to be harmless name-calling, stereotyping, bullying, or discrimination to assaults and ends up with the deliberate and systematic annihilation on an entire people. Let us not forget that one particular individual has already referred to a “Muslim genocide” on social media.
It is regrettable that mainstream media in the UK have played their part in transforming this street level hatred of Muslims into a normalized conversation. It is now eight years since Baroness Sayeeda Warsi first made her observation that anti-Muslim hatred had passed the ‘dinner table test’.
It is the equating of terrorist atrocities perpetrated by a handful of Muslims that was, and still is, being used to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment, divide communities and fashion a noxious environment in which ordinary individuals suffer.
Victims such as Muhammad Saleem, murdered by Ukrainian Pavlov Lapshyn, a member of the far right who came to Britain to kill Muslims. Or Jo Cox MP, murdered by an individual with links to both the National Front and English Defence League, simply because he believed Cox defended immigration and was a ‘traitor’ to white people.
Rosie Cooper MP was another politician targeted by the now proscribed white supremacist group National Action, who had plotted to kill her because she too was considered a traitor to white Britain.
Safeguarding – Perpetrators as Prey
It is necessary to acknowledge, however, that in some instances it is not just the victims of these far right, neo Nazi groups who are targeted by the alliances and their influencers. In some cases, it is the perpetrators themselves who have been preyed upon, and this is particularly applicable to those who are young, impressionable, and vulnerable and have been manipulated into believing a particular world-view.
During a training session for a group of seventeen year-olds, one young man described his father’s views and alliances with a far right group. Because he vehemently disagreed with these views, he had to leave the room when his father started to express his opinions, as to disagree with him would mean “I would get my head kicked in”.
Not everyone has the ability to walk away, as demonstrated by one young man who, at the age of 12, joined the Aryan Strike Force and was manufacturing pipe bombs and producing ricin in order to be accepted by his father.
The world-view presented to vulnerable individuals may be one based on an Islamist ideology that sees everything as right or wrong, good or evil, or life as a battle between Islam and the “infidels”. It may also be one based on a racial narrative of white supremacy, which sees Muslims as a security threat, ‘the enemy within’, and features aggressive nationalism and xenophobia.
We have seen where hatred of a community can lead – but we must also be concerned about all those vulnerable young people who continue to be dragged into a network of hatred and lies that consistently blame the other. We have a duty to safeguard these individuals as it is only then we effectively protect society, by preventing them from being drawn into a world that supports terrorism or even worse, one where they may end up committing a terrorist atrocity themselves.