Natasa Mavronicola (The UCL Student Human Rights Programme): Tufyal Choudhury focused on the debates around integration and social cohesion. For Choudhury, the danger is that the debate on integration, which has taken the spotlight in the counter-terrorism discussions of the day, has pathologised perceptions of communities, especially the Muslim community. Much of the focus has been on the issue of cultural values, in a way that creates a sense that Muslim communities are different: they are seen as the problem. The more recent policies on counter-terrorism, with a crude divide arising between “good Muslim” and “bad Muslim”, often based on adherence to Shari’ a law, are highly misguided, he stated. Although the idea of Shari’ a law is very contested, it is something that is valued by Muslims and placing the dividing line there cuts across many things Muslims believe in, for example the way they pray.
He concluded that many prejudices must be set aside: Muslims do not live parallel lives to everyone else – there is hardly any evidence of voluntary insularity; they do not lack a sense of belonging and loyalty to Britain – the difficulty is that people often think that being Muslim and being British are mutually exclusive concepts. Bringing the debate back to counter-terrorism and civil liberties, he suggested that the way radicalisation has been linked to failure of integration sends out a signal to communities that the only reason why there is concern about integration is terrorism and not the well-being and economic, social and political integration of the people.
Giving her own perspective on the Jewish community, Dr Edie Friedman highlighted the increase in anti-Semitic feeling since January 2009, with approximately 7 anti-Semitic attacks a day in what is generally viewed as quite a small community: a worrying element of these attacks being that some of them are initiated by children. For some people this is a worry, for others it is considered a real menace, a zeitgeist. She emphasised that communities, even those which appear to be well-established, still need protection.
Dr Friedman challenged the application of human rights, suggesting that many people focus too much on one individual area, neglecting others, in a way that pervades inequalities - such as those very good at protecting the rights of asylum-seekers but unconcerned with Islamophobia, or those concerned generally with racism but not with anti-Semitism, and vice versa. She suggested that we need to help each other to see the link between these issues ‘for the sake of British society as a whole’. As such we must become more actively engaged with each other, despite the ‘messiness and contradictions’ within and between us.
Both Jews and Muslims are somewhat demonised by many, she said. She quoted writers suggesting that Jews are ‘culturally dysfunctional’ and ‘politically unfit’ for democratic institutions, linking this to comments on Muslims today. So what must be done? She posited that we must look carefully at our institutions and ensure that in our daily lives we do not demonise and stereotype others. She challenged also the perpetual ‘victim’ approach, suggesting that minorities have to become less territorial about being victims and join a common battle against racism and xenophobia in general rather than anti-Semitism or Islamophobia in particular, while at the same time being aware of the illusion of the good guy-bad guy divide in recognising the diversity within all our communities. If minority groups come together under a human rights agenda, she said, an important example can be set for the wider community of how people can work together for the sake of Britain as a whole.
Ifath Nawaz took on the debate by highlighting the responsiveness and constructive approach of the
Muslim community following the 7/7 attacks, despite the injustice in a whole community being held responsible for the acts of a few. These ranged from the involvement of several prominent Muslims in the post-7/7 Task Force to the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body and the process of mosques and imams reviewing their own practices, through to Muslims directly engaging with the prevention of violent extremism strategy of the government. However, she stressed that we must look more closely at the impact of counter-terror measures taken by the government.
Taking counter-terror raids as her focus, Nawaz listed the devastating effects of these on the individuals involved, their families, and the Muslim community in the locality and Britain as a whole. Ironically, despite the sensational manner of the arrests, 93% of the individuals arrested will have been released without charge after a short period of detention - many within 24 hours. Yet these individuals find themselves, together with their families, ostracised by the wider Muslim community, who are afraid to be seen as sympathising or colluding with terrorists. The bank accounts of the arrested person’s family will be frozen, their house and vehicles being seized by police for search purposes: thus the family find themselves with no home, no money and no support from their peers. Relations within the community deteriorate, she said, as was the case in Wickham, where Muslims were afraid to go out and engage in public meetings, because of the fear of backlash and of being held responsible.
She highlighted the role of the media’s often sensationalist attitude to all sorts of information, especially the religious views of the individual, so that the individual – and often their religion – is tried and convicted by the media. The net of suspicion is spread over the Muslim community, which finds itself in a ‘constant cycle of explaining itself’, trying to prove their loyalty and Britishness. She proceeded to highlight the impact of stereotyping on Muslim women, who at the height of the bombings were regarded as oppressed, uneducated and invisible. Attacks or rude remarks on the way Muslim women dress and mingle in society have been common in the workplace and in other settings. Comments by Jack Straw on the veil have not helped, she emphasised. Muslim women, she said, have become less willing to venture out of their homes for fear of being persecuted. The issues of Muslim women are virtually non-existent in the high level debates taking place, and Muslim women have withdrawn from public life.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg noted the importance of context. He took us all the way to Burnley to suggest that it is in places like this, forgotten by the consumer-driven boom of the last 10 years, that xenophobia breeds. This is where the implementation of anti-terror legislation coincides with the activities of the BNP: an explosive and damaging mix. Four million jobs have been created under New Labour since 1997, however, not only have none of these been created in Burnley, but in fact 2000 jobs have been lost and 21% of the population are on benefits. Most BNP supporters have been seen to be predominantly working class people from areas such as Burnley, often seeing the jobs they lost being taken on by Bangladeshi or Pakistani immigrants, with this formula throwing people into conflict and breeding xenophobia. The BNP have also taken advantage of the apparent racialisation of regeneration schemes, with the line being drawn not only geographically, but also racially, on matters including even rubbish collection.
Robin Knowles QC began his analysis by going back to the definition of xenophobia, giving us the dictionary definition: ‘fear or hatred of things foreign’. Already this definition is suggesting a confusion, he said: fear, or hatred? He noted an uncertainty there, as with the apparent width of the concept of ‘things foreign’: all things foreign apparently, in an utterly indiscriminate way. He thus suggested that ‘fear or hatred of things foreign’ speaks more of ignorance rather than knowledge, suggests the irrational, begs the question ‘why’.
Rather than looking at what is wrong with xenophobia, he suggested that we should rather ask ourselves how to address this fear or hatred and what underlies it. We must look at how to allay the fear and prevent it from turning into hatred. He asserted that a fundamental in combating xenophobia is the ‘promotion of understanding’. He raised the question of whether we can take more people to the place where the instinctive attitude to ‘things foreign’ is to be interested or even to cherish them. Everybody can do something, he suggested: the combination of many ’small things’ can make a big difference. Enjoying a meal together can be as important as joining a march, he said. Equality is the key, he stated, and change can happen: as a commercial lawyer himself, he highlighted how over the course of a few years Islamic finance has become valued, respected and encouraged in the City. A few lawyers sharing a meal together and asking those knowing about these financial instruments to explain them, and the ‘fear of something foreign’ receded.