Islamophobia
 
A speech by Steven Saxby to a RESPECT conference at Friends House, London, 15th October 2006.
 
We woke up in Waltham Forest on Friday 10th August to the news that a number of people from our community had been detained, accused of plotting to blow up aeroplanes. The international media swooped on Walthamstow and camped outside mosques and private homes in our Borough.
 
Very quickly an impression was generated which suggested: that those detained must be guilty; that the local mosques must bear the responsibility for nurturing and harbouring terrorists; and that the time had now come for Muslims to get their act together and start to integrate with the wider community. In addition, there was talk of Muslim ghettos, no-go areas and Walthamstow was referred to in the national press as "Walthamstan".
 
Well let me tell you what life is really like in Waltham Forest. Very soon after the arrests there was a meeting of various interest groups -- the local council, the police, leaders of the mosques, people from other Muslim groups in the community, members of Stop the War and of various political parties -- and it is credit to our community that we already had the networks in place, already had the good community relationships, which made it easy for us to come together. And let me tell you some of things that were said very clearly at that meeting.
 
First it was said that we need to let due legal process take its course. In the media those detained were guilty even before they were charged; they are still depicted as guilty even before their cases have gone to trial. Mahtab Aziz, a local solicitor, is representing Cossor Ali, a 23-year old mother of an eight-month-old baby from Walthamstow who was charged with failing to disclose information. And I hope we learn something from Mahtab in due course about his concerns over the legal issues surrounding that case.
 
At the meeting, it was made very clear that there is no relationship, no relationship, between the local mosques and those so radicalized that they would seek to use violence to harm others. This is the biggest slur on Muslims in our community, to suggest that the mosques are training grounds for terrorism. There is absolutely no truth in it and it must be exposed as an Islamophobic lie. It so happens that I am an Anglican priest and secretary of our local Faith Communities Forum and I have a good relationship with the mosques. I was talking to a chair of a mosque last week and I asked him what sort of support they got from the police following the arrests - because the police promised to keep a caring eye on the mosques at a time when they were vulnerable to racist attack - and the mosque leader to me, "yes the police did come round once, they wanted to take all the film from our CCTV cameras!"
 
And this relates to another thing that was said by Muslims in our community at the time and this was that Muslims feel victimized by legislation targeted towards them and by the way in which that legislation is implemented by the police. There are two words that more than any other sum up the way Muslims in our community perceive the police and they are "Forest Gate". And there are several words that more than any other sum up the shame that Muslims in Waltham Forest feel about British foreign policy and they are "Palestine", "Afghanistan", "Pakistan", "Iraq", "Iran", and "Lebanon" and, of course, "Tony Blair".
 
There is a huge mismatch between how our community is presented in the media and how it feels to those of us who live there. You saw John Reid being heckled by a lunatic in the Cricket Club. What you didn't see was John Reid in the Mosque being told by the Chair of that mosque that he was absolutely wrong to lay the blame for terrorism on the devout Muslim parents of Waltham Forest who are doing their best -- and succeeding -- to raise their children as good Muslims, well integrated into the local community. Let me make it clear that even the most highly populated areas of Waltham Forest have no more than 31% of the population identifying as Muslim. So I can tell you clearly that there are no ghettos, no "no-go" areas, there is no Walthamstan -- come and visit and I'll take you round to visit the mosques and churches and community projects of our wonderfully diverse and cohesive community of WalthamSTOW.
 
On a number of fronts, Muslims in this country are being victimized by the government and by the media and this is having consequences for the ways in which Muslims are regarded by our society in general. And it is time for us all people of goodwill to stand up with Muslims in this country and say "enough is enough".
 
Enough of the Islamophobic comments from the government. Jack Straw, Tony Blair, Hazel Blears, John Reid, Ruth Kelly. Is there one cabinet minister who hasn't made an Islamophobic remark in recent weeks? And today we have Phil Woolas giving his view that Aishah Azmi should be sacked for defending her right to wear the niqab in the presence of male colleagues. This is matter for Employment Tribunal, so he should stay out of it and let due process take its course. Enough is enough of this fascism over what people should and shouldn't wear.
 
Enough of these headlines related to nonsense stories, things blown up into a national crisis because one teaching assistant wishes to cover her face or because a police officer with Lebanese relatives is allowed not to stand outside the Israeli embassy. This is victimisation of individual Muslims by the editors of The Sun and The Guardian and The Mail and enough is enough.
 
Enough of this misguided talk of Islamofascism and enough scaremongering about new mosques near the Olympic stadium and talk of Muslims seeking to establish Sharia Law.
 
Enough of comments from senior people in various walks of life making outrageous comments about Muslim attitudes towards living in this country. Enough Islamophobia from Trevor Phillips who is supposed to be defending equalities.
 
Enough from those who suggested that only Muslims should be subject to rigorous security checks when flying on aeroplanes, of those who suggest there should be a new crime in this country -- travelling while a Muslim. You know the BNP actually suggested that all Muslims should be banned from travelling by plane and we must stand up and say enough of the vile racist Islamophobia of the BNP.
 
We are facing a situation in which Islamophobia is rife in our society. It is being perpetuated at the highest level and the impact of course is that it creates a culture in which ordinary people think it is acceptable to say quite outrageous things. Along with racism against Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, Islamophobia is the only racism actively encouraged by the government.
 
A friend of mine is a governor of one of the few schools in our Borough with a Muslim majority population and told me yesterday that when she was attending an event to receive a prestigious award for the school, a teacher from another school came out with the comment "oh, yours is a lovely school, pity they all grow up to be terrorists". This is the kind of racism encouraged by the Islamophobia of Jack Straw, John Reid and others -- and we know that it has an even uglier side because it is the same Islamophobia which leads to physical and verbal abuse on the streets and directed, above all, against Muslim women in our communities.
 
Brother and sisters, I call on you to join with others, to make Islamophobia as unacceptable as all other forms of racism and discrimination, and say enough is enough.
 
Steven Saxby - 15th October 2006.
 
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