Fast forward 162 years, and a new spectre now haunts both Europe and the US - Islam.
Islamophobia is in full swing. In the UK, the intelligence agencies have been for some time intensively monitoring Muslim communities. The result of the Swiss referendum held late last year means that building a mosque with a minaret is now banned in that nation. There were only four in the entire country anyhow. And France has just passed a law to prevent women wearing the niqab in public, with debates about banning the niqab raging across Europe.
The discussion about wearing the niqab starts with people saying “You don’t know what they could be carrying beneath the burka, or who is behind the veil.” They begin by justifying banning on “safety” grounds. Then, when pushed, racism and in tolerance comes to the surface - if ‘they’ want to live here in ‘our’ country, ‘they’ should behave/dress like ‘us’.
The implication of all this is that Arabs and Muslims are dangerous and need to be watched closely. Such intolerance goes hand in hand with fear about immigration, illegal asylum seekers, incompatibility with ‘our’ values, religious fanaticism, terrorism, and so on. In trying to mask racism with platitudes about ‘our’ culture being diluted, bombers wanting to kill us or services being over stretched due to an influx of immigrants, politicians are pandering to society’s worst prejudices.
The British National Party (BNP) in the UK has had some degree of success by specifically tapping into the frustrations and prejudices of poor white working class communities in economically deprived areas. New Labour virtually abandoned this constituency of voters and let in the BNP, which then whipped up anti-Islam feeling, fanned by issues surrounding identity, culture, race and class.
But this isn’t confined to Europe. In the US, Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin recently added fuel to a controversy surrounding the proposed construction of a mosque and community centre near ‘Ground Zero’, the site of the 9/11 terror attack in New York, calling it an “unnecessary provocation”.
Palin wrote in a Twitter post, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts.” And people opposing the mosque dominated a hearing on the subject.
“It would be a terrible mistake to destroy a 154-year-old building in order to build a monument to terrorism,” one woman is reported as saying.
”A monument to terrorism” - why didn’t she refer to the living breathing monument - GW Bush, or for that matter Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, who all felt justified in applying sanctions that effectively killed tens of thousands in Iraq, bombing innocent people in Sudan or supporting various despots across West Asia? Perhaps if the West stops committing crimes against the Islamic world then much of the anti-western sentiment would diminish. And, by implication, so would the paranoia and fear concerning Muslims living in the US and Europe.
UK journalist Seumas Milne recently argued that white (usually male) politicians in Europe are dictating to Muslim women what to wear in the name of freedom and liberal values. But, he goes on to say, they are not actually trying to ban the niqab in the name of progress and freedom, but in the cause of empire and repression. Islamophobia therefore has to be regarded as the direct result and ideological underpinning of modern imperial wars, of occupation and intervention.
And that is what the debate about ‘multi-culturism’ often fails to highlight. The links between imperialist wars, the rise in refugees seeking asylum from those war-torn countries, the recession and the rise of intolerant attitudes are sidelined in favour of a narrow, simplistic discussion that merely focuses on the differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’, how multi-culturalism has apparently failed and how it is time for ‘them’ to conform.
In a time of economic hardship, it is easy to look for a proxy to blame for society’s ills. If it’s not the bankers or the government, its the more visible ‘immigrants’ (i.e the veil wearing ones, many of whom were born in the West), who ‘come here’ and steal our jobs, want to commit terrorism against us or overburden our services.
The West has a long legacy of colonial exploits, scapegoating, racism and fanning the flames of intolerance and hate. It has always excelled in this. It still does. Try building a minaret in Switzerland or wearing a niqab in Paris. Better still, try listening to Sarah Palin.