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A warning shot

It’s five days since one of the blackest days in recent Western European history. The time for mourning is far from over. For the parents of the murdered Workers’ Youth League activists, the nightmare will never end. But if we are to stop such an unbearable atrocity happening again, it is not only right – it is crucial – that we draw lessons from Friday’s barbarism.

For many commentators – such as Boris Johnson – Anders Behring Breivik was nothing more than a deranged, lone gunman. There is no point, they argue, even attempting to understand the motivations behind such an appalling act of violence: he is quite patently mad. These are not excuses ever granted to Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. As Luke Akehurst has so movingly put it, Friday’s massacre was an act of political terrorism. It was, in part, an attempt to wipe out the next generation of left-wing leaders, and even to frighten people out of joining the Norwegian Labour Party.

According to Janne Kristiansen of the Norwegian intelligence services: “…in my opinion this is clearly a sane person because he has been too focused for far too long and he has been doing things so correctly.” Breivik’s lawyer looks set to plead insanity on behalf of his client, but I hope this argument is thrown out of court. Human history is littered with horrifying crimes committed by (coldly) rational, sane human beings. The Holocaust is surely the most stomach-churning example because it happened on a systematic, industrialised, mass scale – and was a perverse enterprise that involved hundreds of thousands of people.

The plea of insanity is not only to let those responsible off the hook; it stops us from understanding and preventing history from repeating itself. Let’s stop calling Breivik a madman, and start calling him what he is: a terrorist.

But there was another component to Friday we need to talk about. Breivik was motivated, in large part, by his hatred of Muslims. One of the reasons this mass murdering terrorist targeted the left was because he felt they were allowing Norway to be overrun by Muslims. Breivik wanted his crime to push the supposed “Muslim problem” up the agenda. Instead, it is hatred of Muslims – Islamophobia – that we need to focus on.

We need to start by being honest. Hatred of Muslims is endemic in the West. It is one of the last acceptable forms of racism. Politicians and journalists attack Muslims in a way they would never – rightly – be able to talk about other minorities. And – even worse – prejudice against Muslims has infected even those supposedly on the left.

We’ve seen how commendably Norway’s Labour government has responded to this act of terrorism – by refusing to allow it to subvert the country’s democracy by attacking civil liberties or plotting vengeance, for example. But Islamophobia affects Norway as it does in many other Western countries. Norway’s second biggest party is the Progress Party, whose leader warned at the last election that the country faced “sneak-Islamisation”. The party wants to ban the hijab from schools and deport parents whose children wear it. With Islamophobia growing in Norwegian society, Labour’s Pakistani-born Khalid Mahmood declared that “Muslims are the Jews of our times, stigmatised, generalised and presented as a threat to society”.

The European far-right used to target Jews and black people: today, it is Muslims. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders – who heads the third biggest party – campaigns against the “Islamisation of the Netherlands”, compares the Koran to Mein Kampf and wants to send Muslims out of the country. In France, the Front National also targets Muslims – but the mainstream right has also tapped into Islamophobic sentiments with the banning of the burka. In Switzerland, the People’s Party – who topped the vote in an election attacked as racist by UN monitors – led a successful campaign to ban minarets.

Here in Britain, Muslims have been the the British National Party’s target of choice for years. The last BNP manifesto pledged to confront ‘the Islamic Colonisation of Britain‘, and BNP leaflets attack Muslims in the most vitriolic terms.

But prejudice against Muslims is in the mainstream, too. In 2008, Peter Oborne presented a Dispatches documentary on Islamophobia. The programme looked at a sample of 1,000 articles written about Muslims since 2000: 69% portrayed Muslims as a problem, not just when it came to terrorism, but on cultural issues too; and 26% presented Islam as dangerous, backward or irrational. According to Professor Justin Lewis the articles showed a “series of ideas repeated over time… that links Muslims with terrorism… with extremism… with incompatibility with British values.”

I remember when Jack Straw made his now notorious comments about a Muslim constituent who refused to remove her veil which – he claimed – had become a “visible statement of separation and difference”. It provoked an outpouring of anti-Muslim bashing in the British media, including a Daily Express campaign to ban the veil. Other papers just jumped on the bandwagon: one front page of the Evening Standard was a story about a Muslim cab driver refusing to take a blind passenger because of her guide dog. As Jonathan Freedland put it at the time, if the same hysteria was targeting Jews, “I would be looking for my passport.”

When other groups have been on the receiving end of bigotry, the left has been there to defend them. But some on the left have refused to do this with Muslims, and have even expressed prejudice themselves – largely on the basis that Muslims are allegedly hostile to liberal values. The reality is far more complicated: there are polls suggesting large numbers of Muslims are supportive of gay rights, for example. And – speaking as a gay man – I do not believe that bigotry against people like me justifies bigotry against others. If anything, I have more of a duty to empathise with groups that suffer discrimination and hatred – and what better way to confront prejudice among them than by standing with them.

Anti-Semitism once draped itself in anti-capitalist clothes by talking about Jewish bankers. That’s why the German socialist August Bebel called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools”. And, today, all too often Islamophobia dresses itself up as secularism: it has become the “secularism of fools”.

Breivik is a repulsive terrorist who murdered teenagers because of his hatred of socialists and Muslims. But we should regard his despicable actions as a warning shot. Hatred of Muslims is rampant across the West, and it is yet to be properly challenged. Unless it is, my fear is that there will be more atrocities to come. That must not be allowed to happen.

This blog first appeared at LabourList

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