I’ve had an interesting couple of days; my fifteen minutes of fame has come at last after, in response to someone telling me that Woolwich was regularly patrolled by Sharia police and that anyone drinking alcohol there could be subject to attacks by gangs of conservative Muslims, I went to Woolwich and made a video with a bottle of wine and showed how comically un-dangerous it really is. The Independent and Buzzfeed picked it up, and Hugh Grant retweeted an article about it. Of course, anyone who lives in London already knew that there are no Sharia patrols and the only thing I would be chastised for by native Brits was not the fact that I was drinking wine, but the fact that I was drinking Sainsbury’s own-brand wine.
There are lots of myths about Britain that British people know to be untrue. No, we don’t all know the queen. Yes, we do brush our teeth (most of us, anyway). These myths don’t originate from malice or lead to anything particularly unsavoury, they’re just ignorant. A problem arises, though, when malicious untruths about Muslims in Britain are perpetuated by right-wing news personalities and mainstream politicians. Earlier this year, a Fox News analyst was met with much derision after claiming that Birmingham was a place where non-Muslims simply don’t go. This time he was caught out, and many Brits lambasted him on the Twittersphere, with the mockery even reaching Downing Street as David Cameron called the analyst an idiot. Often, these lies don’t get much publicity, and they surreptitiously permeate into the collective psyche of right-wing America, and right-wing Britain. It’s not hard to see why these lies gain traction: there genuinely have been a tiny number of reported cases of Muslims threatening drinkers on the streets of London, Lee Rigby was tragically murdered at the hands of a Muslim in Woolwich, and just the other day somebody was stabbed at a tube station by a Jihadist in a revenge terror attack against the parliamentary vote to bomb ISIS in Syria. These incredibly rare events have led to London being called ‘Londonistan’ in some circles in the United States.
Fears about Muslims can serve as a useful tool for populist parties and politicians in the UK and the US; the rise of UKIP in Britain has been fuelled largely by an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria, and Donald Trump has made so much headway in the Republican debates because of his continued attacks against Muslim-Americans. Hatred spews from various corners of the press; in Britain, there are cartoons that compare refugees to rats, and articles by pundits that argue for the use of gunships to stop the influx of refugees. Donald Trump floated the now infamous idea that Muslims should be banned from entering the US. The peddling of fear can result in some very horrible things indeed. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh petrol garage owner, was murdered after his beard and turban mistakenly gave Frank Silva Roque the impression that he was a Muslim. Of course, this incident would have been equally tragic if the victim had actually been Muslim, but the fact that he wasn’t gives a degree of insight into the lack of thought people give to their prejudices. Similarly, after the recent attacks in Paris, a shopkeeper in Fife was kicked and punched by men shouting ‘ISIS go home!’, in what was the most serious attack of the 64 (yes, 64) that were carried about after the events in Paris.
This is why it is imperative that the vast majority of Muslims, the peaceful Muslims who are disgusted by ISIS and other Islamic terrorists, are not demonised by the media or politicians. This is why it is so important that ignorance is exposed. These cycles of hatred are self-perpetuating, and those who feel as though they are being targeted and discriminated against are far more likely to lash out. The rise of ISIS has partially been spurred on by western interventions in Iraq, and it begs the question as to what differentiates these new bombings in Syria from previous failed excursions into both Iraq and Libya. Of course, the case against bombing is not clear cut, the evidence as to whether we should bomb in Syria is difficult to untangle, as I laid out in my post last week. What is clear, however, is that, as much as the Sun likes to claim otherwise, ordinary British Muslims do not identify at all with the Muslims in ISIS, and the YouAintNoMuslimBruv hashtag that was popularised after the stabbing in Leytonstone shows that most Muslims barely consider ISIS members to share their religion, let alone their worldview.
Although the video I posted has a comic side to it, the fact that I had to post it at all highlights a serious problem in American (and, to a lesser extent, British) attitudes towards Muslims. The disconnect between the perceptions of Muslims in Britain and the reality will only lead to more hate from both sides. Yes, the fact that the supposed Sharia-Controlled area of London actually had a bookies and a huge ‘Merry Christmas’ sign overlooking the main road makes the claims seem plainly ridiculous, but even though Londoners know they’re ridiculous, they have still become commonplace among some people who probably can’t pronounce Woolwich, and definitely haven’t been there. Some myths, like those about Brits having bad teeth or all knowing the queen, probably won’t die, but it is so important, and it could prevent so much suffering, if the myths about British Muslims do.