October 23, 2006
For centuries in Britain, each sentence of death was accompanied by a strange
ritual. Before handing down the verdict, the judge would first take a piece
of black silk cloth and put it on his head. With this rather bizarre and ancient
drapery covering his powdered wig - itself a relic, a cultural fossil carried
into modern times - he would then render the prisoner into the hangman's care.
In such a guise, the black cloth once represented the full, dread measure of
state power. Today, however, a cloth of similar size, shape and color - worn
across the faces of a small number of some of the most vulnerable members of
British society - has become a target of that same dread power, after Britain's
high and mighty unleashed a sudden, thunderous sneak attack on the nation's
Muslim minority, centering the campaign around the tabloid-ready symbol of the
But although the carefully orchestrated furor over this seldom-seen scrap of
material has been so ludicrously disproportionate that even the Blair-fawning
New York Times cried foul in a recent editorial, the campaign - and its disturbing
implications - go far beyond the issue of religious vestments. Indeed, the veil
row is just a covering for what appears to be a deliberate, wide-ranging program
of diversion and division, aimed at creating a scapegoat - "strangers in
our midst," "the enemy within" - to bear the blame for the sins
of the Blair government: the fear, repression, guilt, lies and rancor produced
by the abomination in Iraq.
The anti-Muslim campaign is not merely rhetorical - although the heated rhetoric
from Tony Blair and many of his ministers has certainly been bad enough, giving
a patina of respectability to more extremist viewpoints, now seen as a legitimate
part of the "national debate. (Much as the button-pushing imbroglio over
immigration in the United States has transformed fringe white-power advocates
into respectable media figures, lauded by the likes of Lou Dobbs and Arnold
Schwarzenegger, and welcomed in the halls of Congress.) No, Blair's Islamophobia-fest
has bite with its bark: not only the on-going evisceration of civil liberties,
which has fallen almost entirely on British Muslims, but new measures as well
- such as the Stasi-like plan to induce university professors and staff to spy
on Muslim students and report all "suspicious" behavior to the security
The plan, uncovered by the Guardian on October 16, has already been sent to
"selected official bodies for consultation" and will be foisted on
Britain's universities in December. It acknowledges the fact that the program
will make academics feel they are "collaborating with the 'secret police,'"
but still urges university staff to be pro-active in their spying and informing
on the activities of "Asian-looking students." (In British parlance,
"Asian" usually denotes someone of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi
Far from being abashed by this revelation, the Blair government has openly
embraced the program. To be sure, Education Minister Ruth Kelly - a member of
the zealous religious order, Opus Dei - says it's not really spying; it's just
"monitoring" the activities of certain students in order to "protect"
them from extremists. But for some reason, Kelly's maternal concern has failed
to allay the fears of those captured in the state's benevolent, all-seeing eye.
The program is "potentially the widest infringement of the rights of Muslim
students that there ever has been in this country," Wakkas Khan, president
of a national Islamic student group, told the Guardian. "It is clearly
targeting Muslim students and treating them to a higher level of suspicion and
scrutiny. It sounds like you're guilty until you're proven innocent."
Here, of course, Khan has defined the organizing principle of the Bush-Blair
"War on Terror," where thousands have disappeared into prisons and
torture rooms without charges, without defense, and very often without any evidence
whatsoever, beyond perhaps the word of a paid snitch, a bounty hunter, a personal
enemy or an over-zealous security op looking to make his bones. Blair, like
Bush with his warrantless surveillance program (to cite just one of many tyrannical
examples), is simply bringing the Terror War home.
What is surprising, however, is the suddenness of the current campaign, and
its blunt, even coarse nature. It exploded out of nowhere with an article in
a small regional paper, an October 6 column written by the local MP, Jack Straw
- leader of the House of Commons and former foreign secretary. In the latter
capacity he was one of the prime enablers of the illegal invasion of Iraq, serving
as a key conduit between Blair and Bush as they connived to manipulate their
nations into war - a deceitful process well-documented by the Downing Street
In his column, this paragon of moral rectitude complained about veiled women
coming to his office seeking constituent services. The fact that he couldn't
see their faces made him feel all wiggly, Straw said (in so many words), and
he found it hard to communicate with them. They should all just stop it. In
fact, UK Muslims in general should stop being so strange and separate, and try
much harder to assimilate further into British society.
As was no doubt intended, Straw's comments instantly ricocheted around the
national media, where they conveniently knocked the frenzy of violence and chaos
in Iraq off the front pages. The article also dovetailed, again most conveniently,
with another minor story, about a young teaching assistant who had been fired
for refusing to remove her veil in front of male colleagues, although she didn't
wear it in front of students. Another Blair cabinet minister leapt showily into
this strictly local matter, backing the school's action - even as yet another
Blair minister publicly denounced British Airways for demanding that a Christian
flight attendant remove her cross while on duty. BA actually prohibits the wearing
of all jewellery on chains by attendants, not just crosses, but this point of
fact was lost in the fine media frothing about the airline's "religious
discrimination" against Christians - jeremiads that appeared alongside
angry calls for "banning the veil."
As the days went by, more Blair ministers joined the fray, which spread from
attacks on the veil to stern lectures on the Muslim community's stubborn refusal
to integrate properly and its collective failure to denounce terrorism with
sufficient self-abasing rigor. These grievous shortcomings were leading to "dangerous
divisions" in British society, the Blairites said, and fuelling the alarming
rise of hard-right factions like the British National Party.
Here was an echo of old hate-mongering campaigns. Who was responsible for Germans'
hatred of the Jews, according to the Nazis? Why, the Jews themselves, of course,
swanning around with their weird get-ups and strange rituals and their terrorist
conspiracies. As Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland noted this week, "I
try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the
word 'Jew' for 'Muslim' - I wouldn't just feel frightened. I would be
looking for my passport."
Tory leaders - sensing that Blair was, once again, outflanking them from the
right - leapt into the breach. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, berated
Muslims for fostering an "involuntary apartheid," adding that their
intransigence was breeding national division that "could corrode our society."
The security organs also got in on the act, with a leak to the Times about an
unnamed "terrorist suspect" who avoided capture for a few days "by
allegedly disguising" himself in a burka.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair - the most ostentatiously Christian prime minister in
Britain since William Gladstone prowled the streets in his off-hours looking
for prostitutes to save - kept quiet for days as the official furor grew and
eventually, inevitably, spilled into the streets. Attacks on Muslims sharply
increased, the Independent noted. One mosque was set on fire, another was battered
by a brick- throwing mob, who then stabbed a Muslim teenager. Several Muslim
women had veils torn from their faces in the street, while verbal assaults and
Finally, Blair broke his silence in order to ... calm the storm? call for unity
and tolerance? urge the nation to move on to more important matters? No, of
course not. Instead, he heaped more coals on the fire, at one point even refusing
point-blank to say that a Muslim woman in a veil could make a contribution to
society. "That's a very difficult question," he said. Having thus
segregated these women from the rest of society, relegating them to the status
of useless parasites, he went on to denounce the veil as a "mark of separation."
Blair's hypocrisy here is compounded by the fact that he is probably more responsible
that any other individual for fostering religious divisions in British society
today. He has lavished state funding on a vast expansion of "faith-based"
schools, each under the rule of single religion - Christian, Muslim, Jewish,
Sikh, Greek Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist - excluding most children of other
faiths. Yet it is a 24-year-old teaching assistant in a veil - not Blair - who
is fostering religious "separatism."
At every turn, it seemed, the British Establishment - an overwhelmingly white,
overwhelmingly male, closely-knit network drawn almost entirely from a tiny
group of elite schools and universities, and ensconced in unassailable sway
and privilege, including the full, dread power of the state - was condemning
a tiny, overwhelmingly powerless minority for the social and political ills
of the nation.
But what is the true context of this asymmetrical "debate?" The numbers
tell the story. There are approximately 1.6 Muslims in Britain - 3 percent out
of a total population of more than 60 million. And of this miniscule minority,
only 5 percent of British Muslim women wear the veil. In other words, this "mark
of separation" that is now, suddenly, "corroding" British society
is actually rejected by 95 percent of all Muslim women. It plays almost no part
in Muslim life in Britain.
Nor does any kind of tolerance for violent extremism. An extensive survey of
British Muslims just released - to almost zero notice - by the 1990 Trust shows
that the number of those who believe that terrorist attacks are "justifiable"
is between 1 and 2 percent. (You could probably find a higher percentage of
Americans who believed that terrorism against, say, the "Zionist Occupation
Government" or illegal immigrants or abortion clinics - or Muslims - was
justified.) Violence and extremism are thus rejected by 98 percent of all British
Muslims; but evidently this is not good enough for Blair and his ministers.
Terrorism by Islamic extremists poses a real threat, of course, although in
Britain, case after case of ballyhooed terror scares and high-profile SWAT team
raids have turned out to be false alarms, in which one innocent man (a no-doubt
"Asian-looking" Brazilian) has been killed and two other innocent
men have been wounded. But this threat pales in comparison to the decades-long
terror campaign waged in Britain by Irish nationalists, which, when added to
the government's "counter-terrorism measures," killed more than 3,600
people - and was supported by a substantially larger margin than 1 to 2 percent
of Britain's "Irish community." The assimilation of "Asian"
Muslims into British society has in fact been far more successful, more peaceful
- and more voluntary - than the centurieslong, still-ongoing struggle to integrate
the Irish "minority."
Moreover, the campaign is clearly counter-productive. If you make the veil
a primary symbol of Muslim identity - and then lambaste the Muslim community
as a whole - you are thus ensuring that more women will take up the veil, as
a symbol of defiance and pride in their community when it is under attack. You
will strengthen the hand of the very extremists you profess to be rooting out
from society, while fanning the flames of racial hatred among the majority ethnic
group: a major strategic mistake.
That's assuming, of course, that your actual goal is a well-functioning, tolerant,
peaceful society. If however, your real aim is to use fear and suspicion in
a desperate bid to stay in power, why then, this deadly game of Muslim-bashing
is a master stroke.
Thus the launching of this campaign of demonization and diversion is no mystery.
As the "War on Terror" loses its effectiveness as a fearmongering
political tool for the Bushist-Blairite axis - as it is more and more discounted
by the British and American publics who can clearly see that it has been used
to justify a horrendously murderous war in Iraq and the destruction of civil
liberties at home - the "Coalition" leaders are having to resort to
more and more primitive methods to keep accountability at bay.
After all, we are talking about two highly unpopular political factions with
the blood of more than half a million Iraqis - and thousands of their own soldiers
- on their hands. To sustain themselves in power, they cannot appeal to the
truth, which damns them; they cannot appeal to morality, which shames them;
they cannot appeal to their national ideals of liberty and openness, which they
have trampled and discarded.
They have nothing left to offer but fear - fear of the "other," fear
of the strange, fear of minorities, fear of a woman walking down the street
with a black veil over her face.
Chris Floyd is an American journalist. His weekly political column, "Global Eye," ran in the Moscow Times from 1996 to 2006. His work has appeared in print and online in venues all over the world, including The Nation, Counterpunch, Columbia Journalism Review, the Christian Science Monitor, Il Manifesto, the Bergen Record and many others. His story on Pentagon plans to foment terrorism won a Project Censored award in 2003. He is the author of "Empire Burlesque: High Crimes and Low Comedy in the Bush Imperium," and is co-founder and editor of the "Empire Burlesque" political blog.