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Fanning the Flames of Hatred

European Islamophobia

by LEE SUSTAR

European politicians from London to Moscow are bashing Islam and immigrants, legitimizing politics previously limited to the anti-immigrant extreme right.

The latest high-profile venture in Islamophobia is taking place in Britain, where Labour Party minister Jack Straw suddenly announced in an October 5 newspaper column that he felt "uncomfortable" speaking to Muslim women wearing the full-face veil known as the niqab, calling it a barrier to community relations. Prime Minister Tony Blair chimed in days later, calling the niqab a "mark of separation."

The Labour Party’s intervention represents the liberal version of Islamophobia, a complement to the right-wing variant, which has included Pope Benedict’s speech portraying Islam as a violent religion, George W. Bush’s tirade against "Islamofascism," and the publication of racist anti-Islamist cartoons by a right-wing Danish newspaper.

In Italy, another leading liberal, Prime Minister Romano Prodi, followed Blair in speaking out against the niqab.

Meanwhile, British authorities reported several incidents in which women were verbally harassed for wearing the niqab or a head covering known as the hijab, following Straw’s comments. There were violent attacks as well, including an October 21 assault carried out by three men on those attending prayers at a mosque in the city of Manchester.

The same day, right-wing media amplified Straw and Blair’s attacks on Islam, with the Daily Express tabloid running a front-page photo of a woman in a niqab under the massive headline "BAN IT!" A 24-year-old school teaching assistant, Aishah Azmi, won $2,000 in a labor tribunal case involving her suspension for wearing a niqab in class–but her complaints of discrimination and harassment were dropped.

The backdrop for all this is a series of raids and arrests of Muslims since August involving an alleged plot to hijack British airliners–even though they had taken no action toward doing so.

The Labour Party’s role in stoking Islamophobia has given political cover for neo-Nazis and far-right politicians in Europe, who have already made anti-Islamism their focus, as a brief look across the continent makes clear:

France

Four Muslim baggage-handlers at Charles De Gaulle Airport recently lost their jobs when a local government revoked their security clearances.

The crackdown follows publication of a book–by Philippe de Villiers, the candidate of the right-wing Movement for France (MPF) party in next year’s presidential elections–that claims to detail Muslim "infiltration" of the airport. "I am the only politician who tells the French the truth about the Islamization of France," he told an interviewer earlier this year.

A police union affiliated with de Villiers’ MPF recently called for more weapons to fight what it called an ongoing "intifada" in the heavily Muslim immigrant suburbs of Paris, which erupted in riots a year ago after two youths died while being chased by police.

De Villiers is positioning himself as a more palatable alternative to National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Holocaust-denying, anti-immigrant neo-Nazi who came in second in the 2002 presidential election.

Islamophobia has been a staple of French politics for years, with parties of the mainstream right and left backing the ban of the hijab of public schools in 2004. The mainstream right is also counting on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politics to maintain control of the presidency, as Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy combines his law-and-order policies in the Paris suburbs with new laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants.

Germany

The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) scored its biggest success ever in September’s election in the depressed Eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, giving Germany’s extreme right representation in four German states.

A few weeks later, Ronald Pofalla, the head of Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, wrote a newspaper column claiming that "the problem of religiously motivated violence is today almost exclusively a problem of Islam." Earlier this year, the eighth of Germany’s 16 states voted to ban the hijab in public schools.

Belgium

The far-right Velaams Belang nearly captured control of the Antwerp city government in mid-October on an openly Islamophobic platform, winning 33.5 percent of the vote, compared to 35 percent assembled by a Socialist coalition.

Bulgaria

Volen Siderov, candidate of the ultranationalist Ataka (Attack) party, bested the country’s other right-wing parties by winning 22 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections October 22. Running on a platform of banning Turkish parties and cracking down on the Roma people, known as gypsies, Siderov will contest a runoff vote with incumbent president Georgi Parvanov of the Socialist Party.

Russia

The growing Nazi and far right are mobilizing behind the Movement Against Illegal Immigration–and the organization’s politics recently got the blessing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following raids and mass deportation of Georgians after Russia’s spy scandal involving that former republic of the USSR, Putin gave a speech in which he declared that Russians are being "terrorized" by gangs of "criminals" from the Muslim countries of former USSR republics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the large Muslim population of Russia itself.

Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism as the focus of the European far right, according to Glyn Ford, a British member of the European Parliament and author of a book on neo-fascism in Europe. "Europe is in danger of seeing its extreme-right parties move into the mainstream," he said, adding, "Islamophobia has become the prejudice of the day, but the threat from the extreme right is real and it is found across the European Union."

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net