(This is Part Two of a Four Part Essay exploring the Norway Terror Attacks and our response to Islamophobia: Part One here: What Norway's Terror Teaches us about Islamophobia and Online Hate: as I said at the end of Part One)
The internet didn’t create extremism. It might have amplified it on some occasions. But there are other examples of new media - from the Murdoch scandal to the Arab Spring - where online activism has served more liberal ends. The net is basically a neutral space to share opinions. And when it comes to the recent phenomenon of Islamophobia, those opinions predate Twitter or Comment is Free.
I'm just back from Sarajevo where the scars of the siege are still visible fifteen years later: the sniper bullet-holes in the buildings, the horrible dragon's claw mark of a mortar shell, not to mention the look in the eyes of men my age. The cataclysmic Twentieth Century was effectively launched by a bullet fired in Sarajevo in 1914 - the assassination by a Serb Nationalist of Archduke Ferdinand - and it's hard not to hear the echo of that shot in the way the century ended: the crump of a shell in the Old Town marketplace, followed finally by the first ever NATO bombs dropped in anger, as planes took out the Bosnian Serb positions around the besieged city.
Just as modern Jihadism in the form of Al Qaeda came out of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, so too I believe Modern Islamophobia was born from the end of the Cold War (for its older incarnation check out Edward Said's Orientalism).
Out of the Cold War
The same year the Cold War ended was the same year that Ayatollah Khomeni issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses - 1989. For many liberal intellectuals, this was a sobering moment. Just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, another was erecting itself in people’s minds. Instead of Communism, perhaps religion - particularly fundamentalist religion - was emerging as the new enemy. Many thinkers turned their eyes from the dissidents fighting totalitarian repression in the Warsaw pact, and to the autocratic Arab states in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, though hidden under the rock of Communism for decades, nationalist and xenophobic feelings emerged intact in much of Central and Eastern Europe. By now we all know about the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia, and the ultimate direction of the nationalist rhetoric of the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Though he played on fears of the Croatian Catholic Ustashe, his initial line in the sand in Kosovo was against the 'Turks'. In his famous address on the 'Battlefield of the Blackbirds' Milosevic invoked the historic role of Serbs as the defenders of Europe against the Islamic horde. This toxic religious nationalism culminated in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the final horror of Srebenica, when 8,000 men and boys were massacred and buried in mass graves merely because they were designated 'Muslim'.
We're less familiar however, with Islamophobia in the former republics of the USSR. Apart from countless terror attacks in Russia itself, there have been two wars in Chechyna, and other ethnically-based conflicts in other former Soviet Republics, including that of my grandfather's homeland - Armenia - which was engaged in brutal conflict with Azerbaijan over Ngorno Karabakh. Meanwhile, anyone from the Caucasus (whatever their religious denomination) still faces danger in Russia itself. When I was in Yerevan three years ago I met a sculptor - barely darker than I am - who had fled St Petersburg because a friend had been stabbed to death for being too Islamic looking.
The Racist Component
It's impossible - or at least very difficult - to remove the racial component from Islamophobia. Though no one would recognise my Bosniak or Kosovar friends as Muslim when they walk down the street, the truth is, for most of Europe, Muslims are recognisable by their colour as much as what they wear or what beards they sport.
So there's an underlying racist component to Islamophobia, and groups like the English Defence League (despite having a Sikh among their leadership) exploit this to the full. They say they're not racists. What they object to is fundamentalist religion - and who can object to that? But as anyone who has shared a bus with EDL supporters will attest, this racialist disclaimer is a lie. They're the same old hooligans, Paki-bashers and Nazi bully boys I recall from the 70s and 80s. But intellectually, they draw some cover from surprising sources.
Clash of Civilisations
I remember Senior Tories, while debating why Britain shouldn't do anything in Bosnia, explaining how Islam would be the next major global struggle after defeating Communism. In this they were merely reiterating what Sam Huntingdon described in his Clash of Civilisations: a new conflict, a New World Order, pitting liberal values against against the intolerance of an unreformed Islam. Unfortunately, this kind of apologia was also echoed on the New Left who mourned the death of non-aligned Socialism, and saw the West 'manufacturing consensus' for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. They also doubted the camps in Omarska and wondered whether Srebrenica was really an act of genocide and not 'exaggerated'. Some of them formed a Committee in Defence of Milosevic. Islamisation was, to some, the secret plan of Western capitalism to destroy actually existing socialism.
Add to this already toxic mix the slow-burning Intifadas in Israel's occupied territories, Hamas suicide bombers, Likudite obstructionism after the assassination of Rabin, and a perfect storm was brewing....
Then 9/11 came along.
The Impact of 9/11
After the mind-shattering attacks on the World Trade Centre all nuance was lost. The enemy was blindingly clear: the death-loving, mass-murdering, medieval fundamentalism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In hindsight this traumatic over-reaction was probably inevitable. Gone was the characterisation of Islam as a multifaceted religion of 1.6 billion adherents, with its own major schisms between Sunni and Shia, or Alawites, Ismailis or Sufis. Everyone - TV pundits, newspaper columnists, novelists, playwrights - became experts on the extreme doctrine of Salafist Wahabis. The backlash was set....
For different motives, some of them almost honourable, modern Islamophobia grew out of a strange confluence of four very different currents;
1. Old fashioned xenophobic racism
2. Atheist anti-clericalism
3. Socialist nostalgia
4. A Neo-con belief in reshaping the Middle East
When future historians ponder the fiasco of the Iraq War, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, or indeed the over reach of the initial policing operation in Afghanistan, I'm sure conclude they will conclude that for several years Osama Bin Laden achieved his objectives. After all, that's what the 9/11 attacks were meant to provoke: a massive over-reaction by the West which would lead to more polarisation, more Muslims being driven into Al Qaeda's arms when the realised the tolerance of western liberal democracy was fake, and we are all Covert Crusaders.
We almost played straight into his hands. But not quite. And that's why the battle against Islamophobia is as crucial to our own security as the battle against Salafist Jihadism.
Part Three of this essay 'Is Multiculturalism to Blame' published tomorrow