Until Christchurch I thought it was worth debating with Islamophobes. Not any more

Nesrine Malik


If you have been paying attention, you will know that there is now a genre of response protocol that is followed after attacks on Muslims. It blows dog-whistles even as carnage is unfolding. A ghoulish routine has become established. It usually goes like this. Condemn the attack in the strongest terms, and then water down that condemnation. We mustn’t get carried away, you see, and forget about the context. Attacks against Muslims must not stop us from continuing to criticise Islam and Muslims when it is warranted. The unvoiced subtext is that maybe these particular Muslim victims didn’t have it coming, but such atrocities don’t come out of nowhere. But, you know, thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.

Following the Christchurch massacre, there is an article I could write today to explain the danger of this forked-tongue response. An article that exposes the fallacy of thinking that extremist hate crimes can be separated and quarantined from the fact that western societies have become radicalised against Muslims. An article that tries again to show the link between mainstream, fashionable Muslim-bashing and its violent manifestations on the right. An article that fillets the semantic tricks played to stop Muslims ever being complete victims: the line that Islam is not a race; the use of women’s and LBGT rights as a rhetorical stick to beat Muslims with; the cant about freedom of speech, political correctness and the danger of identity politics; the whataboutery and the strawmanning.

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I could detail the volume of anti-Muslim front pages and columnists forensically quoting from made-up news items, incendiary columns in the mainstream press and politicians’ rhetoric. The article would provide evidence for the undeniable rise in hate crimes against racial minorities in general and Muslims in particular, buttressing the argument with statistics. It would be an article similar to those I have written many times – after the Muslim travel ban in the United States, for example. I could plead that something even more horrible will happen if we do not find a way of reversing this juggernaut, of tempering language and applying the same sensitivity filters when talking about Muslims that we do about other minorities.

I am not going to write that article today, or ever again. The reason is simple, and it is this. I used to write on the assumption that people didn’t quite fully see the danger and ubiquity of casual hate speech against Muslims, and how it has been racialised and associated with immigration. Naively, I used to think it wasn’t necessarily an obvious danger, because people had been subjected to Islamic terrorism and were coming to terms with that, sometimes sloppily and irresponsibly, but understandably.

I no longer believe this to be the case. Politicians and the media know exactly what they are doing. They know that hating Muslims sells, whether it is for votes or for clicks or for profile raising. They know that there is a sweet spot where prejudice against Muslims and anti-immigration sentiment intersect, and that the former is a good way of legitimising the latter. They know that there is a market for racism, but one that isn’t simply based on skin colour – that’s too difficult to justify openly – and so “Muslim” became a good shorthand for the unwelcome other.

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They have perfected the techniques, the tools, the winks that mean they can always walk it back and turn it back on their critics as censors and race baiters, out of touch with the real people just concerned about their way of life. The very act of responding to them is co-opted into their narrative of Muslims asking for special dispensation, used as evidence that you can’t say anything these days without Muslims telling you to shut up, inventing words like “Islamophobia” to “shut down debate”.

There is no point in trying to explain to these people the damage they do. Because they know. They know that there is a way they can talk about the burqa without calling it a “letterbox” or saying that they are “just tired of Islam being thrust in their face day in, day out”. They know that they can criticise Muslims in the public eye without fabricating associations with terrorism. They know there is a way to address and accept that prejudice against Muslims exists without dissimulating endlessly about how it is, however, not as serious as, or comparable to, antisemitism. There is a way to critique Islam and Muslims without falling into mockery, dehumanisation or the language of the invading non-integrating horde. They know this. I am done explaining how it could be taken, and accept that this was how it was always meant to be taken.

It is too late to ring the alarm bells once again. Events have overtaken that approach. The warnings have failed and the world has changed. Because the message about Muslims, unchecked, has morphed into something far bigger than one that results in sporadic hate crimes. It has become incorporated into a white supremacist narrative that has borrowed successfully from the playbook of legitimate concerns, weaving anti-Muslim hate into a tapestry along with antisemitism and anti-immigration.

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If there was ever a point at which anti-Muslim prejudice could have been staved off by any effort, journalistic or political, it has now passed. This new, militarised white supremacy nexus is global. It has adherents in the White House, and its representatives grace our news programmes and debating shows, explaining that their positions are nothing to do with race, of course: they are just worried about the white race being replaced.

To carry on explaining these associations – between populist politics, the complacency of the debate-hosting media and the activity of its anti-Muslim wing– is to assume that these associations are not obvious and already forged in strong, established ways. To still think that there is some productive debate to be had, some way to successfully challenge these views by inviting them into the mainstream and “exposing” them, is to be lulled into a false sense of security. The horse hasn’t just already bolted: it is armed with intent and livestreaming its rampage on Facebook.

It is time to face the jeopardy. Near an old home of mine in Cairo, there is a beautiful Coptic church – old, perfectly preserved and almost constantly attended for masses, weddings and funerals. But the scene is marred by large concrete blocks that stand outside it, the patrolling private security forces, and the bomb-detection machine that desecrates its entrance. It is time to accept that a mosque in the ostensibly civilised, nonsectarian west is now as vulnerable as a church in Egypt, and raise those blocks.

It is time to stop pleading. It is time to call things what they are and not temper or apologise for the strength of the allegations, to call people racists, opportunists and complicit hatemongers even if they do grace our prestigious publications and seats of governance. It is time to do what they always accuse you of doing anyway, and “shut down the debate”.

• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist