Fear and loathing in Europe

CityPress - - Voices - Dee Krüger voices@city­press.co.za

Some­thing strange is hap­pen­ing to Europe. Change comes slowly to this largely set­tled con­ti­nent, and of­ten it’s only some time af­ter a big shift has taken place that even a keen ob­server can dis­cern it. But the mood in the streets is dif­fer­ent these days.

A cou­ple of days af­ter the Paris at­tacks, I went into my lo­cal phar­macy in Lon­don’s West End, not just to get medicine but to greet the phar­ma­cist, Ebi, who has been a friend for 20 years.

In ad­di­tion to the mun­dane tablets I was af­ter, he in­ad­ver­tently gave me pause for thought.

“Th­ese peo­ple make out as if they’re speak­ing for Mus­lims,” he be­gan, “but they’re on an­other planet.” He was, of course, re­fer­ring to the fun­da­men­tal­ist group the Is­lamic State.

It was only af­ter a much more elab­o­rate ex­pla­na­tion from Ebi that it dawned on me that he was not only try­ing to dis­tance him­self from the Is­lamic State, but was in ef­fect try­ing to apol­o­gise to the likes of me on be­half of the whole Mus­lim com­mu­nity. I found my­self cu­ri­ously shamed by his apolo­gies, and wor­ried that he felt he needed to state what was so ob­vi­ous: that his brand of the Mus­lim faith was worlds apart from that of the Is­lamic State’s.

Which brings us to these crim­i­nals be­long­ing to the Is­lamic State, this face­less and fierce en­tity that has climbed into the huge gap that Sad­dam Hus­sein and Muam­mar Gaddafi have left in Iraq and Libya, re­spec­tively, as well as the one that has opened up in Syria.

Me­mories in­vol­un­tar­ily came rush­ing back to me of the in­jus­tices in South Africa’s past, when the dif­fer­ent parts of the com­mu­nity were di­vided from each other. Could it be, I won­dered, that some­thing sim­i­lar was hap­pen­ing un­der our noses in the UK to­day?

I’m hes­i­tant to la­bel it, but this tol­er­ant and in­clu­sive so­ci­ety has been show­ing alarm­ing spikes of xeno­pho­bia. Dur­ing the past week, a young woman wear­ing a head­scarf was taunted by a man on the Lon­don un­der­ground, while an­other Mus­lim woman and her sis­ter had to en­dure racist abuse on the metro in the north­east­ern city of New­cas­tle.

They faced a bar­rage of in­vec­tive, be­ing told that “their peo­ple” had mur­dered the Paris vic­tims. When an­other man phys­i­cally in­ter­vened, he was shouted at and called a “ter­ror­ist sym­pa­thiser”. True, the other pas­sen­gers de­fended the women who were un­der at­tack, and af­ter­wards they de­scribed their de­fend­ers as “an­gels”. But this sort of anger is some­thing new and dis­turb­ing.

What is it about hu­man na­ture that the more scared we are and the more hurt we are, the faster we lash out at the first punch­ing bag we find? In this case, it seems to be the hi­jab that at­tracts anger and ha­tred.

It strikes me that this is play­ing right into the hands of the Is­lamic State, which wants Mus­lim peo­ple to think that they’re be­ing tar­geted merely for their faith and vic­timised by the “non-Mus­lim op­pres­sors”.

And then The Sun news­pa­per blun­dered ahead this week – do­ing the Is­lamic State’s mar­ket­ing so much bet­ter than it could ever have done it­self – by head­lin­ing a dodgy opin­ion poll that screamed that one in five Bri­tish Mus­lims sup­ported the ji­hadis. The meth­ods of the polling out­fit that The Sun used were im­me­di­ately called into ques­tion, but the dam­age was done.

As the UK’s big­gest tabloid and strong­est in­flu­encer of the work­ing per­son’s feel­ings about ev­ery­thing from Premier League foot­ball to what tie the prime min­is­ter should be wear­ing, it’s de­press­ing that The Sun could put this stuff out so blithely. But it’s not just the Bri­tish tabloids that are go­ing about things in the wrong way.

Paris has been my sec­ond home since 1999, and it is clear that the cit­i­zens of France are much less wel­com­ing to for­eign­ers than the Brits. While Lon­don truly is the world’s ul­ti­mate cos­mopoli­tan mix, the 20 dis­tricts that form the core of the city of Paris are pre­dom­i­nantly white. The outer sub­urbs, or ban­lieues, can some­times feel like Soweto in the bad old days when Jo­han­nes­burg was out of bounds for South Africa’s black cit­i­zens.

It’s there­fore no sur­prise that the Paris bombers hid and plot­ted their at­tacks in these ban­lieues, com­fort­ably iso­lated from the white pop­u­la­tion.

So now we have French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande ful­mi­nat­ing that the French are at war with the ter­ror­ists. Brus­sels has bar­ri­caded it­self for days on end, and the mild-man­nered Bri­tish, tra­di­tion­ally so re­luc­tant to di­vide along sec­tar­ian lines, seem to be look­ing at Mus­lim peo­ple as scape­goats – this is pre­cisely what the Is­lamic State wants.

The best way for a ma­ture so­ci­ety to cope with at­tacks like these is sim­ply to be­have as nor­mally as pos­si­ble – not to blame or­di­nary Mus­lims for the grotesque ac­tions of a tiny bunch of fun­da­men­tal­ists.

Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties world­wide should be trea­sured for the di­ver­sity they bring to our lives, not shouted at and ac­cused of sym­pa­this­ing with ter­ror­ists. We cer­tainly don’t want to start be­hav­ing like the ridicu­lous Don­ald Trump in the US – he’s call­ing for Mus­lims to be reg­is­tered and is ap­par­ently prais­ing wa­ter­board­ing as a good way to deal with them.

Most of all, we should re­gard Mus­lims for who they are: peo­ple, ex­actly like the rest of us, who are just try­ing to get on with their lives as best they can. We re­ally are in this to­gether. Krüger is a BBC TV news and cur­rent af­fairs

pro­ducer and jour­nal­ist based in Ox­ford

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