Fear and loathing in Europe
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