The most striking scene in Nick Broomfield’s powerful 2007 film Battle for Haditha is not one of violence but a simple love scene. A wife calls to her husband from an upstairs window. He comes up to the bedroom. She removes her hijab. Her hair tumbles over her bare shoulders. They shower and then they make love.
The scene is not especially erotic or intense. What makes it so memorable is the rarity of seeing Muslims depicted in a normal way, doing normal things, like normal people. Whether in screen dramas or on news reports the Muslims of the Western popular imagination are too often angry men waving guns or distraught women wailing beside gravesides. They are terrorists, kidnappers, and suicide bombers.
They are patriarchal husbands, violent fathers or repressed women forced to cover their faces and murdered in the name of honour. Even the more nuanced depictions of Muslims in books and films – from the Kite Runner to the Reluctant Fundamentalist – struggle to free themselves of negative stereotyping.
Against this backdrop it is not surprising that there has been an upsurge of anti-Muslim feeling on both sides of the Atlantic. The threat by a pastor to burn a pile of Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 reflects the growing levels of hysteria in America whilst on Tuesday, following a vote in the Senate, France became the first European nation to criminalise the wearing of the burqa and niqab. Belgium looks set to follow suit in coming months.
In America the resurgent right wing have identified anti-Muslim feeling an important campaigning issue that can be turned against Obama and his administration. With the approaching mid-term elections the the right wing media carelessly add fuel to the fire. With Islam regarded by many Americans as a political ideology as well as a religion and recent poll findings suggesting that one in five Americans believe Barack Obama to be a Muslim, it is easy to see why there is political captial in playing the anti-Islam card. But as this week’s deaths of 18 Kashmiri’s protesting at the reported Koran burning, this is a dangerous and unpredictible path to take.
The furore currently raging over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” has been stoked by the right wing media, tapping into the well of raw emotion that is still fresh in the US psyche. Keen not to allow the facts get in the way of a good controversy the dispute over the proposal to build an Islamic cultural centre 180 metres from the site of the Twin Towers, looks set to rumble on.
In Europe where there is a much greater proportion of Muslims – about 4 percent of the population compared with less than 1 percent in America – Islamophobia is on the rise. Far far-right parties are polling well, with the National Front in France taking almost 12 percent of the national vote in regional elections this year and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) becoming the third largest party in Holland at last June’s general election. The PVV, whose manifesto includes a ban on the Koran and an end to all immigration from Muslim countries, could soon see itself becoming part of the country’s the ruling coalition.
In France the Bill prohibiting the wearing of the burqa and niqab was passed by the National Assembly last July by 335 votes to one. Yesterday the French Senate voted by 246 to one to turn the Bill into law. Unless France’s constitutional court decides to intervene “the concealment of the face in public space” will become illegal and the wearing of Islamic full veil will be criminalised.
In times of austerity it is common for people to find convenient scape-goats on whom to vent their frustration and fury. Minority or immigrant populations have traditionally fulfilled this role encouraged by negative portrayals both in the news media but also in the popular arts.
If we are not careful the coincidence of rising unemployment, declining social welfare provision and growing anti-Islamic feeling could signal the coming of a perfect storm. Rather than allowing lazy stereotypes to populate our newspapers, books and films we need to challenge them. If we want our world to be a more peaceful and contented place we need to take a look behind the beards and the burqas and recognise our common humanity.