It’s a puzzle, all this Islamophobia we hear about. Do we actually hate Muslims? I’ve never met anyone who does.
Obviously, I’ve met the odd racist who doesn’t like anyone who isn’t white. But then I’ve met Asians who were viciously racist about immigrants from the Caribbean, or Africa. I even met a Bengali who was abused – by Asian boys – as a ‘Paki’.
She was Oona King’s assistant when Ms King was MP for Bethnal Green. She told me this story to put my mind at rest. Neither she nor Oona had any problem with my own concerns about inter-race (whites not involved) violence in the East End. Racism, they explained, comes in all forms, and it wasn’t an exclusively white people pursuit.
Which got me thinking. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. And just this week, the last penny dropped about Muslims and Islam and fundamentalists and extremism. For some reason, the memory of Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses entered my mind. The fatwa – in the form of a death sentence – that was placed on his head. The book burnings by Muslims in the UK, a shocking thing to witness in a developed and largely secular country.
And then my mind took one of those little journeys it sometimes takes, to a long-forgotten link. And that’s when all the cogs started turning.
Muslims had no discernible problems that I can recall, and we had no problems with Muslims, until the Shah of Iran was overthrown at the beginning of 1979. In particular, Iranian women were somewhat liberated by the standards of the region.
And then the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. There were dramatic scenes on our television screens of this other-worldly looking man, stepping off a plane and waving. A holy man, we were told, a bit like the Christian Pope.
Hiding his true intent
Except, not really. This man lies at the heart of all the problems that Muslims now have around the world, and that we have with Islam. Until he came back and took up the reins of power, Islam had settled into a generally peaceful co-existence with other religions and with secular societies all around the globe.
Ruhollah Khomeini lived another 10 years after his return, and in that time he started the fire that rages today in the hearts of the Taliban, of al Quaeda, of ISIS, of Boko Haram.
He had said, in exile for the previous 15 years, that he looked forward to returning to ‘a religious life’, content to leave politics to the politicians. But that’s not how it played out. Opposing the provisional government after the Shah left, he said, “I shall slap them in the mouth. I appoint the government.”
Some of us (most of us) in the West were enjoying ourselves too much to notice all this. But it didn’t take long for the Ayatollah Khomeini to impinge on our consciousness. Less than a year after his return, 52 Americans were taken hostage. America was now “the great Satan”.
The inhumanity of their captivity, revealed after they were released, was shocking. Here was our first experience of ‘kuffars’ being treated as not-human, as tools in a war we weren’t even aware had started. They were tortured and beaten. Some were subject to ‘mock executions’.
The Satanic Verses
And then Salman Rushdie, clearly prey to the foolish secular belief in freedom of speech and thought, published his book The Satanic Verses. The following year, 1989, the Ayatollah issued a fatwa – a ruling on a point of Islamic law – which was effectively an instruction to kill Rushdie for blasphemy.
And that, really, is where some of us in the West finally started to lose patience. Even Yusuf Islam, the former singer/songwriter Cat Stevens, appeared to uphold the legitimacy of the Ayatollah’s ruling. How could it be that one of our favourite sons, whose conversion to Islam had robbed us of more of his music, a situation we accepted with typical tolerance and aplomb, wasn’t as shocked as we were by this medieval barbarity?
Still we didn’t really get it. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the same year the Ayatollah returned to Iran. The Soviet’s clear intention was use Afghanistan as a gateway to further incursions into Pakistan and India. They had to be stopped.
And perhaps we’d do the same today. But as it turned out, the brave Afghan resistance also comprised of Islamic extremists, bent on stopping girls going to school and imposing Sharia law. The help the West gave the Taliban in driving out the Soviets, came back to haunt us.
As has our tolerance in general. Nothing prepared us for 9/11 in 2001. But now we can see a clear line from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran and where we are today. Blaming ‘Islamophobia’ is naive. If Richard Dawkins said the things about Islam that he says about Christianity, he’d be called an Islamophobe. As would Stephen Fry.
It’s terrorism and the random killing of innocent people we’re phobic about. And if the terror and the random killing are done in the name of Islam, then the hat definitely fits. It doesn’t mean all Muslims are terrorists. With 1.2bn Muslims around the globe, mostly living in peace and harmony, that would be a stupid conclusion to draw.
But in today’s world the vast majority of terrorists are Muslim. And that is not a stupid conclusion to draw.