Challenging Islamophobia: A British Perspective

by Ms Shenaz Bunglawala

While research analysis and community advocacy on Islamophobia appears to be well developed, coherence on definitional issues continues to elude is. The starting for any discussion about Islamophobia in the UK context begins with the seminal report by the Runnymede Trust which in 1997 coined the term and gave it some definitional scope in its formulation of open and closed frames of understanding Islam; frames that influenced and contributed to antipathy towards Islam and Muslims.

Rights-based agencies in Europe recognise the absence of a ‘legally agreed definition of Islamophobia’ and have fallen on race-based concepts and policy measures to tackle the issue while theoretical discussions continue on a definition that straddles with legal (criminal justice), socio-political (exclusion and marginalisation) and rights based (conventions and universal norms) claims that the phenomenon merits.

The Council of Europe has adopted the following definition of Islamophobia:

“The fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights and a threat to social cohesion.”

Advocacy organisations, however, have adopted a much wider definition encapsulating the determined efforts of those engaged in stoking Islamophobia of marginalising or excluding Muslims from the public sphere by virtue of directed anti-Muslim hostility and exaggerated claims of ‘Islamisation’ or ‘Eurabia’.

A definition of Islamophobia which I prefer is the one adopted by the Center for American Progress in its report into the financial backing and organisation infrastructure that shapes the Islamophobia lobby in the US:

“An exaggerated, irrational fear, hatred and hostility toward Islam and Muslims, perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination and marginalisation of Muslims from civic, social and political life”.

The definition both the nature and the effect of Islamophobia on Muslims: exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination.

To be sure, we still have detractors who opine that Islamophobia is a contested term and one that is devoid of any substantive meaning because a ‘phobia’ of Islam is a perfectly rational thing or that the term is deployed by those who want to see Islam and Muslims put above criticism. There are Muslims too who dispute the term connotes a religion-centric hostility when the object is not religion but its adherents; Muslims.

Are these debates merely academic? Well, yes and no. The average Muslim victim of hostility and aggravated hate crime is unlikely to care about the splitting of hairs over a definition. Was what they experienced anti-Muslim hate crime or Muslimophobia, I doubt they wonder. But without a coherent definition that allows for consistency and comparability, a panoramic view of the changing environment around being a Muslim and exercising the freedom to practice religion; Islam, is undermined. Let’s just say work on a widely accepted definition continues.

Why does Islamophobia matter?

Definitions and their centrality as a starting point aside, Islamophobia matters because documenting the biased motivation of a crime committed on the basis of an individual’s religious identity, or perceived religious identity, is important just as recognising a racial dimension to a crime is important in order to prosecute in a way that recognises the racist motive for the crime. The aggravating element allows us to build a picture of victim groups and the type of criminal behaviours directed at them. What is the process of identifying the group, what is the basis for the hostility and how does the process of victimisation operate?

Identifying Islamophobia as a basis for victimisation and criminal conduct allows us to study the environmental factors and other causal relationships that account for the context in which crimes motivated by a hostility to Muslims come about. I will refer to work done by the NGO where I work, MEND (Muslim Engagement & Development), in studying these causal relationships and challenging their influence later on. Suffice to say, Islamophobia doesn’t begin with the crime, it begins with the targeting of a victim group by other means with criminal conduct the furthest point on that spectrum.

Islamophobia matters, and has mattered tremendously since 9/11 from whence Muslim communities have been struggling to force a distinction between free expression and unbridled prejudice and misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims. To be sure, the anti-racism struggles of Muslim communities prior to 9/11 are not obsolete in either communal memory or advocacy mappings. But it is a recognisable trait of Islamophobes to retreat behind the ‘free speech’ defence when engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry or citing the descriptive and not ascriptive nature of religious identity as a mitigating condition.

The interweaving of global and domestic contexts draws out yet a further challenge as we see in the cross fertilisation of ideas between the American Tea Party Movement and Stop Islamisation of America with their European counterparts, Stop Islamisation of Europe, and closer to home, the English Defence League. Islamophobia matters because anti-Muslim bigotry is not something that you may face in your homeland, but something that travels as you travel and avoiding certain countries for fear of Islamophobic undercurrents is a growing concern.

In the context of the ‘war on terror’, the challenge for those of us engaged in tackling Islamophobia is distinguishing Islam and Islamic culture and practice from the assimilationist tendencies of bigots within and without Islam; the Islamophobes and terrorists.

The UK context

There are a host of US researchers, authors and think tanks which have contributed sterling analyses aiding the understanding, reach and financial clout of US based Islamophobes. Studies by the campaign group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, the aforementioned Center for American Progress, the Council of American-Islamic Relations and Nathan Lean to name but a few.

And while the UK context may not exhibit the legal restrictions evincing an embedded hostility to Islam and Islamic practice like the French ban on the face veil (niqab) in public places or the ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools, I would like to focus on the UK context for the following reasons beyond it being my area of focus and work.

Firstly, the English language press has a broad reach. Not only is the MailOnline, the online sister of the UK’s Daily Mail title, the biggest news website in the world, the Guardian newspaper in recent months has expanded its operations in the US and Australia thereby extending its global readership too. As for the Murdoch empire, News International, may have been forced into an organisational split between its UK operations and elsewhere following the phone hacking scandal involving the largest selling Sunday title, The News of the World, but its global connection and reach is undisputed given the publications under its belt.

Secondly, British Muslims, while outperforming their European counterparts in assessments of integration and communal development, both perceived and real (Muslim community organisations in Europe have long admired the clout and confidence of British Muslims), fare less well in comparison to US Muslims who are largely considered to be better educated and better integrated. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the question that has been pored over in recent weeks: why do so many young Muslims want to join terrorist groups abroad?

The skewed lens that surveys the wider Muslim community from the point of the few that agitate against the British state is an endemic feature of news output in the British nationals which I will turn to shortly, but here the point I wish to make is that this security-laden distortion of British Muslims travels far and wide via the English language press and its reach and significance.

Media (mis)representation of Islam and Muslims

In one of the largest surveys conducted on the representation of Islam and Muslims in the British nationals researchers at Lancaster University studied news output between 1998-2009 drawing on corpus techniques to understand the frequency and collocation of nouns used alongside the keywords ‘Islam’  and ‘Muslims’. The study, Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes, provides a deeper insight into the not so subtle wordplay and word correlation through which Muslims are collectivised, homogenised and distorted in the public imagination.

The bar chart below illustrates the frequency with which Muslims are collectivised in the media through representations that assemble them as Muslim ‘community’; Muslim ‘world’; Muslim ‘country’; Muslim ‘leader’; Muslim ‘group’ or Muslim ‘population’.

The collective representation meets a challenge in the Muslim quest for unity or uniformity in confronting the external; for example, in efforts to form a collective front through which to engage and project on issues considered of common concern. Not all representations of Muslims that present them as a ‘community’ or ‘group’ are malign. But such representations also meet a challenge, a greater one in my view, of casting the few in the mould of the many. The nuance, differentiation, even pluralism on Muslim perspectives are omitted in favour of simple binaries that at once cover all and nothing.

McEnery and colleagues conclude, “More common than the expressly negative representation of Muslims, was a more subtle set of implicitly negative representations, with Muslims often being ‘collectivised’ via homogenising terms like ‘Muslim world’ and written about predominantly in contexts to do with conflict, terrorism and extremism.”

The detail on ‘collectivising’ and ‘contextualising’ within a conflict-laden paradigm informs part of the struggle facing British Muslims in challenging Islamophobia. It is not just the issue of challenging the association of Islam with ‘conflict, terrorism and extremism’, but of challenging the rearguard action that spurs the creation and drive of those far right organisations that meet their perception of an inherently violent religion with politically motivated violence of their own. We see this in the ‘Christian patrols’ that have been performed in parts of east London and the so-called ‘mosque invasions’ with members of the far right group Britain First doorstepping mosques and harassing congregations while handing our copies of the Bible.

The rise of the far right and its defence of politically motivated violence to protect what it sees as a threat to the nation is, though distressing, but a small part of the challenge. The greater challenge lies in battling the normalisation of anti-Muslim hostility among the majority who, though not pushed to sympathise with violence, sympathise with views that consider Islam incompatible with democracy, Muslims as citizens that resist integration, and Islamic culture as a threat to the ‘Western way of life’.

Recent stories that have dominated the British press, from the scandal of child sex exploitation in towns and cities in the UK to halal meat and Muslim ‘takeover plots’ in state schools feed this frenzy and reinforce popular hostility. The next scandal confirms the truth of the one before it: Muslims cannot be integrated and Islamophobia is a term thrown at those who dare to tell it like it is.

Such widespread beliefs are evident in national polls assessing the popular mood on issues of cultural difference, religious conflict and social cohesion. A British Social Attitudes survey in 2012 found that ‘only one in four people in Britain feel positively about Islam’. And such views are not confined to the mature but younger Britons, who normally evince attitudes more hospitable to cultural pluralism and multiculturalism, are also showing signs of imbibing anti-Muslim tendencies is a poll conducted by ComRes for BBC Newsround is any indication of emerging tension. 28 per cent of young Britons said they believed “Britain would be “better off” with fewer Muslims”.

Positive interventions

Challenging Islamophobia is no easy task and to be doing it feels often like firing at a moving target. The phenomenon is not static and neither are its consequences and as challenges come flying past hard and fast, so do opportunities slowly come by.

One of our major interventions in the last few years has been our involvement in the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. Providing written and oral submissions to the Inquiry has been a significant milestone in drawing attention to the media’s role in stoking tension and aggravating anti-Muslim hostility. The Inquiry’s reflection on our contributions and its conclusion on the ‘prejudicial’ and ‘pejorative’ treatment of religion (among other traits) by the British press is important to have on record. As is its recommendation to remedy by the regulatory regime that makes such infractions possible.

Reforming the media is a huge task and efforts are underway to introduce guidelines endorsed by the Society of Editors to improve news production and editorial processes.

But the relationship between the reader and the press is not unidirectional or linear and as much as media reform will yield a huge positive shift, some onus on the responsibility borne by the reader is also important. To this end we have developed an Islamophobia Awareness exhibition which not only highlights the ways in which the media develops, reinforces and spreads stereotypes about British Muslims, it also features the testimonies of Muslims who have been victims of hate crime in order to move the reader from passive to active participant in the creation and perpetuation of an environment congenial to anti-Muslim hate crime. If we are to challenge popular prejudice and the normalisation of anti-Muslim attitudes, we need to confront those who lazily imbibe stereotypes indifferent to its consequences.

Our work in the criminal justice sphere has extended to improving the quality of statistical data available on Islamophobia through better recording mechanisms and to making a case for a review of legislative instruments which, though designed to provide legal protection to Muslims, fail miserably to perform as intended.

Our focus on media and politics captures the advocacy dimension of our work and it would be wrong not to touch upon the community engagement dimension though, admittedly, the outcomes here can’t be as easily quantified as positive policy interventions or datasets. It is nonetheless instrumental to our wider efforts in challenging Islamophobia. Through workshops and training programmes improving political and media literacy among Muslims we aim to develop a more informed, a more engaged and a less pliant community – one that abashedly challenges the media’s frequent demonisation of their faith and religious practice.

It is worth reminding that no matter what our efforts, and we try to make positive contributions where we can, Islamophobia is not a Muslim problem for Muslims to resolve, it is a problem for society in which all members who value human rights and religious freedom must play their part to extend these norms to all citizens, not just the many.

— Shenaz Bunglawala

Head of Research

Mend (Muslim Engagement & Development)