Anti-Muslim racism is a problem in UK regardless of word used
The British government rejected a definition of Islamophobia formed by a cross party committee of MPs reportedly on the grounds that it risked the right to free expression. The UK government’s decision to reject a definition of Islamophobia, created through a consultative process led by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, is a slap in the face for those on the receiving end of Islamophobia. A decade ago, 56 percent of young people believed Islam (not extremist groups) posed a threat to Western liberal democracy. The situation has only worsened.
A ComRes poll last year found that 58 percent of people agreeing that ‘Islamophobia is a real problem in today’s society’ and Home Office statistics say Muslims as victims of 52 percent of all religious hate crime recorded in the UK despite making up little over five percent of the population. The average Muslim probably has a story or two to tell about their own experiences. So why is it that our experiences are so easily ignored, or even denigrated, by those in power?
A year ago, the government denied a definition was even necessary. Since then, welcome steps have been made towards recognising that Muslims are facing heightened scrutiny and attacks. In the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, the Places of Worship fund has re-opened so that mosques can apply to introduce more safety precautions. However, the monumental failure of the Conservative party to reckon with its own blind spot with Islamophobia has damaged faith in its ability to recognise and legislate to root out Islamophobic bigotry in society.
Despite an acceptance that physical violence is an inevitable outcome of rising hatred and Islamophobia, it seems that there is next to no understanding of the structural – and some would argue more widespread – discrimination against Muslims.
‘Expressions of Muslimness’: Defining Islamophobia as a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness, this is what the APPG definition allows us to start exploring. It is disappointing therefore that objections to this non-legally binding working definition of a widely recognised experience are centred around the exact same arguments that have dogged all definitions that have been proposed for the last two decades.
This is not to say that all criticism has been in bad faith – there is a welcome discussion within Muslim communities about how far this definition can go in defining our experiences and allowing the UK to build a framework in which we can categorise them. That 750 British Muslim organisations have endorsed the definition along with dozens of academics is a strong indicator of its popularity, though feedback has and must still be taken.
‘Semantic games’: But the loudest voices have been those who are antagonistic towards Muslim communities’ efforts to organise politically around countering Islamophobia. Some have decided to play semantic games and suggest that because Islam is not a race, Islamophobia cannot be a type of racism, ignoring the fact that while Muslims are indeed from many ethnicities and backgrounds, in the UK we are a racialised group.
While Sikhs and other people of colour are frequently mistaken as Muslim and targeted because of associations to “Muslimness”, it is helpful to understand that Muslims are “othered” in a way that bundles together appearance, attitude and behaviour to create a bogeyman community. This doesn’t erase the power differential or the fact that some within Muslim communities will face differing levels of discrimination – it would be ridiculous, for example, to compare the experience of a black Muslim woman to a white Muslim man. These nuances are present in any collectivised group of people that faces discrimination.
Others will object on the basis that their freedom of speech will be curtailed. But this is a wilful distraction from the fact that since the term Islamophobia was first coined, it has been repeatedly clarified that being critical of Islam does not make one an Islamophobe. The real problem, perhaps, is a refusal to give up the privilege of dehumanising a population without consequence. Boris Johnson gets away with it, why can’t they? “Some have decided to play semantic games and suggest that because Islam is not a race, Islamophobia cannot be a type of racism, ignoring the fact that while Muslims are indeed from many ethnicities and backgrounds, in the UK we are a racialised group. Samayya Afzal”
While many rightly point to the far right as an incubator of Islamophobic views, it is worrying that these views have now been adopted by left, right and centre of our political spectrum. Politicians from all backgrounds are lobbied by a vocal minority who have little to offer the debate except fearmongering and scare tactics. So what do these commentators and think tanks believe to be more counterproductive to social cohesion – that Muslims around the UK are facing systematic discrimination, or that they’ve attempted to articulate a way to define and tackle that discrimination? It goes without saying that there appears a double standard applied to Muslim communities and their ability to define their own oppression.
Some have misinterpreted the power of this particular APPG definition and suggested that it’ll lead to blanket criminalisation of all who comment on Islam and Muslim theology and history. While this is simply a working definition that isn’t legally binding, it is important to clarify; Islamophobic tropes are widespread in society to the extent that 31 percent of children think Muslims are taking over England and 37 percent of young people would support policies to reduce the number of Muslims in the UK. You can’t criminalise large swathes of the population, and neither does this definition propose to. What it does allow us to do is challenge some of these widespread beliefs that make it easier to explain away discrimination against Muslims.
The most astonishing intervention was perhaps from the Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, who in a letter to the Prime Minister, asserted that counter-terrorism operations would be hampered if the APPG definition were to be accepted. This has confirmed long-held fears that counter-terrorism operations are not evidence-led as has previously been stressed, but based on targeting people for their Muslim identity. British society is in sore need of better education on racism and how power works to marginalise entire communities full stop.
While we might focus on prevalent and overwhelming Islamophobia, this doesn’t take away from the fact that many communities face deeply entrenched inequalities which show no sign of abating as time goes on. The struggle for clarity and consensus on Islamophobia is part of a wider goal in encouraging equality in society. Unfortunately, it seems that some would rather deny Muslims their civil liberties in order to protect their own freedom to be racist.