An IHRC Islamophobia conference that came close to being pulled by the organisers after the London University College hosting the event gave in to far right Islamophobes passed off peacefully and successfully on Saturday.
A last-minute change of venue thwarted plans by extremists from the far right Britain First and Casuals United to further disrupt the conference they had already succeeded in forcing organisers to relocate away from Birkbeck College.
IHRC accused Birkbeck College, local police and local council of institutional Islamophobia after it emerged that the three organisations had been in close discussion without involving the organisers prior to the cancellation. Instead of tackling the far right threats, the College in particular appeared to be more interested in using the issue as an excuse to involve anti-extremism and radicalisation officials from the government’s controversial PREVENT programme (which has almost exclusively targeted Muslims). Incidentally the police, who had been pivotal in the Birkbeck cancellation discussions, were conspicuous by their absence at the conference.
The cancellation also prompted UNISON, a trade union which represents support staff at Birkbeck to write to management at Birkbeck asking them to explain their actions and expressing their “severe concern”. In an email to IHRC the Union said it had not been consulted about the decision, which did not represent its own position nor that of students. It also had particular “concerns about the involvement of PREVENT officers and the police who we do not believe should be involved in decisions about the use of space on a university campus….”
The conference was a response to the rise of Islamophobia in the UK. Over the past decade or more Islamophobia has become a mainstay of institutions’ dealings with Britain’s Muslims. Islamophobic discourse – often generated by media and politicians – has become mainstream allowing the perpetuation of anti-Muslim bigotry which in recent times has translated into government attacks on Muslim children’s education, the introduction of yet more anti-terror legislation, the extension of the CONTEST anti-extremism strategy to more areas of Muslim life, and Islamophobic judicial and police responses to incidents involving Muslims.
As it happened the eleventh-hour relocation only served to draw attention to the conference and ensure that it was a roaring success. Over 150 participants including academics, students, youth and activists turned out to hear experts in the fields of race relations, Islamophobia, multiculturalism and securitisation, exploring and suggesting responses to the soaring levels of Islamophobia in the UK. Many more tuned in to the event via a live streaming facility.
Discussion groups ahead of the main speeches allowed participants to discuss ways of tackling institutional and structural Islamophobia. One of the key areas of consensus to emerge was the need for anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia campaigners.
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