Rewriting our future: the need for Muslim narratives

Joining forces with other communities, embracing shared narratives of marginalisation and using the arts to articulate our own experiences and aspirations is essential if the Muslim community is to overturn enforced, racialised constructions of its identity, says Dr Myriam Francois

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

― Marcus Garvey.

Recently I watched a play called “Salt”, written by Black British playwright Selina Thompson. Much more than a play, Salt is a performance of ablated history, in which Selina recounts her journey as she retraces one of the routes of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle – from the UK to Ghana, on a cargo ship, to Jamaica, and back. She recounts just how making that journey opened her eyes to a history – and thus to an identity – she had hitherto felt removed from. A history which through its absence had left her feeling culturally isolated. Ill at ease with herself and with her wider identity as a black British woman. Black history is just one part of the truncated history British schoolchildren are raised on and which – alongside a doggedly resistant whiteness of our public sphere – ensures that those whose lived reality cannot fit the narrow story Britain tells its children, find themselves in various forms of metaphorical and actual conflict with the motherland. When the country which birthed you denies your full existence, forces you into narrow strictures which negate your reality and expect you to toe a line which betrays your humanity, the fireworks are surely inevitable. 

Marginalisation has many layers to it – they can be economic, social, political and yes, also cultural. When the story of who ‘we’ are as a nation, doesn’t make space for your story, or worse still, denies the truth of your life’s experience, it is hard to see how you are meant to feel a sense of belonging without betraying yourself. And beyond the merits of nation states, nations require a sense of common interest and shared identity to function healthily – without a shared sense of belonging, we risk becoming competing islands with little interest in collaboration toward the project of a ‘greater’ good.

For many minorities, Muslims included, the reality of the British story of who we are as a nation, leaves little room for a sense of Muslims as anything other than a problem identity and one being ‘tolerated’ by an implied ‘native’ in-group. The rise in pundits and even academics now willing to employ terms  such as ‘native’ in order to draw ostensibly racial divisions as the basis for ‘true belonging’ signals a crisis of identity, a profound questioning of what it means to be British – who gets to define it and who is included within it.

The narrative around British Muslims has been drearily repetitive for over a decade now. And some of the issues facing British Muslims have – perhaps not surprisingly – proven worryingly constant. But for all the attention placed on British Muslims as somehow an ‘exceptional’ group, not a small number of the challenges facing British Muslims also affect many other minority groups in the UK.

Today, there are over eight million people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK. Three in four of them report experiencing racism. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said racial abuse and bullying of children rose by one-fifth since 2015-16 to more than 10,000 incidents recorded by police last year. And a recent survey highlighted the percentages of people from black and Asian backgrounds reporting racial discrimination has grown by more than 10 points since the EU referendum –  71% of people from ethnic minorities face discrimination, up from 58%. Although Brexit is a very new dynamic in British politics, it has effectively resurrected some very old notions of belonging. The British comedian and ‘national treasure’ John Cleese caused uproar when he commented recently that ‘London is no longer an English city’, subsequently defending his remarks by saying I’m a “culturalist, not racist.” His comments are indicative of a changing sense of what makes Britain not just ‘great’ but British, from the heyday [Office1] of multiculturalism, lauded as antidote to empire, to the current confusion of what form of nationalism can and should be adopted which doesn’t in fact embolden and reinforce far-right notions of belonging as based on race and/or ethnicity.

During the height of multiculturalism from the late 1970s, emphasis was increasingly placed on the value of other cultures to Britain and on the notion that Britain itself, is made up of a mosaic of identities, all of which were conceived as enriching the nation.  Idealised by some, it also had its critics, not least among those who saw multiculturalism as an extension of imperial ways of thinking, with white Britishness at the centre, and non-white forms of Britishness tolerated, and in some cases celebrated, at the periphery.  Just as Britain was the centre of empire, with its colonies useful satellites, post-colonial Britain embodied an idea of Britishness which while restricting who was entitled to belong to the nation, upheld a sense of white Britishness as the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ identity. Non-white identities were permitted to entertain quirks and customs but not to intrude on the core of Britishness by seeking to adapt it to a more representative story of the island or to shift the balance of power away from the core to the periphery.

INEQUALITY AND EMPIRE

Poverty, economic marginalisation, more broadly, remain serious concerns for many Muslim families in the UK’s forgotten working class neighbourhoods. In deprived areas, the question of belonging is less theoretical – it is in the cracked concrete of sub-par accommodation, and in overcrowded homes and queues at food banks. It’s in free school meals replacing missing home meals and in the drugs trade, offering a seemingly lucrative alternative to those failed by the schooling system. The percentage of Muslims in British prisons has increased by over 50% in the last decade. Many of those individuals are detained over drugs charges – less than one percent there on what many would assume to be the source of this swollen number: terrorism charges.

When we discuss deprivation separately from both the history of immigration to the UK and the role of empire within that, we risk truncating the national understanding of why Britain looks the way it does, starting the conversation at immigration, rather than empire. This leads to a sense of white entitlement, grounded in the hierarchies of belonging linked to the concepts of native and immigrant. If black and brown folks are in the UK due to immigration, then this is simply a question of their ‘desire’ to live here, in what is perceived as an inherently more desirable setting, rather than forging continuities between displacement, economic impoverishment of nations such as India, political turmoil created by empire, such as in the cases of Pakistan and Bangladesh and elsewhere. Poverty and inequality in the UK today cannot be discussed separately to the conditions of inequality which forged an unequal starting point and therefore, unequal outcomes, for many people of colour, of which many are Muslims. Solutions to these issues must be approached through a collaborative approach which rejects the essentialisation of Muslim identity as somehow unique and exceptional and instead, focuses on continuities of experiences of deprivation and inequality across communities. Building solid coalitions beyond the Muslim ‘silos’ seems to be an essential part of this, not least to avoid repeating work which others may have been paving the way for long before.

INEQUALITY AND THE MUSLIM LABEL

How useful is the ‘Muslim’ label? During policy conversations around Muslims in prisons, I often question to what extent the label ‘Muslim’ is even helpful when it appears that class and race are far more relevant explanatory variables. Although some issues faced by Muslims in British prisons are religion specific, it seems the risks associated with locating the root of the problems which led to incarceration within ‘Muslimness’ simply reinforces the enduring perception of Muslims as a problem community. This in turn shifts the focus of policy solutions away from structural solutions towards ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ ones.  With that said, sometimes Muslim is the right label, particularly when we discuss Islamophobia.

As the government recently announced its decision to reject a working definition of Islamophobia on the grounds that it could impede legitimate criticism of the religion, it has become clear that there is serious resistance to recognising structural issues of discrimination in the UK. It took the February 1999 Macpherson report to recognise institutional racism within the police force and to provide a working definition of the term. Macpherson defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”, as “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”. But speaking to the Guardian 20 years on from the McPherson report, Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, said progress reforming institutions was “stagnant”. Institutional racism is one part of the puzzle when grappling with the inequalities faced by British Muslims and key to tackling it is the recognition that questions of struggles for racial inequality cannot be separated from the wider struggle against Islamophobia.  

For years, Muslims and academics working on Muslim issues have listed the manifold ways in which Muslims experience not only ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ of the hate crime variety, but also institutional Islamophobia, a clear and persistent ‘Muslim’ penalty evident from housing to education, employment to dating. Part of this puzzle is the institutional racism which Doreen Lawrence and other campaigners have been flagging for decades – but it contains an additional element, which marks the specificity of Islamophobia, as a form of racism, namely a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.

And more than 20 years since the Runnymede Trust published its seminal report, ‘Islamophobia: a challenge for us all’, it is on the rise. I believe tackling Islamophobia is going to require outreach efforts which have so far been largely limited to interfaith partnerships. While interfaith work has its importance, it is vital to reach out and build coalitions with non-faith groups from political parties, to other minority communities and human rights groups.

In France, the various anti-racism organisations (Anti-Roma, antisemitism, anti-racism, etc) form a united front in challenging the variations in the manifestation of racism, their unity sends a strong message that regardless of political posturing on issues such as the definition of Islamophobia, those experts and activists from different communities recognise the shared nature of the struggle and stand united in opposing it. Such a united front also ensures that any attempts to discount the nature of Islamophobia as indeed a form of racism cannot be used to isolate one community. It also means that the question of definitions would no longer be one pitting the government against the Muslim community’s definition (although the All Party Parliamentary Group is far wider than this), it would be the government failing to recognise a definition shared across a range of anti-racist organisations. Since the validity of a term is partly built on consensus, this would leave the government with the unfavourable option of ignoring anti-racism campaigners from across the different types of racism, which clearly reflects more poorly on their equalities record.

Creating a wider understanding of issues facing Muslims and building empathy within a wider culture of suspicion and hostility is also going to require demystifying Islam itself. Research by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in American found that knowing something about Islam is an even stronger predictor of lower Islamophobia than is knowing a Muslim personally. And yet, positive campaigns around the values of Islam, their relevance for contemporary society and their potential benefit for others are few and far between.

NEGLECTING THE ARTS

On this issue of building awareness around Islam and Islamic values, the arts are a massively underestimated and underfunded resource. Some of the most powerful and culture changing moments in the current anti-racism struggle in America have been created by film and music. For this, independent film-makers and artists, writers, singers and dancers needed to be supported through community funding which is currently virtually absent. Film in particular has the power to change hearts and minds in a way which is virtually unparalleled – stories of underdogs or narratives which challenge the status quo are far more readily heard and understood through this medium than any single other form of communication. Studies show that the passive state in which we consume film and music make us far more receptive to their messaging than other mediums of communication. Meaningful efforts to shift attitudes towards Islam and Muslims ignore the power of the media and the arts at our peril – it is in these realms that young Muslims can find their voice, build coalitions with non-Muslim peers and with sufficient funding, produce art on their own terms. It is also through a coalition of business (funding) and the arts (culture) that Muslims can build a power base which makes them a community of producers, whose ideas and contributions are perceived as desirable and needed, versus a community of ‘need’ (requiring support, charity, pity).

The African –American community’s ability to produce films such as “Get out” (Jordan Peele) or series such as “Black-ish” (Kenya Barris) has dramatically shifted the conversations around race issues in America. Today, black cultural pioneers are sought after and courted for their ingenuity and creativity. I have no doubt British Muslims can achieve the same but this will require the allocation of funds towards art based projects, ideally through the creation of patronage systems and an ‘Academy for Muslim Arts’, the aim of which would be specifically to foster British Muslim artistic talent. Example of such success, such as actor Riz Ahmed, and his ability to impose conversations around representation and Islamophobia are indicative of the potential of this avenue.

While British Muslims face a wide range of challenges, one of the greatest is not internalising the essentialising gaze cast upon the community and rejecting efforts to reduce Muslims to a monolithic identity. The current narrative which many Muslims replicate is of a poor and embattled community which needs ‘help’ and sympathy – instead, we need to revamp how we see ourselves and how others perceive us – we need to support, financially and otherwise, those cultural producers forging a new, empowered and confident sense of self – one which recognises the wealth of creativity being produced by the current and next generation. The future culture wars are not being fought in the papers or in books – they are being fought and won on Instagram and social media more broadly, and in the arts, speaking to a millennial generation which cares far more about celebrities than statistics. Shifting the narrative is also going to require the community growing in acceptance of its breadth – the faulty Muslims, the mentally ill Muslims, the ‘imperfect’ range of identities which manifest under this umbrella but whose diversity only enriches the narrow pictures in which Muslims are currently being cast.

Britain needs to start telling a different story of itself, one in which its ‘minorities’ are not an afterthought or a footnote. But Muslims can be a critical part of this shifting conversation, starting by telling our own stories, on our own terms – and using the light of the arts to shine on the real beauty within.


Dr Myriam Francois is a journalist, broadcaster and writer.  Her documentaries have appeared on Channel 4 and BBC among others and her writing has featured widely in the British press, including the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Telegraph, CNN online and Middle East Eye, among others.  In 2019, Myriam set up the website “weneedtotalkaboutwhiteness.com” to open up conversations in the UK around white racial identity and its impact.