The scourge of Islamophobia

In the space of just a couple of decades Islamophobia has become the bane of western societies. In Britain, its incidence has soared as it has become embedded in the very core of our institutions. Maz Saleem analyses the pervasiveness of this more acceptable face of racism and how it is manifested in everyday social and political life.

A phobia, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is ‘an extreme fear or dislike of a particular thing or situation, especially one that is not reasonable’. 

Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism which manifests itself in an exaggerated fear, hatred, hostility and rejection towards the Islamic religion and Muslims, perpetuated by negative stereotypes.

When these result in bias, discrimination and the marginalisation and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, educational institutions and against the civic lives of Muslim individuals and communities, it is called institutional Islamophobia.

In line with the definition of institutional racism employed by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry institutional Islamophobia consists of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their Muslim background or faith. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and stereotyping which disadvantage those perceived to be Muslim.

Islamophobia is not a 21st century phenomenon. The 2015 Islamic Human Rights Commission report ‘Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK’ by Arzu Merali and Saied Reza Ameli shows that even pre-9/11, Muslims were widely viewed as different and as a threat to national security.  However, as the report also highlights that Islamophobia and institutional Islamophobia have increased exponentially over the past two decades.

Anti-terrorism laws

There are several areas in which institutional Islamophobia manifests itself in the UK. Most prominent of these is anti-terrorism legislation.

Under the controversial Schedule 7 counter-terror law, Muslims are being detained in disproportionately high numbers at ports and airports even though the conviction rate from such stops is 0.007%, according to the human rights group CAGE. In the 20 years it has been in operation approximately half a million people have been stopped under this power.

Muhammad Rabbani, International Director for CAGE, says:

“The discrimination faced by Muslim travellers highlights how embedded Islamophobia is in Schedule 7, and in broader counter-terrorism powers. Officers routinely ask intrusive questions about religion and practice, which amounts to a modern-day inquisition.”

“Over the last decade alone, Schedule 7 has seen over 400,000 people stopped, 99.993% were  innocent of any wrongdoing. This highlights the disproportionate use of the power and illustrates its abuse with devastating consequences for thousands of people. The practice amounts to the most exhaustive racial profiling strategy witnessed in modern times.”

Schedule 7 is part of the Terrorism Act, 2000. But running parallel to the legislative framework to combat “terrorism” (an amorphous ever-widening term that seems to be based more on political expediency than any precise definition) is another sinister social engineering programme that seeks to eradicate views and beliefs of resistance within the Muslim population. It is called PREVENT. Ever since its introduction in 2003 Prevent has focused its attention primarily on Britain’s Muslims and has probably done more than any other policy or law to entrench their status as “problematic” citizens. It has been widely criticized for spying and infiltrating Muslim communities, browbeating and financially inducing them to become compliant and assimilated.

In 2015 the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act widened the scope of Prevent even further, placing a duty on specified institutions and authorities to be vigilant and show “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” As a result, nearly two million public sector workers are trained to spy on Muslims for signs of extremism. The government has outsourced its intelligence gathering to normal society. Human Rights organisation ‘Liberty’, has called PREVENT the biggest spying programme in British modern history. Most people feel its aims within educational institutions is to disarm Muslim children and adults politically and stop them from speaking out.

Education

Education is another area in which institutional Islamophobia is pervasive.

The National Education Union has been concerned at the insidious ways in which Islamophobia is operating and intersecting at the structural, community, cultural and interpersonal levels and is becoming part of society. They have expressed the normalisation of anti-Muslim racism must not be allowed to blight and affect the lives of Muslims, and everyone perceived to be Muslim. It undermines the concept of equal rights for all and as such undermines British democracy.

Young Muslim children in the UK say they have been called “terrorists” at school and been told by strangers to take off their headscarves. In 2018 alone, according to government figures, religious hate crime increased by 40% across the UK, with more than half directed at Muslims.

The NEU has stated that at ‘at national level, the debates around Brexit, the anti-Muslim narrative of senior politicians, the securitisation agenda including Prevent and the statements by the head of OFSTED are worryingly impacting on schools and colleges’.

The NEU has also raised deep concerns about the PREVENT policy saying that it encourages treating pupils as ‘suspects not students’. Evidence has continued to mount that the PREVENT policy is causing fear and discrimination for Muslim pupils. In the NEU’s report ‘Barriers’ teachers talked about how “PREVENT is so strong that teachers feel that disagreeing with them is seen as condoning extremism and there is pressure to ‘watch’ Muslim students and their work.” The emphasis on PREVENT, and in particular, on Muslims, left many teachers feeling conflicted about their role as teachers and (for some) as members of Muslim communities.

The third-highest number of PREVENT referrals comes from the education sector but only five per cent of referrals are sent to Channel, a programme providing support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism. High referral rates according to the NEU ‘could be a sign that teachers are misreading the signs of radicalisation or they are being overcautious or using a form of profiling. However, a referral can mean long term stigmatisation and trauma for the child’.

PREVENT is also having a hugely detrimental effect on Muslims in the health sector.

The PREVENT duty was introduced in the NHS in 2011, not because there was evidence associating terrorism to health issues but because of moral duty for everyone to play their role in countering terrorism and radicalisation.

Islamophobia in the National Health Service is legitimised through policies in healthcare by prejudice towards Muslims. NHS staff have been told that they must trust their “gut feelings” when looking for key signs of radicalization, according to Dr Tarek Younis. He goes on to say in his most recent work ‘Islamophobia in National Health Service: An Ethnography in PREVENT’s Counter-Radicalisation Policy’, that ‘no other social ill with such deficient evidence has such a strong public duty. He asks why there is not a dedicated programme to report (largely white male) pre-criminals vulnerable to spouse violence considering that in a period of just three years there have been 300 domestic homicides in the UK

Younis states that the advice to use your ‘gut feeling’ is key to understanding how racial prejudice is legitimised through institutional racism. He gives an example of a GP who immediately thought of PREVENT when a Muslim male said he wanted to homeschool his children. The doctor withheld asking further questions. This is just one example of a racialised interaction between doctor and the patient. Would the GP have thought of PREVENT if the patient was white and wanted to homeschool their child?

Media

Much of what is known about Islam and Muslims in Western societies is derived from the mass media. Studies have shown that over three-quarters of people in Western societies rely on the mass media, mainly television, as their primary source of information about Islam and Muslims.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the sustained intensity of media coverage of Islam and Muslims resulted in an almost universal distorted awareness of Islam and its beliefs.

Research has shown that Western media coverage of terrorism is often based on Islamophobic assumptions. Islamophobia in the Western media is increasingly spreading to other parts of the world, which rely on Western news outlets, yet have little everyday exposure to Muslims.

In the UK, there are many examples of news headlines and coverage that could potentially instill fear and the possibility of ‘otherising” Muslims. Mainstream newspapers such as The Daily Express, The Sun and The Times, the Daily Mail have run offensive headlines, including “Ramadan A Ding-Dong”, “Christianity Under Attack”, “Muslims ‘Silent On Terror’”, “Britain Goes Halal… but Nobody Tells Public’’, “1 in 5 Brit Muslims Sympathy For “Jihadis” and others.

While these are some of the most obvious examples, instances of Islamophobia also exist in other parts of the media and entertainment, including newspapers, radio, TV and films. Since the war on terror, the representation of Muslims in the media is as a domestic terrorist threat. Immigration, the niqab/burqa, and forced marriages have bene used as tools to portray Muslims as ‘foreigners’, and ‘outsiders’. The so-called Muslim grooming scandals tag all Muslim males as predatory.  Mosques and madrasas are regularly represented as ‘problematic‘ and incompatible with British society.

The portrayal has been largely negative and stereotypical informed often by a violent, radicalised Islamophobic narrative. The British media contributes daily to growing tensions between communities through negative representations of Muslims and consistently carries Islamophobic stories that play to the far-right.

It has become a mainstay of western journalism that Muslims are asked to condemn every alleged terrorist attack carried out by any Muslim anywhere in the world. Yet few in the mainstream media even stop to consider that the majority of victims of terrorist attacks are Muslim.  A 2019 study by researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Alabama found that journalists are much less likely to dedicate coverage to terrorist attacks not committed by Muslim perpetrators – attacks committed by Muslims get 357% more media coverage than attacks committed by other groups.

Criminal Justice

The UK often claims to possess the finest justice system in the world, with a “colour blind” approach to the law. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Historically, the UK justice system has been used to legitimise slavery, and then colonialism, from Victorian days. The British Empire has institutionalised apartheid and discrimination since its inception.

Take for example, the brutal killing in 2013 of my father, Mohammed Saleem, by neo-Nazi terrorist and mosque bomber, Pavlo Lapshyn.

The injustices within the legal system made us feel we had regressed back to the 1980s and to the days of the National Front – frightening times when non-white families would not dare venture out after dark or on days when football matches were being played. I remember growing up in an inner-city area of Birmingham popular with skinheads. We remember bricks thrown into passing cars and Asians being spat on by thugs with scary tattoos and body piercings. Many of these memories come flooding back when I see images of the English Defence League and Britain First.

I will draw upon my own family’s experiences of criticism of the judiciary and the police.  Not much seems to have changed since the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. My 82-year-old father, Mohammad Saleem, was knifed to death by Lapshyn, a self-confessed white supremacist, as he walked back home after attending prayers in his local mosque in Small Heath, Birmingham. After my father’s murder we were treated with suspicion by the police and placed under surveillance. We were all suspects for our fathers brutal murder according to West Midlands police – to the point that I believe one of us would have been charged if Pavlo Lapshyn had not been caught standing at a bus stop near our house in Small Heath, Birmingham (months later) based on random evidence given by an alleged ‘drug addict’ from the area (we were told by police). When we saw our father’s body in the mortuary for the first time since his brutal killing we were subjected to two male family liaison officers staring at our reactions as if we were all potential suspects rather than victims of one of the vilest Islamophobic terrorist acts on UK soil.

Our father’s body remained in the mortuary for many months and this was excruciatingly painful for all of us especially because, Islamically, the burial should be completed as soon as possible. Understandably, given the circumstances, we knew it would take longer but we didn’t expect several months to pass. We were subjected to seven inquests in which the coroner played the role of God. During the first two inquests he seemed sympathetic to our religious beliefs, but then his abruptness left us feeling distressed. We were desperate to get our father’s body released from the mortuary but the lack of compassion and a two-week holiday in between these inquests left us deeply upset and angry. We were told that if we dropped our official complaints about West Midlands police and they would consider releasing the body.

Islamophobia in the Conservative Party

The Muslim Council of Britain, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and many other high profile organisations and politicians have expressed their concern over Islamophobia in the Conservative Party being ignored quite blatantly. 

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has publicly humiliated Muslim women who wear the niqab and the burqa. Boris Johnson has faced much criticism but he has still refused to apologise.   In 2014 he published a blatantly Islamophobic book “Seventy-Two Virgins – A Comedy of Errors” with references to “Islamofascists”, “Islamic headcases” and “Islamic nutcases” and a stereotypical suicide bomber plot.

The Muslim Council of Britain has repeated many times their call for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.  And now, following a ridiculous number of Tory candidates, members and Councillors being suspended for anti-Muslim comments and abuse, Baroness Warsi has admitted that there were “weekly occurrences of Islamophobic incidents“ in the Conservative Party.

There have been an unprecedented number of cases that have been brought to the public’s attention, suggesting a culture within the Conservative Party where Islamophobia is not only widespread, but institutional.  The Tories have disgracefully ignored calls for an independent inquiry on anti-Muslim hatred and are failing to take action against Islamophobes in the party such as MPs including Bob Blackman, Zac Goldsmith, Michael Fabricant and Philip Hollobone.

Recommendations and Opposition

The government needs to adopt a definition of Islamophobia. In contrast to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, drawn up by Jewish groups, it has so far resisted an agreed definition put forward by campaign groups and Muslim organisations.

The racist PREVENT duty needs to be scrapped as soon as possible because it has been a catastrophic failure. There is absolutely no evidence that PREVENT has actually prevented any act of “terrorism”. From the very start it has almost entirely focused on abhorrent racial profiling of Muslim communities. PREVENT has fuelled the perception that there is an inherent problem of “extremism” in the community. There also needs to a far-ranging public inquiry into Islamophobia similar to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the outcome must be implemented into all social and political institutions.

The government must give priority to educating people about Islam and its historical positive influence and contribution in the world. It must also demand better from the mainstream media.

The UK Government should commit to ending all involvement in military intervention in foreign countries and to strengthen its efforts to resolve conflicts humanely and peacefully. This is extremely important in reducing political violence and it is important to end disastrous British counter terror policies which only have resulted in bloodshed, a huge refugee crisis and anti-Muslim hatred across the globe.

Maz Saleem is an active anti-war and anti-racist campaigner who has written for a variety of publications, including the Independent, 5Pillars, Middle East Eye and Stop the War Coalition websites. Maz will soon be launching an educational website addressing ‘Anti-Muslim Hatred’ and delivering anti-racist workshops in schools in memory of her father, www.efpmohammedsaleem.com – Education for Peace in memory of Mohammed Saleem.