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'A challenge for us all': Study highlights prevalent Islamophobia in UK

Report calls for independent inquiry into 'discriminatory' Prevent strategy and adoption of definition of Islamophobia as 'anti-Muslim racism'
London Muslims in demonstration of solidarity after the 3 June London Bridge militant attack (AFP)

In 1997, a landmark report by race equality think tank Runnymede Trust introduced the word “Islamophobia” into public discourse. Years later, and Islamophobia has become so prevalent that one politician claimed it has “passed the dinner table test”.

The Trust’s original report “Islamophobia: A Challenge for us All” has been followed up with a new report, “Islamophobia: Still a Challenge for us All,” which features contributions from 23 academics and maps Islamophobia across society.

It also contains harrowing individual stories that range from school playground bullying to unrestrained verbal abuse to workplace discrimination.

Included is testimony from Jasvir, a turban-wearing Sikh man who was called Bin Laden online after the Brexit referendum and told to “f*** off back to curryland,” and Sahar, a niqab-wearing woman who was told at a job interview that while her CV was “good” it was “too Islamic”.

Tariq (not his real name), an American social scientist pursuing his Phd in the UK recalls a research tutor who he says would “make certain comments about my beliefs or origins that were easily veiled as ‘banter’”.

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Tariq, who has turned to therapy to cope, said that he struggles because he can never “prove” what has happened. “You constantly question whether something that happened was indeed an attack or not.”

Anti-Muslim racism

To help victims of Islamophobia seek justice and to help the wider public better understand it, Runnymede proposes the government adopt their definition, the short version of which is: “Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism.”

The UK’s Equality Act already covers discrimination on the basis of religion and belief, but Farah Elahi, a research analyst for the Runnymede Trust, said that the law does not “offer clarity on what that discrimination looks like”.

“The report tries to bridge the gap between the legal protection that’s offered and the public understanding of what this discrimination is.

“This definition captures what we feel are the most salient aspects of Islamophobia and its impact on individuals.”

What we want to do with the report is to widen the debate that so that the government’s integration strategy should be focused on eradicating inequalities

- Farah Elahi, research analyst 

The report also calls for an independent inquiry into the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy; and it demands that media regulators give corrections and retractions equal prominence to original articles that falsely portray Muslims in a negative light.

"There is substantial evidence that among the government’s four counter-terrorism strands, the current Prevent policy is discriminatory, disproportionate and counterproductive," the report says.

"Given the mounting evidence, the independent review must answer whether the Prevent strategy should be withdrawn and how to better separate the state’s security apparatus from wider safeguarding or social policy strategies."

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The domestic and global context for Muslims has shifted dramatically in the past 20 years, the study says.

“After 9/11 and 7/7, Muslims became a greater focus of policymakers in the UK and around the world, but framed largely in terms of terrorism or as a civilisational threat,” it reads.

“This framing of Muslims is, of course, centuries old, but has re-emerged in new and toxic ways since we published our report two decades ago.”

Muslim woman leaves polling station set up at the Muslim community centre in Ilford, London, 8 June (AFP)
Added to this, Muslims now face what the report calls a “Muslim penalty” of discrimination, unemployment and poverty, with Muslim women faring worse than men.

Research shows that the three groups with the highest rates of unemployment are black Muslim women, Bangladeshi Muslim women and Pakistani Muslim women respectively. Over half of British Muslims are living in household poverty against a national average of 18 percent.

British Muslims have at the same time undergone a demographic explosion. There are nearly three million Muslims today compared with approximately 1.2 to 1.4 million in 1997, with a young median age and a large number born in Britain.

'Good Muslim bad Muslim'

British Muslim communities have become more organised and an activist community has emerged that is challenging Islamophobia directly, the report says.

Yet 20 years ago, Islamophobia was not as high a priority within activist circles as it is today, according to a chapter by Chris Allen, a sociologist and expert on Islamophobia at Birmingham University.

Over half of British Muslims are living in household poverty against a national average of 18 percent

While the Islamic Human Rights Commission had been challenging Islamophobia since the 90s, Allen says that Islamophobia became a central concern for the Muslim community in the years after the publication of Runnymede’s 1997 report.  In order for Muslim civil society groups to make real progress in addressing it “they needed to engage national government, the media and others,” he says.

Formal Muslim-government relations were set in motion between the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and Tony Blair’s Labour government in the late 1990s, but things took a different turn after 9/11 and then the London bombings known as 7/7.

“Not only did the terror attacks result in Muslims and the religion of Islam coming under intense public and political scrutiny, but it significantly shifted the focus of formal Muslim–government relations,” Allen adds.

“New Labour’s thinking about Muslims and Islam became almost wholly framed by matters of security, counterterror and extremism.”

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Allen writes that with the government now “distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ Muslim,” relations with the MCB broke down, politically correct partners with anti-extremist credentials were brought in, and Islamophobia was relegated to the sidelines.

Allen, who resigned from a key government working group tasked with tackling Islamophobia in 2014 because of its inaction, claims that the government criteria over who it worked with rendered “Muslim civic society largely impotent”.

Elahi, the research analyst, sees the current government’s focus on hate crime as an opportunity for Islamophobia to be also be addressed, but that ultimately all sections of society will need to play a part.

“What we want to do with the report is to widen the debate so that the government’s integration strategy should be focused on eradicating inequalities, whether that’s racial inequalities or inequalities faced by religious minority groups,” Elahi said.

“The name of our report is 'A Challenge for us All', so I think it’s important for all of us - whether it’s government, civil society in particular, race equality organisations, the NHS, other public sector organisations, employers - there is an onus on everyone to stand up and challenge discrimination and racism in all its forms.”

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