A revised version of my blog article, Theresa May and Coalition Government accused of ‘complacency’ over re-hashing failed New Labour policies has now been published on the MCB’s Soundings web-page as part of its PREVENT 2011: towards informed responses feature. You can view the revised version, Against Complacency, by clicking here.
As well as my own article, there will soon be responses to the Coalition Government’s review of the Prevent strategy posted from such commentators as Richard Jackson, David Tyrer, Shamim Miah, Alana Lentin, Derek McGhee, Fahid Qurashi, Yahya Birt, Yunis Alam, Katherine E. Brown and Laura Zahra McDonald amongst others. Already published is an article by my colleague Basia Spalek entitled, A Top Down Approach.
Following on from the blog post, I have given interviews to BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio WM and BBC1′s ‘Midlands Today’ programme. Just in case you are interested in seeing some more of this, you can do so by following the links below:
Live interview with Shelagh Fogarty & Phil Mackie broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live (about an hour in)
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, today pre-empted the publication of the revised Prevent strategy by criticising universities for their apparent “complacency” in tackling radicalisation and Islamic extremism on campus.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, May said:
“I think for too long there’s been complacency around universities. I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place. I think there is more that universities can do”
The slightly longer than normal piece below is the ‘pre-amble’ to a paper that I’m presenting at the University of Leeds on 7th May at a symposium entitled, “Thinking thru’ Islamophobia”. More details about the symposium can be found by clicking here. Much of it derives itself from some of my other pieces about Islamophobia, although it continues to raise important and unanswered problems and dilemmas…
It might come as something of a surprise to realise that just five years ago both the term and concept of ‘Islamophobia’ had little discursive relevance or value across much of Europe. Today however, the same could be no further from the truth. Contemporarily, Islamophobia emerges from some of the most bi-polar extremes across Europe: from those who decry and denounce any criticism whatsoever of Muslims or Islam as being Islamophobic to those who actively and openly espouse the vitriolic hatred of Islam and Muslims founded upon a premise of various ideological justifications. Because of this, neither clear thinking nor expression rarely – if indeed ever – comes into the equation as regards usage or understanding. From the high profile murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the backlash against Muslims that ensued through to complaints about irresponsible parking at mosques during Friday prayers, these myriad and disparate events and incidents are – whether rightly or wrongly – regularly and repeatedly incorporated into the discursive landscape of Islamophobia. Islamophobia therefore is at times little more than an indiscriminate and all-encompassing term that is employed to satisfy or appease a vast spectrum of commentators, actors and perpetrators in varying different measures.
This situation has not necessarily been the same in the UK. Here, October 2007 marked the tenth anniversary of the publication of the groundbreaking and possibly most influential document of its kind, the highly influential Runnymede Trust report, Islamophobia: a challenge for us all. Produced by the Commission for British Muslims and Islamophobia, the report stated in its opening pages that, “Islamophobic discourse, sometimes blatant but frequently coded and subtle, is part of everyday life in modern Britain” It went on, “in the last twenty years…the dislike [of Islam and Muslims] has become more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous”. Who on the Commission at that time, given subsequent events that have unfolded since the report’s publication would – or indeed could – have predicted the situation today?
Back in 1997, the report spoke of how ‘Islamophobia’ – “the shorthand way of referring to the dread or hatred of Islam – and, therefore, to fear or dislike all or most Muslims” – was necessitated by a new phenomenon that needed naming. Nowadays however, that same term is far from new where it is always seemingly lingering in the murky underbelly of our public and political spaces. Yet despite its wider usage, it remains questionable as to whether the debates concerning Islamophobia today and the way we use the term is any more informed than it was ten years ago. Increasingly the debates about Islamophobia sees one side pitted against an other, where claim and counter-claim, charge and counter-charge dictate what we know and more crucially, how we know and subsequently voice ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ Islamophobia.
Why then, despite the Runnymede report being so influential, are we still simplistic in the way that we speak about and understand Islamophobia? Why has a more nuanced usage of the term failed to evolve? And why, ultimately, has Islamophobia failed to be addressed let alone begin to go away? With hindsight the answer, it seems, can be found in the Runnymede report itself.
At the heart of the report’s notion of Islamophobia was the recognition of what it set out as ‘closed’ and ‘open’ views. So important were these views that the report changed its definition of what Islamophobia was: soon after the preceding definition, the Runnymede version of Islamophobia became the recurring characteristic of closed views and nothing more. Conceived by the Commission, the closed views of Islamophobia were seeing Islam as monolithic and static; as ‘other’ and separate from the West; as inferior; as enemy; as manipulative; as discriminated against; as having its criticisms of the West rejected; and where Islamophobia was ultimately becoming increasingly natural. All of which are useful in being able to identify Islamophobia in certain given situations – for example in the media – but how for example might the closed views offer any explanation or even relevance in other equally important situations, in explaining how Muslims are discriminated against in the workplace, in education or in service provision for instance?
In doing so, the Commission failed to offer a clear explanation as to how this might be possible, preferring instead to focus on how say Pakistanis or Bangladeshis were discriminated upon rather than Muslims per se. Not only did this completely overlook the central tenet of what any Islamophobia must surely be, but what with existing equalities legislation rightfully affording protection to those groups such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, so the argument for a specific anti-Muslim anti-Islamic phenomenon was weak and any immediate legislative or other response could be deemed somewhat unnecessary. And so whilst those who held the power to make the changes were far from impressed, so a precedent was set that negated the reality of Islamophobia as a very real and dangerous phenomenon. And also as something that was distinctly different from other forms of discrimination and prejudice.
Because of the emphasis upon closed views, so the report established a simple premise from which those who wanted to detract from or dismiss Islamophobia could easily do so by merely suggesting that if ‘closed views’ equalled Islamophobia, so one must presume that ‘open views’ equalled Islamophilia. Those who wanted to argue against Islamophobia therefore suggested that the only solution being put forward by the Commission was an abnormal liking or love of Islam and Muslims (philia). The black and white duality of the love or hate of Muslims and Islam was therefore the only options available thereby ignoring all those grey areas that exist in. Since 1997 then, all that which has fallen within that grey has been given licence to gain momentum and form the basis upon which more indirect forms of Islamophobia have found favour. So for example, to what extent has a ‘grey’ Islamophobia been underlying the more recent debates about the need for better integration, the ‘death’ of multiculturalism, the niqab as barrier to social participation, the need for universities to ‘spy’ on the students and the need to look for the ‘tell-tale’ signs of radicalisation. What extent the establishment and subsequent unfolding of the entire community cohesion programme?
It is these unaccounted for grey areas that have contributed to a climate where those such as the BNP have found favour and gained an increasingly listened to voice. One result of this was that in 2006’s local elections, where the BNP won 11 of the 13 seats they contested in Barking & Dagenham. Making history through being the first time that a far-right political party has ever been the official opposition in any council chamber in Britain, on the evening of the first Barking and Dagenham council meeting attended by the BNP an Afghan man was repeatedly stabbed outside Barking tube station, his body left on the pavement draped in the union flag. How might the ‘closed’ views offer any explanation of this?
Since 2001, the BNP have become increasingly sophisticated and nuanced in the way in which it has spoken about and referred to Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, the same has failed to occur as regards Islamophobia and so in the Commission’s last report published in 2004 there was little change in evidence, persisting instead with existing notions of Islamophobia, using the same language, ideas and meanings throughout. Continuing to refer to Islamophobia in such simplistic ways is therefore detrimental to understanding. More worryingly, the dualistic ‘either-or’ system of closed and open has reflected how Muslims have increasingly become understood in wider society. Whether ‘mainstream’ or ‘extremist, ‘moderate’ or ‘radical’, as Ziauddin Sardar noted shortly after 9/11, Muslims have since been seen in one of two ways: either as apologetics for Islam or terrorists in the name of Islam. Take this further and the closed and open, apologetics and terrorists easily fall into that simplistic trap of being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. As such, if you’re not a ‘good’ Muslim – moderate, mainstream and ‘open’ – then you can only be ‘bad’ – radical, extremist and ‘closed’. What is known and understood about Islamophobia therefore rests upon the naïve premise that ‘Islamophobia is bad only because it is’ and nothing more.
As noted at the outset, the Runnymede report’s views of Islamophobia were at their most useful in the media. Despite the report’s apparent usefulness in terms of its ease of identification in the media and its associated recommendations to better the media’s representation of Muslims and Islam, the situation has since the publication of the report dangerously deteriorated. If research published by the GLA in 2007 is anything to go by, the amount of coverage in a ‘normal week’ relating to Muslims and Islam in the British press has increased by almost 270% in the past decade. Of this, just over 90% of this dramatic increase is entirely negative and typically rooted in stories relating to war, terrorism, threat, violence and crisis. If this is where the report was most useful, where then has the Runnymede report achieved its impact?
A decade on from the publication of the Runnymede report and a climate of ever worsening mistrust, misunderstanding and misrepresentation can be easily witnessed. Whilst the Runnymede report stated in 1997 that Islamophobia was becoming ‘more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous’, so in 2008 the same phenomenon has become more natural, more normal and because of this, far more dangerous than ever before. The need for a new approach to tackling Islamophobia is therefore clearly required, as indeed is a new language and greater knowledge to both explain and respond to the subtleties and nuances of Islamophobia that are at present overlooked and subsequently allowed to take root and flourish.
Given that the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia is once again in the process of reforming, so the need for a much more radical approach to Islamophobia is required, going beyond the ‘simple and stupid’ approach of its previous reports. If the Commission – and indeed Muslims and wider society alike – fail to do this, then it is highly likely that in another ten years we will be speaking at the end of another decade without having made any advances whatsoever, whether in understanding and defining Islamophobia or indeed, even beginning to tackle it. Now is the time to be much bolder and braver, addressing Islamophobia for what it is now and not what it was then. In doing so, we will become much clearer as to what Islamophobia is and more importantly, what Islamophobia is not.
Underpinning the discourse and rhetoric, exists a highly fluid, protean and largely inconsistent phenomenon that as yet has failed to be adequately captured. As Marcel Maussen critically highlights, ‘“Islamophobia” groups together all kinds of different forms of discourse, speech and acts, by suggesting that they all emanate from an identical ideological core, which is an “irrational fear” (a phobia) of Islam’. With so many disparate events, activities, actions and attitudes either emerging from or being expressed as a consequence of Islamophobia, simplified discourses, definitions and terminologies that even include the term Islamophobia itself fail to properly and adequately provide enough explanation or understanding to a phenomenon – whether real or otherwise – that has had such a dramatic impact on both Muslim and non-Muslim communities here in the UK and beyond across the continent.
Given this recognition, how then do we move towards a better means of defining and conceptualising Islamophobia? How do we stop ‘keeping it simple and stupid’?
This month’s Birmingham Post column (published on Thursday 7th February) draws upon some of the thinking from previous entries to this blog so don’t be surprised if some of it is familiar. What’s really good about this is that when I submitted it to the Post, the editor responded:
“I think this is a really good piece, thought-provoking and challenging. I don’t agree with it all – but isn’t that the point?”
Brilliant…!!! Well done to the Post for publishing it with no changes whatsoever…
You’ll remember how in 2006 Jack Straw declared how uncomfortable he felt speaking to Muslim women wore the full-face veil or niqab. For him, it was ‘a visible statement of separation and of difference’. Rumour has it that when Mr Straw returned to Blackburn after his announcement, he was confronted by a mob of angry niqabis one of whom shouted, “How dare you show your face round here…!!!”.
That is of course a (bad) joke and one I’ve told many times over the past year or so. I joke because it feels as though we’re in a bit of a ‘silly season’ when it comes to news about Muslims. And so recently we’ve had stories such as: Dudley Council banning toy pigs that offend Muslims; Muslim shop assistants allegedly refusing to handle books of children’s bible stories; and a re-telling of the traditional three pigs story being rejected as it would not sell to a Muslim audience.
Whether these stories are true remains open to debate. A report I worked on entitled “The Search for Common Ground” for the Greater London Authority proved how inaccurate similar stories about the ‘banning’ of Christmas and Jesus were despite being covered in the national tabloids.
Alongside these, Gordon Brown has recently launched the Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, David Cameron’s jaunt to Davos was about how ‘the West’ must stop and reverse the radicalisation of Muslim youth, and the Home Office has issued a phrasebook to police officers on how to speak about terrorism and radicalism without causing Muslim offence. As one respondent on the Times website wrote about this latter story, “Maybe they should also issue special shoes to PCs where the soles are replaced with egg shells?”. Give it a week and this will be front-page news no doubt.
In last week’s annual British Social Attitudes Survey, evidence suggested that ‘racial’ prejudice is on the increase. In 2001, 25% of Britons described themselves as being prejudiced. Today, the figure is 30% or 1 in 3 of the population. The reason for this increase has been linked to the fallout from 9/11 and 7/7, a period within which the newsworthiness of Muslims and Islam has rocketed. In some ways then, maybe ‘racial’ prejudice has become equitable with ‘Muslim’ prejudice. Ironically, the Home Office suggests that the term ‘Islamophobia’ should no longer be employed.
The Post itself has had two front pages in the past week relating to Muslims: the first, the Birmingham-based terror-plot to behead a British Muslim soldier; the second, the growing incidence of ‘honour killings’ in the region.
All well and good because if Muslims – or indeed anybody else – commit a crime or are involved in something newsworthy, then I have no problem with it being reported or covered. More worrying for me was the closely cropped photo of a Muslim woman’s eyes peering out from behind a niqab that accompanied the ‘honour killing’ story.
Since the Jack Straw incident, this immediate and unmistakeable image has acquired a symbolic and iconic status. Without reading the article, any reader picking up the newspaper would have known straight away what the story was about. And so despite ‘honour killing’ being a cultural rather than a religious abhorrence, the reader would probably have identified it as a Muslim ‘problem’.
The image of a pair of the eyes behind a niqab has in the past 18 months been used completely indiscriminately, ranging from the hideously offensive and superficial (the ‘Big Burqa Debate’ and ‘Burqa Babes’ that some tabloids ran back in 2006) to the harrowing and truly tragic (as with Bekhal Mahmod who, as the Post reported, was living in fear of her life). Unfortunately for the reader, it is unlikely that they would have made – initially at least – any distinction between tragedy and farce: between threat of death and a dislike of squidgy toy pigs due to the ‘one size all’ approach whereby the same photographs indiscriminately accompany a myriad selection of different stories, settings and contexts.
To paraphrase Jack Straw, maybe now it is the photographic image of a Muslim woman wearing the niqab rather more so than the niqab itself that is ‘a visible statement of separation and of difference’.