2007 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the groundbreaking and possibly the 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 the events that have unfolded since the report’s publication would – or indeed could – have predicted the situation everyone is facing 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 indeed 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 how we 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 Islamophobia failed to go away?

With hindsight, the answer can unfortunately 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: the Runnymede Islamophobia thus 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; discriminated against; as having its criticisms of the West rejected; and where Islamophobia ultimately becomes natural. All of which are useful in being able to identify Islamophobia in certain given situations, as for example in the media, but how for example might the closed views offer any explanation – or even relevance – in other equally important situations, for example in explaining how Muslims are discriminated against in the workplace, in education and in the provision of goods amongst everything else?

In doing so, the Commission failed to offer a clear explanation as to how these might be the case, preferring instead to focus on how say Pakistanis or Bangladeshis were discriminated upon rather than Muslims per se. Not only did this completely miss the point 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 so any immediate legislative or other response was deemed to be 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 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 put forward that the only solution being put forward by the Commission was an abnormal liking or love of Islam and Muslims (philia). Love or hate Muslims and Islam were therefore the only two options available where all those grey areas that exist in between have since 1997 been given licence to gain momentum and form the basis upon which more indirect forms of Islamophobia have found favour in say for example in the debates about the need for better integration, the apparent death of multiculturalism, the niqab as barrier to social participation and belonging, the need for universities to ‘spy’ on the students and the need for parents to look for the ‘tell-tale’ signs of their radicalisation.

It is these unaccounted for grey areas that has contributed to a climate where those such as the BNP are have found favour and gained an increasingly listened to voice. One result of this was that in last year’s local council elections, the BNP won 11 of the 13 seats they contested in Barking & Dagenham last year. Making history in being the first time that a far-right political party has ever been the official opposition in any council chamber in British history, on the evening of the first council meeting in the area that was attended by the BNP, whether coincidentally or not, so an Afghan man was repeatedly stabbed outside barking tube station where he was left on the pavement, his body draped in the union flag.

Since 2001, the BNP have become increasingly sophisticated and nuanced in the way in which it speaks about and refers 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, little change was in evidence where the report persisted with its existing notions of Islamophobia, using the same language, ideas and meanings throughout. Continuing to refer to Islamophobia is such simplistic ways is therefore detrimental to understanding where 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’. What is known and understood about Islamophobia therefore rests upon the naïve premise that ‘Islamophobia is bad only because it is bad’ 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 soon to be published research 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 a dramatic 269% in ten years. More worryingly, of this just over 90% of all press coverage is entirely negative typically rooted in stories relating to war, terrorism, threat, violence and crisis. If this is where the report was most useful, what then has the Runnymede report achieved over the past 10 years?

The first decade of Islamophobia has therefore ended in a climate of ever worsening the mistrust, misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Whilst the Runnymede report stated in 1997 that Islamophobia was becoming ‘more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous’, so in 2007 the same phenomenon has become more natural, more normal and because of this, far more dangerous than it has been 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. 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 of the end of the second decade of Islamophobia. 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: something significantly different from a mere shield to deflect those valid criticisms that the wider Muslim communities need themselves to acknowledge and accept.

It is necessary therefore to mark the end of the first decade of Islamophobia with the recognition of the groundbreaking document that was the Runnymede report, Islamophobia – a challenge for us all. But in doing so, we must learn from our mistakes as well as knowing our limitations, allowing us to move forward instead of treading water in order that we might continue gazing into the past.

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One thought on “The first decade of Islamophobia

  1. Peace Chris,

    Nice blog. Ma sha Allah! Nice website!

    We’ve met at Cardiff (where I work) and on the Muslim Chaplaincy course at Markfield (where I’m currently a student).

    I hope all is well with you, insha Allah.

    Abdur Rahman

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