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’?