First it was a report from the Quilliam Foundation calling for the term Islamophobia to be replaced with ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’, ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ or ‘anti-Muslim hatred’. Despite having been part of the social and political lexicon for almost a decade and half now, Quilliam suggest this change is necessary because of the widespread confusion about what ‘Islamophobia’ means and how it should be used.
Then, Baroness Warsi – using Quilliam’s newly preferred terminology – made a speech stating how she will use her position in the Government to tackle ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’. This was necessary, she argued, because anti-Muslim prejudice had passed the ‘dinner-table test’. It had become socially acceptable.
Fact is that Warsi’s comments tell us nothing new.
Since the publication of the influential Commission for British Muslims & Islamophobia (CBMI) report in 1997, Islamophobia has been recognised as being a part of the fabric of everyday life in Britain. That report added that Islamophobia was becoming “more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous”.
A few years later and my research for the European Monitoring Centre on Xenophobia and Racism (EUMC) into Islamophobia in the EU in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 noted something quite different. Following 9/11, Islamophobia – a diverse and extremely broad range of anti-Muslim, anti-Islam attitudes, expressions, prejudices and discriminatory or exclusionary practices – was identified as becoming increasingly ‘normal’. Whether explicit or implicit, with normality also came acceptability and respectability. As the EUMC summary report put it, “a greater receptivity towards anti-Muslim and other xenophobic ideas and sentiments has, and may well continue, to become more tolerated”.
A decade on and my book, “Islamophobia” (Ashgate, 2010) confirms this. Instead of becoming ‘more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous’, quite the opposite has occurred: Islamophobia has become “understood to be natural and normal and therefore also logical, rational and justifiable”. To use Warsi’s words, Islamophobia has most definitely passed the dinner-table test.
And no matter what Quilliam says to the contrary, it is Islamophobia.
Quilliam’s argument for rejecting the term is that it is confusing, hampers legitimate and valid criticism of Islam and Muslims, and has made it difficult to recognise or identify genuine Islamophobic incidents. At times, all of these are true. But the same would be true quite irrespective of whether the term ‘Islamophobia’, ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ or indeed anything else was preferred. Putting the wolf in sheep’s clothing might make it look friendlier but it doesn’t make the wolf any less dangerous.
Without addressing what is required – the need for a clear definition and understanding of what is and what is not Islamophobia – the same confusion, misuse and so on will continue. And what will be even worse is that once again, tackling the real problem will be overlooked.
As my book argues, a new definition of Islamophobia needs to be recognised and utilised. For me, this would mean differentiating between Islamophobia as an ideology that informs and shapes our speech, attitudes and thoughts, and an Islamophobia which results in exclusionary and discriminatory practices including violence and abuse. If the Government is genuine in its commitment to tackle Islamophobia, then this latter point is particularly crucial.
Some questions about Quilliam’s motivations also need to be asked. I contest its statement that Islamophobia “hands a propaganda coup to Islamists”. In over a decade of research into Islamophobia, I have found no evidence whatsoever that ‘Islamists’ – a descriptor that many Muslims and non-Muslims find highly contentious – are using the term to their own ends. None. Maybe for Quilliam, suggesting this fits more with their own political and organisational agendas than anything else.
Conflating Islamophobia with ‘Islamist extremism’ is also extremely dangerous. Doing so can indirectly legitimise the lazy stereotypes that equate all Muslims as terrorists as well as feeding into the messages of those such as the English Defence League. Such associations are unnecessary and unwanted and if the phenomenon is to be properly addressed, then it is time we moved beyond the naïve and immature assumption that Islamophobia will disappear if and when the threat and reality of ‘Islamist extremism’ is eradicated. As the 1997 CBMI report proves, Islamophobia pre-dates 9/11, 7/7 et al.
Taking Islamophobia seriously – of which anti-Muslim prejudice is a part – is long overdue and so Baroness Warsi’s comments must be welcomed.
Suggesting that we unnecessarily replace the term and that we do this in order to tackle ‘Islamism’ I would suggest must not.