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Islamophobia needs to be redefined
It is vital that we encourage open, honest and mutually respectful debate about the role of Islam and Muslims in British society – Tehmina Kazi
The question: Is hatred of Islam now acceptable?
Ever heard the one about Muslim medics spreading disease across Leicester by refusing to roll up their sleeves in the washbasin? How about the Muslim council employees who “banned” Christmas in Lambeth, renaming “Christmas lights” to the generic-sounding “winter lights?” Both of these stories were reported by mainstream British newspapers during the last four years, and both – as well as dozens more – were found to be suffering from an evidence bypass.
The Channel 4 investigation, Muslims Under Siege from 2008, deconstructed each of these claims respectively: “Not a single doctor or member of staff we spoke to had come across any problems with hand-washing,” and “Christmas was going on as usual, the Christmas tree was up in the town hall, the usual Christmas carols were being sung, the lights were up.” Is it any wonder that the Muslim Paper decided to poke fun at all this, with its May 2010 headline screaming: “Muslims ate my hamster!”
While no one expects the tabloid press to immediately adopt a nuanced take on all things holy, any of the aforementioned errors could have been cleared up with a quick phone call. Most people have higher expectations of the dinner-party circuit’s evidence-gathering abilities, but according to Sayeeda Warsi’s speech at Leicester University last Thursday, Islamophobia has now passed the “dinner-table test.” Is she right?
I’ve found that celebrity conversions are a good way to measure the intelligentsia’s perceptions of a particular religion. They strip away the “softly softly” approach that manifests itself when people talk about members of different ethnic groups, or those who are socially disadvantaged. When Julia Roberts converted to Hinduism, I don’t recall seeing a single comment piece that was dismissive of her choice. However, when Lauren Booth announced that she had become Muslim, there was a barrage of unimpressed responses (Julie Burchill stated that the sort of woman who converts to Islam is “the sort of woman who writes love letters to a serial killer”.). Asking questions about individual political allegiances is one thing, but to insinuate that a white British woman could not find spiritual fulfilment in Islam – unless she was somehow “unhinged” – is quite another.
The flip side of this approach – which is equally unhelpful – is the glorification of groups that happen to be Muslim, but promote a supremacist and isolationist agenda. Certain journalists have become well known for doing this, most likely in a bid to overcompensate for a wider lack of religious literacy. It exacerbates the dilemma of those of us who are caught between a rock and a hard place: between extremism that purports to have a religious basis, and anti-Muslim extremism.
While Warsi is right to state that the current labelling system needs some kind of reform (“We need to stop talking about moderate Muslims and start talking about British Muslims”) this particular suggestion does not reflect the genuine internal struggle that is going on. It is a struggle of values: those who believe in equality and universal human rights, versus those who don’t. Those who campaign against the boycott of Ahmadi Muslim butchers (a minority sect within Islam), versus those who orchestrate the boycott (or, crucially, stay silent). Those who advocate for greater numbers of women to sit on mosque committees, versus those who obstruct their efforts (or again, stay silent).
It is important to challenge both types of extremism without falling into what Kenan Malik describes as a “culture of victimhood.” In my experience, humour and satire tend to be the most effective tools. For instance, when British Muslims for Secular Democracy (the organisation that I work for) assembled a counter-demonstration against al-Muhajiroun in October 2009, we lampooned their placards. Blogs and other social media initiatives – spanning the political spectrum – were unanimous in their support.
As Birmingham University research fellow Chris Allen argues in his book Islamophobia (2010), the term must be redefined: “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.”
The facts and figures, as outlined in the Commission for British Muslims and Islamophobia report (2004) speak for themselves. There is no need to inflate statistics on the latter type of Islamophobia, as some community figures have done for their own ends. It is vital that we encourage open, honest but also mutually respectful debate about the role of Islam and Muslims in British society, as well as different communities’ expectations of each other. I attended a youth event on Saturday evening where EMEL magazine editor Sarah Joseph was speaking, and her words were particularly fitting. I have paraphrased them here: “Islam is not about demanding this and that. It is about serving your community – and that means everyone, regardless of what their beliefs are.”