Insted - Tolerance, Equality, Difference

Tolerance, Equality, Difference


Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia

Islamophobia and race relations

Source: adapted and abbreviated from Islamophobia - issues, challenges and action, Trentham Books 2004. There is background information, plus also a copy of the full report, at


This paper notes that Islamophobia has been present in western culture for many centuries. It has taken different forms, however, at different times and in different contexts. The current context in Britain includes the international situation, concerns about asylum and refugees, and widespread scepticism and agnosticism in relation to all religious beliefs. The paper then discusses the arguments for seeing Islamophobia as a form of racism and notes that most race equality organisations have not yet adequately responded to the challenges that Islamophobia poses. It closes by discussing the concept of institutional Islamophobia. At the end, there are notes on the soures of quotations.

A new word for an old fear

Hostility towards Islam and Muslims has been a feature of European societies since the eighth century of the common era. It has taken different forms, however, at different times and has fulfilled a variety of functions. For example, the hostility in Spain in the fifteenth century was not the same as the hostility that had been expressed and mobilised in the Crusades. Nor was the hostility during the time of the Ottoman Empire or that which was prevalent throughout the age of empires and colonialism. It may be more apt to speak of 'Islamophobias' rather than of a single phenomenon. Each version of Islamophobia has its own features as well as similarities with, and borrowings from, other versions.

A key factor since the1960s is the presence of some fifteen million Muslim people in western European countries. Another is the increased economic leverage on the world stage of oil-rich countries, many of which are Muslim in their culture and traditions. A third is the abuse of human rights by repressive regimes that claim to be motivated and justified by Muslim beliefs. A fourth is the emergence of political movements that similarly claim to be motivated by Islam and that use terrorist tactics to achieve their aims.


In Britain as in other European countries, manifestations of anti-Muslim hostility include:

Contextual factors

Islamophobia is exacerbated by a number of contextual factors. One of these is the fact that a high proportion of refugees and people seeking asylum are Muslims. Demonisation of refugees by the tabloid press is therefore frequently a coded attack on Muslims, for the words 'Muslim', 'asylum-seeker', 'refugee' and 'immigrant' become synonymous and interchangeable with each other in the popular imagination. Occasionally, the connection is made entirely explicit. For example, a newspaper recycling the myth that asylum-seekers are typically given luxury space by the government in five-star accommodation added on one occasion recently that they are supplied also with 'library, gym and even free prayer-mats'. A member of the House of Lords wishing to evoke in a succinct phrase people who are undesirable spoke of '25-year-old black Lesbians and homosexual Muslim asylum-seekers'. In 2003, when the Home Office produced a poster about alleged deceit and dishonesty amongst people seeking asylum, it chose to illustrate its concerns by focusing on someone with a Muslim name. An end-of-year article in the Sunday Times magazine on 'Inhumanity to Man' during 2003 focused in four of its five examples on actions by Muslims.

'We have thousands of asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries living happily in this country on social security,' writes a journalist in January 2004. Arabs, he says in the same article, are 'threatening our civilian populations with chemical and biological weapons. They are promising to let suicide bombers loose in Western and American cities. They are trying to terrorise us, disrupt our lives.'

A second contextual factor is the sceptical, secular and agnostic outlook with regard to religion that is reflected implicitly, and sometimes expressed explicitly, in the media, perhaps particularly the left-liberal media. The outlook is opposed to all religion, not to Islam only. Commenting on media treatment of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked in a speech in summer 2003 that the church in the eyes of the media is a kind of soap opera: 'Its life is about short-term conflicts, blazing rows in the pub, so to speak, mysterious plots and unfathomable motivations. It is both ridiculous and fascinating. As with soap operas, we, the public, know that real people don't actually live like that, but we relish the drama and become fond of the regular cast of unlikely characters with, in this case, their extraordinary titles and bizarre costumes.'

At first sight, the ridiculing of religion by the media is even-handed. But the Church of England, for example, has far more resources with which to combat malicious or ignorant media coverage than does British Islam. For Muslims, since they have less influence and less access to public platforms, attacks are far more undermining. Debates and disagreements about religion are legitimate in modern society and indeed are to be welcomed. But they do not take place on a level playing-field.

A third contextual factor is UK foreign policy in relation to various conflict situations around the world. There is a widespread perception that the war on terror is in fact a war on Islam, and that the UK supports Israel against Palestinians. In other conflicts too the UK government appears to side with non-Muslims against Muslims and to collude with the view that the terms 'Muslim' and 'terrorist' are synonymous. These perceptions of UK foreign policy may or may not be accurate. The point is that they help fashion the lens through which events inside Britain are interpreted - not only by Muslims but by non-Muslims as well.

The cumulative effect of Islamophobia's various features, exacerbated by the contextual factors mentioned above, is that Muslims are made to feel that they do not truly belong here - they feel that they are not truly accepted, let alone welcomed, as full members of British society. On the contrary, they are seen as 'an enemy within' or 'a fifth column' and they feel that they are under constant siege. This is bad for society as well as for Muslims themselves. Moreover, time-bombs are being primed that are likely to explode in the future - both Muslim and non-Muslim commentators have pointed out that a young generation of British Muslims is developing that feels increasingly disaffected, alienated and bitter. It's in the interests of non-Muslims as well as Muslims, therefore, that Islamophobia should be rigorously challenged, reduced and removed. The time to act is now, not some time in the future.

A further negative impact of Islamophobia is that Muslim insights on ethical and social issues are not given an adequate hearing and are not seen as positive assets. 'Groups such as Muslims in the West,' writes an observer, 'can be part of transcultural dialogues, domestic and global, that might make our societies live up to their promises of diversity and democracy. Such communities can . facilitate communication and understanding in these fraught and destabilising times.' But Islamophobia makes this potential all but impossible to realise.

'The most subtle and for Muslims perilous consequence of Islamophobic actions,' a Muslim scholar has observed, 'is the silencing of self-criticism and the slide into defending the indefensible. Muslims decline to be openly critical of fellow Muslims, their ideas, activities and rhetoric in mixed company, lest this be seen as giving aid and comfort to the extensive forces of condemnation. Brotherhood, fellow feeling, sisterhood are genuine and authentic reflexes of Islam. But Islam is supremely a critical, reasoning and ethical framework. [It] cannot, or rather ought not to, be manipulated into "my fellow Muslim right or wrong".' She goes on to remark that Islamophobia provides 'the perfect rationale for modern Muslims to become reactive, addicted to a culture of complaint and blame that serves only to increase the powerlessness, impotence and frustration of being a Muslim.'

Islamophobia and the race relations industry

Hostile statements about Islam and Muslims are often reminiscent of racism. For example, there is the stereotype that 'they're all the same' - no recognition of debate, disagreement and variety amongst those who are targeted. There is the imagery, also, of 'them' being totally different from 'us' - no sense of shared humanity, or of shared values and aspirations, or of us and them being interdependent and mutually influencing. Indeed, they are so different that they are evil, wicked, cruel, irrational, disloyal, devious and uncivilised. In short, they do not belong here and should be removed. These highly negative views of the other are accompanied by totally positive views of the self. 'We' are everything that 'they' are not - good, wise, kind, reasonable, loyal, honest and civilised.

It is sometimes suggested, in consequence, that a more appropriate term than Islamophobia is 'anti-Muslim racism'. An obvious objection to this suggestion is that Muslims are not a race. However, there is only one race, the human race, and there is an important sense in which black, Asian and Chinese people are not races either. In any case, race relations legislation in Britain refers not only to so-called race but also to nationality and national origins, and to the four nations that comprise the United Kingdom. Further, the legal definition of another key category in the legislation, that of ethnic group, makes no reference to physical appearance and is wide enough to be a definition of religion - if, that is, religion is seen as to do with affiliation and community background rather than, essentially, with beliefs.

The United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in 2001 summarised its concerns with the phrase 'racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance'. The equivalent phrase used by the Council of Europe is 'racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance'. Both phrases are cumbersome, but valuably signal that there is a complex cluster of matters to be addressed; the single word 'racism', as customarily used, does not encompass them all. In effect the WCAR argued that the term racism should be expanded to refer to a wide range of intolerance, not just to intolerance where the principal marker of difference is physical appearance and skin colour. For example, the term should encompass patterns of prejudice and discrimination such as antisemitism and sectarianism, where the markers of supposed difference are religious and cultural rather than to do with physical appearance. It is widely acknowledged that antisemitism is a form of racism and in Northern Ireland sectarianism is sometimes referred to as a form of racism. There are clear similarities between antisemitism, sectarianism and Islamophobia, and between these and other forms of intolerance. The plural term 'racisms' is sometimes used to evoke this point.

A description of sectarianism developed by the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland is a helpful description of Islamophobia as well:

Sectarianism is a complex of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures, at personal, communal and institutional levels . It arises as a distorted expression of positive human needs, especially for belonging, identity and free expression of difference but is expressed in destructive patterns of relating: hardening the boundaries between groups; overlooking others; belittling, dehumanising or demonising others; justifying or collaborating in the domination of others; physically intimidating or attacking others.

But in addition to similarities with other forms of intolerance and racism, Islamophobia has its own specific features. Action against it must therefore be explicit and focused - it cannot be left to chance within larger campaigns. Unfortunately, race equality organisations in Britain have been slow to recognise Islamophobia as something they ought to deal with. Already in the 1980s there were campaigns at local levels - one of the most sustained and influential was mobilised by the An-Nisa Society in north west London - to persuade race equality organisations to take action against anti-Muslim hostility and discrimination. The concern was in particular with discrimination and insensitivity in the provision of public services, and with the failure of race relations legislation to prevent such discrimination.

Major representations were made by Muslims during the review of race relations legislation that took place in the early 1990s. The categories in race relations legislation, it was pointed out, derived from the colonial period, when Europeans made a simple distinction between themselves and 'lesser breeds', and when the principal marker of difference was skin colour. In Britain, not-white people were divided into two broad categories, 'black' and 'Asian'. Little or no account was made, in this colonial categorisation, of people's inner feelings, self-understandings, narratives, perceptions, ethics, spirituality or religious beliefs. Nor, it follows, was account taken of the moral resources on which people drew to resist discrimination and prejudice against them.

Continual use of the category 'Asian' by the race relations industry, to refer to most not-white people who were not categorised as black, meant that Muslims were rendered invisible. Even local authorities which in other respects were at the forefront of implementing race equality legislation, for example Brent, subsumed Muslims under the blanket category of 'Asians'. They were insensitive and unresponsive, in consequence, to distinctive Muslim concerns. A third of all British Muslims are not Asians and a half of all Asians are not Muslims. The insensitivity was - and is - particularly serious in relation to the provision and delivery of services.

The objections made by organisations such as An-Nisa in the 1980s and early 90s were ignored by the government. So was a series of articles and editorials throughout the 1990s in the Muslim magazine Q News. At the end of the decade, when the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report was published, an article by a director of the An-Nisa Society in Q News observed that race equality legislation had 'reduced the Muslims, the largest minority in Britain, to a deprived and disadvantaged community, almost in a state of siege . Much as Muslims want to confront racism, they have become disillusioned with an antiracism movement that refuses to combat Islamophobia and which, in many instances, is as oppressive as the establishment itself.' A follow-up article in declared that 'the Muslim community has little faith left in the race industry, at the helm of which is the CRE' and spoke of the CRE's 'mean-spirited hostility' towards Muslims.

In 1975/76, when the Race Relations Act was being drafted and agreed, there was discussion in parliament at committee stage about whether to include religion, along with nationality and ethnicity, in the legislation. The argument was made in particular by Conservative members, supported by some Labour members. The committee as a whole, however, decided to leave religion out, since at that time discrimination on grounds of religion was not considered to be a major harm that had to be addressed. Twenty-five years later, when the Act was amended, the discussion was renewed. But again the government decided not to include religion. Further, no explicit reference to religion appeared in the various codes of practice about the amended legislation issued by the Commission for Racial Equality.

In the meanwhile it is relevant to note that since December 2003, due to legislative requirements at European level rather than to a principled decision by the UK government, discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in employment has been unlawful. For rather longer there has been an anomaly, due to developments in case law since 1976, whereby Jews and Sikhs are defined as ethnic groups and are therefore protected by race relations legislation. The anomaly has been a standing insult to Muslims for two decades and was only partly removed in December 2003. It is still the case that anti-Muslim discrimination is permitted in the provision of goods and services, and in the regulatory functions of public bodies. Public bodies have a positive duty to promote race equality but are not even encouraged, let alone required, to give explicit attention to religion.

Institutional Islamophobia

The failure of race equality organisations and activists over many years to include Islamophobia in their programmes and campaigns appears to be an example of institutional discrimination.

'The concept of institutional racism,' said the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report, 'is generally accepted, even if a long trawl through the work of academics and activists produces varied words and phrases in pursuit of a definition.' The report cited several of the submissions that it had received during its deliberations and included a definition of its own. If the term 'racism' is replaced by the term 'Islamophobia' in the statements and submissions, and if other changes or additions are made as appropriate, the definitions are as shown below.

Reflecting and producing inequalities
Institutional Islamophobia may be defined as those established laws, customs and practices which systematically reflect and produce inequalities in society between Muslims and non-Muslims. If such inequalities accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, an institution is Islamophobic whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have Islamophobic intentions.' (Adapted from a statement by the Commission for Racial Equality.)

Inbuilt pervasiveness
Differential treatment need be neither conscious nor intentional, and it may be practised routinely by officers whose professionalism is exemplary in all other respects. There is great danger that focusing on overt acts of personal Islamophobia by individual officers may deflect attention from the much greater institutional challenge ... of addressing the more subtle and concealed form that organisational-level Islamophobia may take. Its most important challenging feature is its predominantly hidden character and its inbuilt pervasiveness within the occupational culture. (Adapted from a statement by Dr Robin Oakley)

Collective failure
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to Muslims because of their religion. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping which disadvantage Muslims.' (Adapted from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report.)

Culture, customs and routines
The concept refers to systemic disadvantage and inequality in society as a whole and to attitudes, behaviours and assumptions in the culture, customs and routines of an organisation whose consequences are that (a) Muslim individuals and communities do not receive an appropriate professional service from the organisation (b) Muslim staff are insufficiently involved in the organisation's management and leadership and (c) patterns of inequality in wider society between Muslims and non-Muslims are perpetuated not challenged and altered. (Adapted from a statement by the Churches' Commission for Racial Justice.)

Notes and references

The claim that British Muslims must choose between Britishness and terrorism was made by Denis MacShane MP, minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in November 2003. It was compounded by the feebleness of his apology a few days later.

The quotation about prayer mats is from the Daily Mail, 5 October 2001.

The quotation about 'homosexual Muslim asylum seekers' is from Norman Tebbit, The Spectator, 27 April 2002.

The story about the Home Office poster was in The Muslim Weekly, 5-11 December 2003, p.11. The text on the poster read 'Ali did not tell us his real name or his true nationality. He was arrested and sent to prison for 12 months.' This statement was translated into five languages, all of them connected with Muslim countries. A detailed legal reference was given in small print but in fact the case that was cited had nothing to do with asylum and nationality claims.

The quotation about Arab people seeking asylum is from an article by Robert Kilroy-Silk, Sunday Express, January 2004.

The quotation from the Archbishop of Canterbury is from his presidential address at General Synod, York, 14 July 2003.

The quotations from Muslim observers are respectively from Tariq Modood and Merryl Wyn Davies.

The concept of racisms was discussed in the 2000 report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, especially chapter 5.

The quotations from Q News are from articles by Khalida Khan and Faisal Bodi.

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