Measures of social inequality, crime surveys, polling data, reports on media bias, all consistently show that Muslims face obstacles which limit their ability to fully participate in society as equals. For too many Muslims, Islamophobia is unnamed but experienced. Its effect ranges from everyday slow burning micro-aggressions to eruptions of violence and murder; its scope extends from classrooms and workplaces to neighbourhoods and state frontiers, from print and social media to the public square. Muslims find themselves framed by Islamophobia in the form of questions around national security, social cohesion, freedom of speech, gender inequality, and cultural belonging. All this, we know already.
For many who fully recognise the scale and prevalence of Islamophobia and the untold ways it continues to hinder the equality of recognition, of participation, and of life outcomes to Muslims in the social, economic and cultural life of this country and beyond, the issue is no longer about a lack of evidence but instead a lack of action.
We also mostly know what we need to know, and what needs doing. We know that incidents of Islamophobia are under reported, and that reporting requires investment in rights education; it also requires the police rebuilding trust with communities, capacity building, training and funding of community-based monitoring, and prosecutions that deliver justice and prove such reporting is worthwhile. We know that racist incidents are far more than the expression of racialised entitlement of who does and does not belong; racism is emboldened and licensed by dog whistle politics, and by state policies, public discourses and media debates around integration, immigration and extremism, in which Muslims are disproportionately over-represented as a problem. These are not random acts of individual prejudice. This much we know.
Struggles for racial justice in Britain are as long as the history of slavery, empire and colonialism, and are both integral to and inextricable from our capacity to reckon with the historic legacies of exploitation and inequality in order to forge more inclusive presents and differently imagined futures. Muslims have and continue to be part of these histories and processes.
Tackling Islamophobia builds on decades of grassroots anti-racist mobilisations, labour organising, and community and religious community building and support. It builds on resistance, street demonstrations, representative organisations, and local and national politics. It draws and builds too on more than twenty years of policy discussions and academic research and publications.
Whole, disparate and diverse global histories go into the making of the present moment. Yet, depictions of the Black Lives Matter mobilisations as something causing and exacerbating racial tensions and divisions show that the entrenched capacity to re-present structural inequality as social cohesion and to render its violence invisible in the language of common sense remains enormous and sobering to the work ahead.
Why another report on Islamophobia? And why now?
The most meaningful question is not why another report on Islamophobia, but why now, and what for. The justification for this new report is the timing and purpose of its intervention. Its timeliness is threefold.
First, it harnesses a propitious growing alignment between academic and policy discussions on the conceptualisation of Islamophobia as racism, on the one hand, and the convergence of Muslim and broader non-Muslim civil resistance activism finding common cause in the racialised nature of the securitarian erosion of civil rights, on the other. This is the realisation, in other words, that the existence of Islamophobia and the lack of political will to act against it affects not only Muslims but the social fabric of democratic society as a whole. Islamophobia unchecked contributes to the undermining of citizenship, equality before the law, and principles of fairness for all.
Second, it capitalises on the momentum of opportunity opened by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims consultation on a working definition of Islamophobia. The APPG consultation heightened expectations of what a widely agreed definition and its statutory take up would mean, and of the signals that such adoption and recognition would send to society at large. Potentially, we were at a tipping point. One year later, as with many such moments, opportunity is mired in confusion. Two confusions, in particular, bedevil any progress. The first is the conflation and misdirection of criticism directed at the APPG with criticism of the definition itself. Lack of greater transparency, for example by publishing the submissions, and of a more inclusive and seamless planning for partnership in the work of championing the definition adopted among communities, failed to ensure the Muslim community stake holding on which its reception depended, and disenfranchisement rebounded on the definition. The second, is a confusion between the wording and the concept, and the tendency to read into the very brevity of the definition, which is one of its strengths, a failure to name each and every dimension of the manifestations of Islamophobia, instead of recognising the encompassing reach of its minimalism. The momentum resulting from the hopes and expectations invested in the promise of the APPG consultation is on the cusp of vanishing along with the definition. The need of this moment is to disentangle the possibilities from these confusions. On this, stands one of the tests of this report.
The third dimension to the timeliness of this report’s intervention in picking up the definition, is the painful realisation that given the makeup of the current government, it is unlikely to do much to mitigate against Islamophobia without popular pressure. All the while, Islamophobia is appeased by the neglect within many civil society organisations, including national public broadcasters, to take action. While the British establishment has not followed French President Macron’s lead in attempting to ban even organisations that campaign against Islamophobia and racism, there has been a reluctance to address the concerns raised, and in the absence of leadership, on the one hand, and the studied silent of the left, on the other, the peddlers of Islamophobia, from op. ed. provocateurs, to right wing think tanks and media outlets, flourish, and its victims are forgotten. This report recognises this context. It is a context that is familiar to those who know the history of resistance to anti-discrimination measures which accompanied every progressive struggle for justice in this country. Like every other attempt to undo discrimination, naming Islamophobia has been greeted with indignant cries that this will mean the end of free speech, the end of civilisation, the end of our way of life; that comedians will not be able to tell jokes, the police will not able to do their job, security will be compromised and our lives rendered less safe. Yet, it is not the undoing of Islamophobia but its unchecked continuation that imperils our freedoms. If anything, the fact that so many of the usual suspects oppose this definition of Islamophobia only demonstrates that it has the potential to be a lever for justice. It would be worrying if the definition was welcomed by those who are part of the problem of Islamophobia rather than its solution.
The Work of Definition
Defining Islamophobia is not an end in itself. It is not the definition itself but increasing the public understanding of the concept that is the key. This report recognises this and underscores that the point of a definition is the use and effectiveness to which it can be put. Among the virtues of this definition, not the least one is its brevity and simplicity. At the heart of this report are two propositions: that Islamophobia is a type of racism, and that its specificity is that it targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.
Islamophobia as Racism
By understanding Islamophobia as a type of racism, this report achieves three things. It places Islamophobia into a broader shared cultural literacy around justice, harms, and recourse which recognisably names and challenges the injustice, and empowers victims and their support. Second, It facilitates its operationalisation, given that many large organisations already have in place mechanisms and protocols for dealing with racism; therefore, by articulating Islamophobia as a type of racism, there is no need to invent new procedures to deal with complaints and concerns that arise. Third, contrary to what is so often argued, it recognises the convergence of critical and ordinary language meanings of race, increasingly recognised as a loose and mobile set of characteristics, and not ‘biology’, upon which difference and relations of power, privilege and exclusion are inscribed, and in which individuals are reduced to group identities.
Islamophobia as targeting Muslimness
Critical to this definition of Islamophobia is the identification of its specificity as a type of racism, namely, the targeting of expressions of Muslimness, or perceived Muslimness. Muslimness is no different from commonly used expressions such as Englishness or Jewishness. It describes a cluster of features (from the names people use to the clothes they wear, from the foods people eat, or do not eat, to the places where they live, or their mannerism and habits) by which in a given situation something is seen as having the quality of being Muslim. As with the Englishness of proverbial bowler hats, stiff upper lip and fair play, it matters little whether the features on which such identifications are made are real or imagined; nor are such features fixed, but rather historically and contextually different, and often highly contradictory. As with all stereotypes, it is not their truth that is at stake but their currency as a way that people make sense of the world. As the tragic cases of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes and the American Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi show, one does not have to be a Muslim to be killed for being perceived as one.
A Peoples’ Definition
Definitions are a means to an end. Once a definition is accepted in the culture, the real work comes from the investments we are prepared to make in its institutional embedding and purchase. Defining Islamophobia does not put an end to disagreements or the need for judgement about whether individual claims or incidents are or are not instances of Islamophobia; any more or any less than having a legal definition of racism means that we no longer see disputes about whether something or someone is or is not racist. Rather, it is through growing public awareness and confidence in its use, and the recognition of its standards that we raise the threshold of publicly acceptable speech and actions and render our societies more inclusive and democratic. The real test of a definition is the cultural currency it attains, and for this, two things are critical: one, that it be intuitively meaningful and easily recalled; and two, that it aligns with familiar vocabularies of social justice. Above all, it means a definition that can be championed as a people’s definition. While this definition emerged from the initiative taken by the APPG on British Muslims, the work that it can do hinges entirely on its being taken up by those it has to serve. Empowerment has to come from a popular understanding that Islamophobia is a type of racism, and as such it has no place in society. This is entirely in keeping with the history of anti-racism in this country: legislation did not trigger anti-racism, it was the struggles of anti-racist activists and campaigners and their success in changing the conversation of the nation around ‘race’ that triggered legislation.
The real test of a definition and its operationalisation is not the court of law. It is in the concrete and practical difference its contribution to the greater literacy of injustice and justice makes to mitigating the effects of Islamophobia. This hinges on whether it addresses two questions: Does it give someone who would otherwise suffer in silence the language and the confidence to bring forth their grievance and seek recourse? And, does it make it more likely that in each sphere of life, work and social interaction, those in bodies committed to enforcing the principles and laws of equality, inclusiveness and diversity will the more readily recognise and act upon such grievances? If the answers are yes, then this definition has met its only real test.
S. Sayyid, University of Leeds
AbdoolKarim Vakil, King’s College London
* ‘Based on foreword’ to Defining Islamophobia: A Contemporary Understanding of How Expressions of Muslimness are Targeted, Muslim Council of Britain, 2021, pp.8-11