21 September, 2014

A Personal Reflection on Islamophobia

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Category: European Action Day, Islamophobia, Religious Intolerance
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islamophobia1By Chris Allen – IASS, University of Birmingham

It is almost 15 years since I first began researching the phenomenon of Islamophobia. At the time, I could not believe that more was not being done to tackle it: why were we allowing a situation where real people were being allowed to be routinely prejudiced, discriminated and vilified just because of their religion or how they look? Why, more worryingly, were we allowing people to become victims of crime, abuse, assault and more without doing something about it? It failed to make sense then and it fails to make sense today.

That 15 years has been a long and at times, troubling journey. My research has been shaped by events such as 9/11 and 7/7, by a newly resurgent explicitly anti-Muslim, anti-Islam far-right across Europe, by the barbaric killing of Lee Rigby on the streets of London and more recently, the equally barbaric atrocities of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. All have catalysed hatred against ordinary Muslims going about their everyday lives whilst adding fuel to the fire of those desperate to voice their belief that Islamophobia just doesn’t exist.

Despite such protestations, I have repeatedly come across and indeed contributed evidence to prove that Islamophobia is indeed a very real and dangerous phenomenon. One of the first times I saw this was when I was commissioned to explore Islamophobia in the EU following 9/11 by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia. The evidence showed that across the breadth of Europe, Muslim and other vulnerable communities became routine targets of increased hostility and hatred. Some of this was manifested in terms of physical violence but most was in the form of verbal abuse, harassment and aggression. Muslim women and those who were more ‘visually’ Muslim were the most likely victims whilst mosques were also widely targeted. Sadly but also unsurprisingly, the research I did with Arshad Isakjee and Özlem Young into street-level Islamophobia in Britain showed that more than a decade on, little had in fact changed with visible Muslim women being disproportionate victims of discrimination, bigotry, hate and violence.

I continue to reflect on why this might be so.

Unlike other discriminatory phenomena – though based on race, ethnicity, gender and disability for instance – protecting against discrimination on the basis of religion in particular on the basis of Islam and Muslim-ness has rarely been afforded the same importance over the past twenty years. There have been some changes at different national levels across Europe, but in far too many places either the legislation isn’t tackling the problem or little is being done.

This was evident in the UK setting with the findings of 2010’s British Social Attitudes Survey. When asked, just over half the population stated that they believed that Britain was deeply divided along religious lines. In addition, around 45% said they believed that that religious diversity was having a negative impact on society. It is worth stressing however that whilst neither of these were necessarily Islamophobic or indeed anti-religious, when one drills down into the data it becomes evident that for ‘religion’ read ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’. As such, the findings show a hardening of attitudes towards Islam and Muslims, a situation that continues to be exacerbated by agitators wanting to catalyse ever more hatred and violence.

Changing attitudes and redressing misconceptions is therefore important but this cannot be achieved with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Instead, a more holistic approach is necessary, one that tackles wider processes and manifestations of exclusion, isolation and inequality. Key to this will be the need to utilise and commit to equality and fairness. Equality is not only for those who come from a particular ethnic background, religion or have a disability for example: equality is for everyone and needs to be embraced by everyone. There can be no fair society if age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, sexual orientation or indeed any other marker is allowed to be appropriated and utilised in order to disadvantage. There can be no lasting or deep-rooted progress for disadvantaged groups unless we make a robust case for fairness which involves everyone in society.

Of course, such an approach could present some – including both Muslims as also some from other religious traditions – with a difficult challenge. This will be most prominent and contentious where the rights and equal treatment of those who may be seen to be ‘sinful’ or lesser because of a particular theological interpretation for instance, appears to contest, contend or be contrary to the beliefs and understandings of a religion or belief. However, if we agree that discrimination on the basis of religion or belief needs to be outlawed then so too must we agree that all other forms of discrimination be outlawed too. Discriminate against or deny the rights of one person or group and it becomes much easier for the rights of others to be denied or to be discriminated against also, including one’s own.

This is why such the Europe-wide Day of Action against Islamophobia and Religious Intolerance is so important because it sends out a message that can be seen to be relevant to all. In giving those of us already concerned about Islamophobia and religious intolerance an opportunity to speak about and share our views and research, a new platform arises from which conversations and awareness may ensue. For one day at least, we have a real justification to speak to everyone about just how dangerous and insidious Islamophobia is. It is unwanted and unnecessary in today’s Europe and the sooner we collectively tackle it, the better. The need to act now with speed, clarity, commitment and impartiality is long overdue.

A decade and a half into my journey and Islamophobia is some way from going away. And because of that, neither is my research – nor indeed the research of many others – going away either.


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