ODVV interview: Populist narratives conflating...
Like much of Europe and North America, Islamophobia is a serious and growing issue in the United Kingdom, undermining social cohesion and national security. According to the Hope Not Hate charity, Islamophobia has become a driving force behind the rise of far-right movements in the United Kingdom. A poll quoted by the charity shows 35% of Britons believe Islam is “generally a threat to the British way of life”.
Experts and scholars believe the surge of Islamophobia in the United Kingdom has different triggers, including the anti-immigrant prejudice defining Brexit. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims said in a 2018 report that Islamophobia is so prevalent in the UK it has become the country’s “bigotry blind spot.” The cross-party group came up with a working definition of Islamophobia last year, but the British government refused to adopt it on grounds of being vague, harmful to the fight against terrorism and detrimental to free speech. The government adopted a definition of anti-Semitism in 2016.
Muslims are considered to be the most economically-deprived minority group in the UK. According to a 2018 House of Lords briefing, “half of Muslims experience household poverty compared to a national average of 18%, and only one in five of the Muslim population is in full-time employment. ”The independent monitoring group Tell MAMA reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes across Britain increased by 593% in the week after the bloody Christchurch attacks in New Zealand in which a white supremacist killed 51 worshippers in two mosques.
Dr. Muzammil Quraishi is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Salford in Manchester. His teaching interests include racism, discrimination and intersectionality. He is also a member of the International Cultic Studies Association.
In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Dr. Quraishi shared his views about the rise of Islamophobia in the UK, the government’s response to anti-Muslim hate crimes and the role of politicians and political parties in addressing racial and religious discrimination.
The following is the text of the interview.
Q: How do you think the anti-immigration narrative surrounding the EU referendum and the Brexit vote contributed to the rise of Islamophobic sentiments in the UK?
A: For many decades, scholars of discrimination and hate crime have identified key triggers or social environments in which such events are likely to occur. Wide scale populist political narratives which conflate immigration, crime and ethnicity or religion are key drivers for prejudicial views and hate crimes including Islamophobia. Although some advocates of the Leave campaign insisted that their approach was not motivated by prejudice, there were specific incidents where emotive, provocative misinformation specifically framing Muslim populations as threats were presented. For example, UKIP used imagery of political refugees on an anti-immigration poster in June 2016 which was formally reported to the police as inciting racial hatred. There were similar provocations in relation to an earlier party political broadcast via the BBC in February 2016 by UKIP which was accused of scaremongering in relation to threats of up to 15 million Muslims entering the UK if Turkey was to join the EU.
Q: Some scholars are of the opinion that young Muslims who are on the receiving end of racism and Islamophobic attacks are prone to radicalization and can potentially be recruited by the extremist and Jihadi groups such as ISIS. What’s your take on that?
A: This is a complex question without a simple reply. The causes of radicalization to extremist groups as suggested by academics and practitioners is itself contested. However, if we reflect upon the key academic literature for causes, these include push and pull factors. In terms of push factors, there is evidence to suggest that it is the construction of a world-view which emphasizes an “us versus them” perspective which makes individuals susceptible to violent extremism. Without doubt, analyses of cases of violent Islamist extremists in the UK have identified how jihadi groups seek to emphasize stark differences between Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
Islamophobic attacks certainly aid the propagation of such divisive worldviews although I would caution against a simplistic link between victimization and a deviant response. In other words, many Muslims are victims of Islamophobia on a continuum of severity but almost all will not resort to extremist worldviews in response.
Q: On May 21, the Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbin attended an Iftar ceremony at the Finsbury Park, broke fast with members of the north London Muslim community and gave a speech about the importance of solidarity and unity in the society. Can such gestures by prominent politicians serve to foster social cohesion and challenge racial bigotry?
A: Politicians have a very significant capacity to influence public sentiments and attitudes. Such gestures could be dismissed by cynics as tokenistic given any political party’s particular track record on countering religious or racial discrimination. Nevertheless, it certainly raises the capacity for inter-faith dialogue and provides some important counter-narrative to extremists in that it illustrates there is some empathy for religious minorities.
Q: Does the British government have a concrete and reliable plan to tackle Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice? Is there any investment on initiatives countering Islamophobia the same way counter-terrorism initiatives are prioritized?
A: Perhaps the best way to address this question is to briefly examine the recent formal attempt for a working definition of Islamophobia. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims came up with the definition "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness". The definition was adopted by the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and The Mayor of London.
I, along with a number of UK academics was also a signatory for its approval despite awareness of the problems with the definition. For the record, I firmly accept there are problems with the vagueness of the definition and further questions it prompts for explaining ‘Muslimness’. My support was more for the spirit of the initiative than any unquestioned position on its usefulness for law or policy and to move the debate on. What I approved of was the alignment of Islamophobia with the related concept of racialization. The definition was rejected by the government amid criticisms about its vagueness and potential impact upon free speech. It is noteworthy that other very credible working definitions exist such as established by The Runnymede Trust and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), the latter addresses precisely why claims of Islamophobia must not be used to stifle legitimate free speech.
Therefore, there is some considerable distance for policymakers to travel with regards to concrete plans to counter Islamophobia since there is certainly no agreement on what it constitutes at a formal level at least.
Q: Media reports and figures by the Home Office show hate crimes targeting Muslims rose by 593 percent in the week following the Christchurch terrorist attacks in New Zealand. How do anti-Muslim narratives, Islamophobic incidents and anti-immigration policies in other countries affect the security of Muslim community in Britain? Why do you think anti-Muslim incidents surged following the Christchurch tragedy?
A: As a criminologist, I am cautious of interpreting official criminal statistics without acknowledgement that they are the outcome of complex processes of social interaction. In other words, a rise in reports may indicate more effective reporting systems or increased trust in the same. Nevertheless, since the statistical jump follows a well-publicized specific incident then it is likely that the incident and rise are in some way connected. The official statistics are also supplemented by reports to Muslim organizations such as Tell Mama which again illustrates confidence in reporting. It is likely that the real number of incidents is far higher, as is the case with most reporting of crime.
The globalization of formal news channels and the ubiquitous nature of social media mean that international incidents absolutely have the capacity to influence localized behavior. Whenever incidents involving Muslim aggressors are broadcast, they inevitably seek to draw Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people into focus. The religion or ethnicity is constructed to be the source of the pathology and there is a tendency to group Muslims into a homogenous deviant group with little room to engage with important counter-narratives about religious pluralism without reification of the initial associations being made.
The only explanations I can offer for the increase in anti-Muslim incidents following the Christchurch terrorist attack center upon how the far-right use such incidents to provoke responses. Such events can serve to embolden right wing extremists to declare victory and to denigrate the lives of victims. Equally, Muslims who felt outrage are more likely to vent this bringing them into potential direct conflict with anti-Muslim people. A marked pattern in the incidents reported following the Christchurch attack was how many incidents were in person rather than online. This could indicate that individuals feel there is less means of tracing them, in other words they do not leave a digital footprint. These incidents also echo early research on hate crimes which point to the production of social climates which embolden far right activists to commit violence against visible ethnic minorities since they feel they have the will of the silent white community and therefore will not be challenged by their peers.
Q: How will Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims in workplace, academic setting and public sphere affect social cohesion? How is it possible to effectively respond to this phenomenon?
A: The impact upon social cohesion is already evident in terms of how Muslim populations have reported their feelings of alienation, marginalization and disenfranchisement in many studies of Muslims in Europe in the fields of education, criminal justice, commerce and the public sector. The strategy for countering anti-Muslim discrimination is multi-fold and should include work on useable legal definitions of Islamophobia; greater capacity and transparency for reporting incidents; promoting education about Muslims and Islam and countering negative stereotypes; supporting minimum standards in journalism to counter Islamophobic reporting; and supporting advocacy groups and enable legal challenges for victims.
Q: Are the Imams and leaders of Muslim community in the UK playing a positive role in encouraging interfaith dialogue and bridging the gaps between Muslims and members of other social strata?
A: In addition to formal structural level institutional support outlined earlier, there is a need for Muslim communities to engage further in inter-faith dialogue. This is definitely happening in large cities and across sectors such as in prisons – an area I research – and in universities. There are great examples of initiatives such as open Iftars during Ramadan, charitable work with homeless people; inter-cultural cooking events and united displays of public mourning following high profile incidents and tragedies. However, there is definitely scope for deeper inter-faith engagement across the UK, particularly in areas where both Muslim and local established communities are socially deprived.
By: Kourosh Ziabari