ODVV interview: Islamophobia within the UK has...
Britain is a diverse and multicultural society and has been long benefiting from its integration of minorities from across the globe. Ethnic minorities make up %12 of the working-age population in the UK. According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, the foreign-born population in the UK increased twofold from 5.3 million to around 9.4 million between 2004 and 2017. Poland is the most common country of birth among migrants in the UK. It is followed by India, Pakistan, Ireland and Romania.
Diversity is vital for the legitimacy and survival of any representative democracy. More than 200 years into the modern experiment with democratic governance, leaders of the developed world have come to the conclusion that diversity is essential to the growth and prosperity of their nations. This holds true for Britain, which has been admitting thousands of immigrants and refugees in the recent years, both in fulfillment of its humanitarian responsibilities and to take advantage from the talents and capabilities of the skilled foreign workers, students, academics and experts.
That said, furious debates have arisen over immigration and multiculturalism in Britain lately, especially in the run-up to and aftermath of the EU referendum in 2016. For many of those who voted in favor of the separation of the United Kingdom from the European Union, immigration was a key issue. Some scholars argue that anxieties surrounding the growth of the number of immigrants and refugees in the UK was what persuaded the majority of British citizens to vote for leaving the EU.
The rise of intolerance and racism in Britain, which is believed to have been exacerbated after the Brexit vote, is a cause of concern for those who believe diversity is one of the advantages of the British society. According to an October 2018 report on The Guardian quoting figures by the Home Office, the number of recorded hate crimes “has more than doubled in the past five years” and is likely to be mostly related to the Brexit vote. Muslim communities in the UK have been specifically targeted by the far-right extremists opposed to multiculturalism, and academics warn of the spread of Islamophobia within the ranks of the Conservative Party.
Dr. Rizwaan Sabir is a lecturer in criminology in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science at Liverpool John Moores University. He is a human rights activist and author and has researched the UK counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency, and political Islam. His writings have appeared on Al-Jazeera, The Guardian and the Ceasefire Magazine. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has done an interview with Dr. Rizwaan Sabir on the surge of Islamophobia in the UK and the challenges ahead of a multicultural Britain. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: The UK’s new Prime Minister will be chosen soon. Considering the background and worldview of the two running candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, do you think fighting Islamophobia and racism will be among their major priorities?
A: Seeing as though Islamophobia and racism go to the very core of the Conservative establishment, I think it is safe to say that pro-actively fighting both of these things will not really be a major policy priority for the incoming candidates. Islamophobia has also already been integrated into a broader Conservative inquiry into discrimination against other social and political groups, showing how the issue has been relegated to the margins. Of course, this is unsurprising since the ideological positioning of key Conservative candidates, especially Boris Johnson, is one that is rooted firmly in white supremacist ideology and rhetoric. His record on the matter is well-documented. Though the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister, whoever it may be, will make claims to be against Islamophobia and racism, most of this rhetoric will be used, as it almost always is, for political point scoring as opposed to addressing the real and very structural and systemic problems that will lead to actual positive change for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and Muslim communities on the ground.
Q: The former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who is now in the race for premiership came under fierce criticism after comparing Burqa-wearing women to letterboxes and bank robbers in an article for The Telegraph, and the Muslim Council of Britain accused him of “pandering to the far right.” Was his insult in the controversial article accidental and an isolated case or do you see it as part of an Islamophobia problem in the Conservative Party?
A: Such comments suggest three things. Firstly, it strongly suggests how Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric is strategically deployed for political point-scoring by Conservative politicians. Secondly, it shows how Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric is used by Conservative politicians as a way of winning over voters who are more inclined to support right-wing politicians and political parties such as UKIP and the Brexit Party. Thirdly, such rhetoric and comments, which are of course intentional as opposed to accidental, draw upon and contribute to a broader Islamophobic and racist mood within the UK that has always been present but has most recently come to the fore through events such as Brexit and long-standing policies and laws introduced in the name of counter-terrorism and security.
Q: A poll by the YouGov firm found that almost half of the members of the Conservative Party in Britain think parts of the country are run by the Sharia law and 39 percent of them believe terrorist attacks in the UK are indicative of a deep hostility against the British society by the Muslim community. Based on this survey, only 8 percent of the Conservatives are happy to see a Muslim Prime Minister running the country. Why do you think anti-Islamic sentiments are so rife among the Tories?
A: This has something to do with conservative ideology and history, which has been committed to a project of conquest and empire and has been more willing to use aggressive and violent forms of domination in order to control populations of color, many of which were, and are, Muslim. What we therefore see in contemporary Conservative policies and rhetoric is a continuation of such a history of racist governance. This said, only focusing on the Conservative Party, when we discuss Islamophobia, downplays the problem of Islamophobia in the UK faced by Muslims and non-Muslims today since the Islamophobia is structural and systemic, and therefore goes to core of many of the established political parties and institutions. The Labour Party specifically under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has probably been one of the least racist and Islamophobic parties the UK has ever seen, and this is partially why he has been facing ongoing pressure in regards to anti-Semitism. Of course, such allegations, in my view, are more about strategically delegitimizing his leadership and eroding his chances of winning the next general election because of his pro-active defense of the Palestinian struggle and his sustained criticism of the illegal Israeli occupation rather than the fact that he is anti-Semitic.
Q: Will the United Kingdom remain a welcoming country for the immigrants and minorities now that it’s exiting the European Union? Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London has been advocating that “London Is Open.” Is his motto applicable to the entire country in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump?
A: I am not going to try and predict the future but I can say with some certainty that even before the UK has exited the European Union, the rise in Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric and discourse has become more overt and more frequent. Such rhetoric will continue after Brexit and most likely increase, especially since the more nationalist elements within British society will view Brexit as a victory for British identity, which, as history demonstrates, has always been based on white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia.
Q: How serious and prevalent is Islamophobia on the campuses of the UK universities? As a university lecturer, do you think Muslims students are discriminated against and denied quality services and education because of their faith? Do hate crimes targeting Muslim students happen frequently?
A: Racism and Islamophobia are as rife in the British university sector as much as they are rife within every other sector in British society. That said, there is more willingness to address both racism and Islamophobia in the university sector more so than other institutions because of the commitment to inclusivity and diversity that universities are party to, as well as the ongoing resistance that academics of color engage in on a daily basis in their own institutions, including through their writings and scholarship.
Q: A report published by the Immigration Policy Lab in late May showed that the brilliant performance of Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian player of the Liverpool football club, has contributed to the decline of Islamophobia in the UK and that public exposure to the rituals of this star has resulted in a five-percent uptick in the belief that Islam is compatible with British values. How can the public figures and celebrities facilitate reconciliation between Islam and the British society?
A: It is heartening to see a Muslim sportsman serve as an ambassador for Islam by virtue of simply being a Muslim. I also welcome those non-Muslims who perceive Islam more positively because of Mohammed Salah’s contributions to football. However, the idea that sportsmen such as Mohammed Salah have helped show compatibility between the “West” and Muslims is problematic. This is because this idea is based on Muslims having to prove themselves as being worthy of being humans and equal through exceptional actions that are undertaken in the public domain. There are millions of Muslims in the UK and Europe who all engage in decent behavior towards their fellow citizens on a daily basis and contribute to the well-being and development of their respective countries without the public coverage that footballers receive, whether they be charity workers, doctors or teachers. None of their contributions are ever factored in when discussions around Muslims and Islam take place, usually because the media underplay and erase such contributions. As a result, only when an exceptional Muslim soccer-star comes along, do people take notice of Muslims and Islam and have something good to say about it. If the ordinary and routine actions of Muslim communities in and around Europe would receive the same coverage that Mohammed Salah’s sportsmanship does, Islamophobia would be a cause celebre for millions, and Muslims would not be facing the kinds of hostility, violence, and micro-aggressions they face on an almost daily basis for simply being Muslim or looking Muslim.
Q: In your view, what are the ways through which the British public can acquire a reliable and fair understanding of Islam, Islamic culture and lifestyle, as a result of which the fear of Muslims and othering of them can be dissipated?
A: Othering of Muslims can never be completely eliminated since UK and Western politics is largely based on othering those deemed to be “outsiders” and “foreigners” for instrumental political objectives, especially if they are perceived to be threatening the present world order and the ways it’s governed, managed, and run. However, one can hope for an improvement. Expecting the mainstream media to offer more accurate representations that account for the vast contributions Muslims have made throughout history and still do make on a daily basis in the UK and the West is critical but are unlikely to happen at the kinds of speed Muslims need in order to feel safe and secure in what feels like an increasingly hostile society towards Muslims and people of color.
However, this is something that needs to be done nevertheless. Alternative and new media organizations, many of which will need to be Muslim-led, though not exclusively, will need to be at the forefront of providing the kinds of news stories, images, discourses and programming needed to challenge the negative portrayals of Muslims. Recently, programs such as the hit Turkish TV show “Ertugrul”, which shows Muslims and Islam in a much more positive light than the vast majority of representations produced by Hollywood ever have, are vital to helping Muslims and non-Muslim audiences understand Muslim culture and history, and should be exponentially supported, encouraged, and produced. Islam has a rich history that is full of these stories, and they need to be told and shared with the help of globalization and technology. Initiatives such as the “Riz-Test”, which seek to assess the content of media programming to see whether they are Islamophobic or not is a good idea and can contribute towards creating a more nuanced representation of Muslims in media outputs. Such initiatives need to be supported more formally at the state level and embedded in media organizations so media representations are fairer and not based on an orientalist fantasy.
Finally, non-Muslims and Muslims in the UK, and the West more broadly, need to be encouraged and supported to visit Muslim countries and societies to learn about Muslim history and culture. Here, Muslim nation-states need to work together to set up initiatives and programs that will aid in this task.
By: Kourosh Ziabari