Consistent findings from Pew attitude surveys report incredibly high numbers of Hungarians (72 percent), Italians (69 percent), Poles (66 percent), Greeks (65 percent), Spaniards (50 percent), Swedes (35 percent), Dutch (35 percent), Germans (29 percent) and French (29 percent) and Britons (28 percent) who rate Muslims ‘unfavourably.’ Against this international background, the UK race equality charity the Runnymede Trust recently launched a new report, Islamophobia: Still a challenge for us all, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first 1997 report, Islamophobia; A challenge for us all. “Over the past two decades,’” the editors tell us, “awareness of Islamophobia has increased, whether in terms of discrimination against Muslims, or in terms of public and policy discussion of it.” For a public policy document of this kind, the report is comprehensive in spanning social, political and economic issues, and though largely related to the UK it also contains some comparative and international discussion.
“UK race equality charity the Runnymede Trust recently launched a new report, Islamophobia: Still a challenge for us all, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first 1997 report, Islamophobia; A challenge for us all. ‘Over the past two decades,’ the editors tell us, ‘awareness of Islamophobia has increased, whether in terms of discrimination against Muslims, or in terms of public and policy discussion of it.'”
Islamophobia as Anti-Muslim Racism
One of the stand out features is the insistence that Islamophobia should be understood as anti-Muslim racism (the longer definition expresses how this falls across social and political arenas). Now it is easy to become very good at “making a fetish out of words,” as Brian Klug has put it, and it appears that this is no less the case with Islamophobia. The origins of the term Islamophobia have been variously traced to an essay by two French Orientalists, a buzzword in the 1970s, an early 1990s’ American periodical, and indeed to the work of the scholar Tariq Modood. What is less disputed is that the term received its public policy prominence with the Runneymede Trust’s earlier 1997 report, Islamophobia: a challenge for us all. Defined as “an unfounded hostility towards Islam, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims,” the report argued that anti-Muslim prejudice had grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new term was needed. This was of course before global events had amplified the issue, and which resulted in a second sitting of the commission in 2004 that heard testimonies from leading Muslim spokespeople of how there was not a day go by that Muslims did not experience Islamophobia in the UK.
“One of the stand out features is the insistence that Islamophobia should be understood as anti-Muslim racism… “
As a concept, then, Islamophobia has been on a journey, and the 2017 Runnymede report draws on the UN definition of racism as something that operates not simply as an attitude or prejudice, but “by denying people dignity, rights and liberties across a range of political, economic, social and cultural institutions.” For these reasons, referring only to “anti-Muslim prejudice” neither captures the widespread means through which they persist, but may also “get things back to front” (that prejudicial attitudes about a group develop to justify the economic or political disadvantages experienced by that group).
“In many respects the 2017 Report comprehensively addresses criticisms that the Trust did not fully anticipate in early work, namely how the term would be criticised from several quarters, friend and foe, for allegedly reinforcing a ‘monolithic’ concept of Islam, Islamic cultures, Muslims and Islamism…”In many respects the 2017 Report comprehensively addresses criticisms that the Trust did not fully anticipate in early work, namely how the term would be criticised from several quarters, friend and foe, for allegedly reinforcing a ‘monolithic’ concept of Islam, Islamic cultures, Muslims and Islamism, and “affording vocal Muslims a ready concept of victimology.” To others the term neglected the active and aggressive part of discrimination by conceiving discrimination as a collection of pathological beliefs, inferred through the language of “-phobias”; with the additional complaint that the term does not adequately account for the nature of the prejudice directed at Muslims.
Islam or Muslims?
This complaint was advanced by the late Fred Halliday and is worth examining because Halliday accepted that Muslims experienced direct discrimination as Muslims. He nevertheless considered Islamophobia a misleading term because:
It misses the point about what it is that is being attacked: “Islam” as a religion was the enemy in the past: in the crusades or the reconquista. It is not the enemy now […] The attack now is not against Islam as a faith but against Muslims as a people, the latter grouping together all, especially immigrants, who might be covered by the term.
So, in contrast to the thrust of the Islamophobia concept, as Halliday understood it, the stereotypical enemy is not a faith or a culture, but a people who form the “real’” targets of prejudice. Halliday’s critique was richer than many others but what it ignored was how the majority of Muslims who reported experiencing street level discrimination recount – as testimonies to the 2004 Runneymede follow-up commission and 2017 report bear witness – that they do so more when they appear ‘conspicuously Muslim’ than when they do not. Since this can result from wearing Islamic attire it becomes irrelevant – if it is even possible – to separate the impact of appearing Muslim from the impact of appearing to follow Islam. For example, the increase in everyday personal towards Muslims in which the perceived ‘Islamicness’ of the victims is the central reason for abuse, regardless of the validity of this presumption (resulting in Sikhs and others with an ‘Arab’ appearance being attacked), suggests that discrimination and/or hostility to Islam and Muslims is much more interlinked than Halliday’s thesis allows (and, in all fairness to Halliday, may not easily have been anticipated at his time of writing).
Racialization and Integration
In contrast, myself and colleagues have long argued that instead of trying to neatly delineate social tendencies that are inextricably linked; they should instead be understood as a composite of “racialization”. This might be charted across a range of domains, including the ever salient question of integration. Indeed, it was only a few years after the Runnymede Trust published its first groundbreaking report on Islamophobia in 1997 that there emerged a governmental view on the alleged failure of Muslim integration.
“…myself and colleagues have long argued that instead of trying to neatly delineate social tendencies that are inextricably linked; they should instead be understood as a composite of ‘racialization.’ This might be charted across a range of domains, including the ever salient question of integration.”
Muslims had up until then perhaps been creeping into the national consciousness as an illiberal menace or as unruly youngsters on the streets. Following the inquiries into civil unrest that occurred in some northern towns home to both small and large numbers of British Muslims at the turn of the millennium, a series of reports characterized these communities as self-segregating, adopting isolationist practices and generally leading “parallel lives.” It was a period in which “community cohesion” approach became salient, and this approach’s objectives deemed to furnish commentators with the license – not always supported by the specific substance of each report – to critique Muslim distinctiveness in particular.
When distilled, these criticisms would orbit around the claims that Muslims in Britain had less favorable views of – and therefore attachment to – Britain, and that they preferred to cluster together in self-segregating communities. Later would come security discourses and policies, in which “integration talk” served as a fulcrum on which the policy fate of Britain’s Muslims has come to rest. In the six UK governments that have held office since the publication of the 1997 Runnymede report and the 2017 one, the integration of Muslims has not followed a uniform story of either assimilation or integration. There have also been important multiculturalist advances in terms of the incorporation of Muslim political organizations, even where the fate of these achievements is marked by uncertainty. For example, a national body was created to represent mainstream Muslim opinion, with some encouragement from both the main national political parties, it led to a body to lobby on behalf of Muslims in the Parliamentary corridors of power. This new body, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was accepted as a consultee by the New Labour government of 1997 till about the middle of the next decade following the invasion of Iraq. Even as the MCB fell out of favor, local and national consultations with Muslim groups grew rapidly.
Publicly Visible Muslims
Alongside these practical developments of incorporating Muslim interests in certain policy areas, there has been an increased public visibility of Muslims in both the discursive and everyday life of the nation.
“Alongside these practical developments of incorporating Muslim interests in certain policy areas, there has been an increased public visibility of Muslims in both the discursive and everyday life of the nation.”Where the Labour governments (1997-2010) were more active, the following Coalition government (2010-2015) were more reticent to recognize Muslims. Instead this government’s long -waited strategy on integration was not published until February 2012, and in which integration was presented as an antidote to extremism. There was no shift in the discourse about Muslims as a fifth column, and the integration strategy folded Muslims into a general national unease that had been suggested by Former Tory Minister Sayeeda Warsi a year earlier in her assertion that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test.” In this sense, what has come to define integration speak since has been a focus on creeping change and fear as dangers to the cohesiveness (and existence) of the nation. In so doing the strategy gave further succor to fears of an encroaching Londonistan and Eurabia.
Understanding Islamophobia as Racism
Typical of this is view is the New York Times best seller America Alone, in which Mark Steyn could confidently predict – and receive fine endorsement from liberal commentators – that, ‘Mohammed is (a) the most popular baby boy’s name in much of the Western world; (b) the most common name for terrorists and murderers; (c) the name of the revered Prophet of the West’s fastest-growing religion. It’s at the intersection of these statistics – religion, demographic, terrorist – that a dark future awaits.”
“…instead of trying to neatly separate things that are intertwined; we should, as the report insists, understand Islamophobia as another form of racialization or race making.”
What the Runnymede Trust’s insistence on racism therefore doubles down on is that, when talking about Islamophobia we need to be able to grasp the ways in which discrimination against Muslim minorities picks out people on the basis of supposedly discernible characteristics. The latter may involve the attribution to those individuals an alleged group tendency, or it may emphasize those features that are used to stigmatize or to reflect pejorative or negative assumptions based on his or her real or perceived membership of the group. We therefore maintain that instead of trying to neatly separate things that are intertwined; we should, as the report insists, understand Islamophobia as another form of racialization or race making.