In the last few years, Islamophobia in the UK has grown at an alarming rate. In 2011, Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative Party leader and one of the country’s leading Muslim politicians, set off alarm bells when she claimed that anti-Muslim racism had normalized to “pass the table test.” Unfortunately for her and the wider British Muslim community, things have just gotten worse and worse. In 2020 the Muslim Council of Britain sent a dossier to the Equality and Human Rights Commission containing 300 allegations of Islamophobia against Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Conservative Party members. It was the second unsuccessful time that the Muslim Council of Britain pleaded with the equality watchdog to open a formal investigation into the ruling party.
Last December it was reported that Ali Imdad of The Great British Bake Off was subject to Islamophobic abuse while riding the bus home. According to Imdad, not only did none of his fellow travelers come to his aid, but when he tried to defend himself, the bus driver threatened to throw him away.
Islamophobia does not get the same recognition as related terms like racism, possibly because it has only been meaningfully recognized in political discourse for 20 years. In fact, despite several high-profile efforts – including the All Party Group (APPG) on British Muslims in 2018 – there isn’t even a generally accepted definition of Islamophobia.
The UK has more than 3.4 million Muslim residents, which is nearly 5 percent of its total population. The British Muslim community embodies an enormous variety of language, culture and socio-economic status, as well as a variety of Islamic practices. But even though Muslims were already present in the country in the 16th century, they are still often treated as “the others”.
Islamophobia in the UK really came into the spotlight in the 1970s due to the oil crisis at OPEC, where Arabs and Muslims came together and were seen as a threat to the UK economy and civilization. The aftermath of the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which earned him the wrath of Muslims around the world and a religious edict against his life by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, also propelled Islamophobia into the mainstream.
At the same time, the Rushdie Affair – and the alienation of Muslims it brought about – pushed many of the country’s young Muslims to band together under a Muslim identity, which in turn led to their further rejection by broader British society. Although the country’s racial laws provided legal protection to Sikh and Jewish communities based on their racial / ethnic identity, British Muslims were excluded. In the 1988 case of Nyazi v Rymans Ltd, the Muslim appellate leader was denied protection under the Race Relations Act of 1976 because “Muslims include people of many nations and colors, speaking many languages, and having the only common denominator religion and religious culture are.”
Even decades later, UK anti-racist legislation is inadequate to tackle the targeted combating of Muslims by far-right groups with more subtle forms of prejudice and discrimination. For example, prominent columnists on major platforms have written articles calling Islamophobia a fiction. They argue that there is nowhere near enough Islamophobia within the Tory Party, or they threateningly ask: “What will we do then about the Muslim problem?” They have faced negligible job losses or a loss of respectability, which is difficult to imagine if the target were another group. Before he became Prime Minister, Boris Johnson even compared women in burqas to “mailboxes” and “bank robbers”. Despite Islamophobic incidents, which are reported to have risen 375 percent in the week following his comments, an internal investigation by the Conservatives found they were “respectful and tolerant”.
It is not just right-wing politicians who encourage Islamophobia. While the presence of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party was widespread, Labor, which is considered the largest anti-racist political party in the country, has also been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Late last year, the Labor Muslim Network released a damn report on the party’s Islamophobia, which found that more than one in four Labor Muslim members was discriminated against within the party ranks and that half of the Muslim members of the new party leadership did not trust the matter.
The media also play a role in the problem, perhaps because it focuses on Islam in foreign contexts. Back in 2007, a report by the Greater London Authority found that in one week of coverage by the UK media, 91 percent of stories about Muslims were negative. A recent study by the Muslim Council of Britain last year found that not much had changed. Studies have shown that exposure to negative portrayals of Muslims in the media increases the likelihood that the population will support government policies that are harmful to Muslims and an erosion of their rights.
A 2017 poll by Arab News / YouGov found that the majority of Britons are in favor of racial profiling against Arabs. In 2019, YouGov found that 38 percent of Britons believed Islam was incompatible with Western values. A much higher proportion of respondents had an unfavorable view of Islam than any other religion.
The otherness of Muslims – where they are seen as an outside threat – makes them seemingly legitimate targets for disproportionate levels of distrust, surveillance and information gathering. Government programs like Prevent, the counter-terrorism program, arguably reinforce Islamophobia. Muslims make up more than 65 percent of remittances, despite only making up 5 percent of the UK population. This has led many British Muslim students to fear of freely expressing themselves or participating in politics. Even Muslim charities have been problematized. A 2017 study found that “38 percent of all legal inquiries disclosed involve Muslim charities, when they make up just 1.21 percent of the sector.”
Topics such as racism, otherness and Islamophobia are not just abstract concepts that are limited to the field of academic discourse. They have negative consequences for their victims in all areas of life. Studies have shown that Muslim students are less likely to be offered places in Russell Group universities, considered to be the elite institutions in the country, even if they have the same grades as their white counterparts. Meanwhile, Muslims continue to suffer from “one of the greatest economic disadvantages of any group” in British society, with the community’s unemployment rate twice that of the general population. The proportion of Muslims in higher managerial, administrative or professional occupations is only half that of the general population.
Over the years, many policy makers, including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, have urged the Muslim community to make greater efforts to live up to “British” values. Many of these calls for greater integration are just “assimilation under the guise of multiculturalism,” as the scholar Leon Moosavi wrote. It means that the marginalized group gives up its own identity and takes on that of the dominant group – without the dominant group having to make significant concessions in return. In addition, the acceptance of so-called British values has not prevented prominent Muslims such as Baroness Warsi, the Scottish Justice Minister Humza Yousaf, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan or the journalist Ash Sarkar from being inundated by Islamophobic abuse.
Greeting outgroups might be a good start, but that still wouldn’t go far enough. Elimination issues are about more than a handful of prejudices with backward views. They are deep and systemic. Indeed, the only way to ever resolve problems of this magnitude is through comprehensive reform, which begins primarily with recognizing that Islamophobia is a real problem.
For starters, adopting the working definition of Islamophobia – “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism aimed at expressing Muslimism or perceived Muslimity” – developed by the APPG for British Muslims would not only go a long way to signalize make the recognition of the discriminatory phenomenon by the legislature, but that it is strongly questioned. The previous attempt to get the government to accept this working definition met with fierce opposition. It takes tremendous courage and political will to get it through.
It would show that Islamophobia will be tolerated longer if the Gender Equality and Human Rights Commission takes into account the concerns of the Muslim community and opens an investigation into the Conservative Party in the same way that it investigates anti-Semitism in the Labor Party. This has to happen sooner rather than later. British Muslims have suffered long enough.