Since the publication of the report Islamophobia: A Challenge to Us All by the Runnymede Commission in 1997, the term Islamophobia has gained wide currency in academic discourse and in the media in Britain and other European countries as well as in the United States. The report defined Islamophobia as "an outlook or worldview involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination" (p. 5). A report of the Council of Europe entitled Islamophobia and its consequences for Young People (2005) described Islamophobia as "the fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights and a threat to social cohesion".
The Runnymede Commission's report highlights many instances of discrimination faced by Muslims in Britain in various aspects of life and emphasizes that Islamophobia represents "a dramatic aspect of social exclusion, the vulnerability of Muslims to physical violence and harassment". The former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, observed at a United Nations conference in 2004: "When the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia".
A report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia entitled Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006) has documented the wide range of Islamophobic practices across the European Union's 27 member states. The report shows that Islamophobia, discrimination and socio-economic marginalization have a primary role in generating disaffection and alienation among Muslims in the EU. The report notes that Muslims living in the EU are often victims of multiple discrimination on the basis of their religion, race, national or ethnic background, language, colour and gender. They are often victims of negative stereotyping, at times reinforced through negative or selective reporting in the media. The report points out that many Muslims, particularly young people, have limited opportunities for professional or career advancement. To make matters worse, they often experience social exclusion and discrimination which produces hopelessness and alienation. Muslims, the report says, are often disproportionately represented in poor housing conditions, while their educational achievement falls below average and their unemployment rates are higher than average.
The stigmatization and demonization of Muslims in Europe has been aggravated after 9/11. The report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2004) noted that "as a result of the fight against terrorism engaged since the events of 11 September 2001, certain groups of persons, notably Arabs, Jews, Muslims, certain asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, certain visible minorities and persons perceived as belonging to such groups, have become particularly vulnerable to racism and/or to racial discrimination across many fields of public life, including education, employment, housing, access to goods and services, access to public spaces and freedom of movement".
Racism and Islamophobia in Britain
For over three decades, Britain has followed multiculturalism as an official policy and has accorded public recognition to minority rights and identities. However, the spectre of racism and xenophobia continues to haunt the country. A recent report of the Commission for Racial Equality points out that racial discrimination is still a reality in the country and that Britain continues to be racially divided. The report says that Britain remains a place of "inequality, exclusion and isolation" and warns that continuing discrimination and marginalization might lead some people from the minority communities to follow the path of religious and political extremism.
A 2004 survey showed that nearly 80 per cent of Muslims in Britain said they had experienced discrimination because of their religion. Shahid Malik, Britain's first Muslim minister, has recently expressed shock and dismay over rising hostility towards Muslims in the UK, saying that many of them feel targeted like "the Jews of Europe". He said many British Muslims felt like "aliens in their own country". He said he himself had been the target of a string of racist attacks including the firebombing of his family car and an attempt to run him down at a petrol station in Burnley in 2002. Mr Malik was interviewed on Channel 4 Dispatches programme to coincide with the third anniversary of the London bombing of 7 July 2005.
Mr Malik's comments were backed by Simon Woolley, a member of the Government's task force on racial equality. He said, "On an almost daily basis, there is rampant Islamophobia in this country, the effect of which is not for our Muslim community to get closer to a sense of Britishness but to feel further away from a feeling of belonging in British society".
The perception of Islam and Muslims in Britain (as well as in most European countries) is generally negative. According to the Pew's survey, 63 per cent of Britons perceive Islam as the most violent religion in comparison with Judaism and Christianity while some 70 per cent of people expressed concern about Islamic extremism in the country. According to a poll published in The Daily Telegraph on August 26, 2006, more than half of all Britons think that Islam poses a threat to the West.
It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim
Britain's Channel 4 screened a film 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim' on 7 July 2008. The film was accompanied by a pamphlet Muslims Under Siege: Alienating Vulnerable Communities, written by Peter Oborne and James Jones, who are professional journalists. The slim pamphlet covers a substantially larger ground than the contents of the film and investigates the atmosphere of hate, discrimination and vilification surrounding Muslims in Britain. It focuses on the role of the media, the far-right political parties and (some of) the Anglican clergy in fuelling and reinforcing mistrust and hostility towards Muslims. It provides instances of the manner in which some of Britain's leading journalists and commentators distort and misrepresent Islam and how some of the popular newspapers in the country give credence to fabricated stories about Muslims which inflame passions and further demonise them. The authors point out that Muslims in Britain are easily targeted with impunity because they are generally poor, vulnerable and powerless.
Oborne and Jones, who are members of the Church of England, point out that Islamophobia is widespread in British society and can be encountered in respectable newspapers, literary circles and sections of the clergy. Islamophobia remains, they say, "Britain's last remaining socially respectable form of bigotry" (p. 13). They quote the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee who brazenly wrote, "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it". Toynbee often portrays Islam as bloodthirsty, hate-filled and opposed to civilized values.
Some of Britain's leading newspapers have no qualms in publishing fabricated stories about Muslims which reinforce stereotypes and mistrust about Muslims. On 7 October 2006 the Sun newspaper splashed a sensational story about how a "Muslim hate mob" had vandalized a house near Windsor. The paper reported that local Muslims in Windsor were waging a vendetta against four British soldiers who hoped to rent a house in the area on their return from Afghanistan. One can well imagine how millions of readers of the Sun must have felt about Muslims on reading the report. However, an investigation by Oborne and Jones revealed that though the incident did occur, it had nothing to do with Muslims. In fact, as they found out, no Muslims lived in the residential colony at Montagu Road, where the incident happened. The police also denied any involvement of Muslims in the incident.
The facts, as reported by the Windsor Express a day earlier, were quite revealing. The local army barracks had received three anonymous phone calls the previous week, not from Muslims as the Sun had maliciously and falsely reported, but from local residents. The anonymous calls objected to the presence of soldiers because this would lower property prices in the area. The Windsor Express also reported that about 40 local residents had signed a petition expressing their objection to the soldiers moving in. Evidently, the Sun had twisted and distorted the whole incident to give it an anti-Muslim slant.
The Sun was forced to admit that there were problems with its story. In the meantime, the Press Complaints Commission exerted pressure on the newspaper to come clean about the matter. Eventually, the Sun published a half-hearted apology in the following words:
Following our report 'Hounded out' about a soldiers' home in Datchet,
Berks, being vandalized by Muslims, we have been asked to point out
that no threatening calls were logged at Combermere Barracks from
Muslims and police have been unable to establish if any faith or
religious group were responsible for the incident. We are happy to
make this clear (p. 12).
Unfortunately, the paper never apologised to Muslims for falsely and maliciously implicating them in the incident nor bothered to retract its story. Oborne and Jones point out that this case is far from unique; it is in fact typical of large parts of the mainstream British media. Had the Sun reported that the perpetrators of the attack were gay or Jewish people and if the story had turned out to be false (as it did), the editor and the journalists who covered the incident would have lost their jobs.
Oborne and Jones point out that a number of fabricated stories about Muslims regularly appear in the British media from time to time. One such story, for example, insinuated that Muslims in Britain wanted to ban Christmas celebrations. When they investigated the story, it turned out to be entirely baseless. Fabricated stories circulated by the media reinforce the stereotypes and misperception about Muslims. By and large, attacks on Muslims go unreported in the British media.
Islamophobic sentiments have crept into literary circles as well. Oborne and Jones quote the shocking statement of Martin Amis, one of Britain's best-known writers, who said in September 2006: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children" (p. 15).
The far-right political parties in Britain, especially the British National Party, thrive on fanning people's primordial sentiments and Islamophobic passions. The BNP often takes advantage of sensitive issues and fans racist and xenophobic sentiments in the majority population in order to draw political advantage. Far-right political parties in other European countries, such as the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Swiss People's Party, France's Front National, Austria's Freedom Party and Belgium's Vlaams Belang, indulge in similar kind of Islamophobic rhetoric. Filip Dewinter, leader of Belgium's far-right Flemish Interest party, proclaimed sometime ago, "Islam is the No 1 enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world" (p. 27).
Incidents of racist attacks on Muslims and other minority groups in Britain have increased since 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005. The 2004 report of the European monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia revealed that the British police received nearly 53,000 complaints of racist attacks on immigrants and foreigners in 2004 (http://www.eumc.eu.int). Physical assaults on Muslims take various forms, including the scratching of cars, throwing beer cans at them, verbal abuses, and vandalizing and burning prayer halls and cemeteries.
On 10 August 2007, Brian Donegan launched a vicious physical attack on Sheikh Salamouni, an imam at Regent's Park mosque in London, leaving him with grievous injuries and blind for life. Donegan was found not guilty by reason of insanity (p. 28). In June 2008, Martyn Gilleard, a Nazi sympathizer in East Yorkshire, was jailed for 16 years. Police found four nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat. The police revealed that Gilleard was plotting for a war against Muslims. He had written in a note found in the flat, "I am sick and tired of hearing nationalists talking of killing Muslims, blowing up mosques and fighting back only to see these acts of resistance fail. The time has come to stop the talking and start to act" (p. 28).
Oborne and Jones do not argue for some special treatment for Muslims in Britain. What they ask for is that Muslims in the country should be given the same protection from abuses and attacks which is available to other minority groups. Unfortunately, they say, this protection is not available. There is an unmistakable undercurrent in the pamphlet of compassion and sympathy for Muslims who are victims of discrimination and stigmatization in Britain. They conclude: "We think we should all feel a little bit ashamed about the way we treat Muslims in the media, in our politics, and on our streets….We do not treat Muslims with the tolerance, decency and fairness that we so often like to boast is the British way. We urgently need to change our public culture" (p. 30).
Islamophobia in a wider perspective
Channel 4 has done a commendable job by highlighting the wide prevalence of Islamophobia in mainstream British society. The pamphlet, though written in a journalistic vein, addresses the issues in a forthright manner and is therefore appreciable. Some more research could have added depth, balance and analytical sophistication to the pamphlet. Four points in this connection are noteworthy.
Racism and xenophobia have deep roots in Britain (as well as in many other European countries). This was highlighted by the report of the Commission on Multiethnic Britain published by the Runnymede Commission in 2000. The report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006) emphasizes that racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia are mutually reinforcing phenomena and hostility against Muslims should thus be seen in the context of a more general climate of hostility towards migrants and ethnic minorities. The Gypsies in Italy and other European countries, for example, are as much despised by the local population as Muslims. Similarly, the Afro-Caribbeans in Britain are equally victims of racial discrimination and exclusion. Muslims in Britain (and in other European countries) are particularly targeted because they are racially identifiable, proudly identify themselves with Islamic values and principles, are perceived as a threat, are economically vulnerable and disadvantaged, and lack resources (unlike Jews) to combat racism and xenophobia.
Racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia are often sustained and reinforced through institutional structures in British society. Some examples may illustrate this point. The Race Relations Act 1976 outlaws discrimination on grounds of race, colour, nationality, citizenship, and ethnic or national origin, but not religion. Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right, morbidly anti-Muslim British National Party, said in a statement in January 2006 that Islam was "a wicked, vicious faith" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk, 25 January 2006). He was tried for incitement to racial hatred under the Race Relations Act 1976, but walked free at the swift end of the trial. In his defence, Griffin argued that he attacked a religion (which is not an offence in Britain), not a race.
Until a few years ago, discrimination against Muslims was not considered
illegal in Britain because the courts did not accept that Muslims were an
ethnic group although, ironically, Jews and Sikhs are recognised as ethnic
groups. In other words, Muslims were not protected by the legislation against
discrimination on grounds of religion.
British courts do not always function in a non-partisan manner. The Derby
Project, commissioned by Britain's Home Office to examine discrimination
against Muslims and other religious groups, pointed out that "even when
religious discrimination is identified, courts are unlikely to prescribe legal
protection if it is seen to inconvenience the majority".
Since 1838 there is an anti-blasphemy law in Britain (as in Denmark).
However, the law is applicable only to the Church of England and not to other
There are 22,000 state-funded schools in Britain, out of which nearly 7,000
are run by Anglican, Catholic and Jewish managements. About a quarter of
all pupils in the country attend state-funded religious schools. After repeated
requests and a long political battle, the government approved funding five
Muslim schools and a Sikh school.
The McPherson Report, which investigated the handling of the Stephen
Lawrence murder investigation in 1999, described London's police force as
Significant ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious and regional diversities exist in the European continent. Similarly, there are variations in European countries in respect of the integration of immigrants and minority groups. A recent study commissioned by the European Union found that countries like Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain are far more accommodative in respect of the welfare and integration of immigrants and minority groups. Latvia was found to be at the lowest rung of the ladder.
Despite the wide prevalence of racism and Islamophobia in the country,
Britain is far more liberal and accommodative of minority rights and
sensibilities than countries like Greece, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and France.
Muslims in Britain enjoy substantial cultural, religious and political freedoms
(which are scarce in some Muslim countries). There is no dearth of fair-
minded intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders in the country who have
concern for the welfare of Muslims and other minority groups.
In September 2005, a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly
derogatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown
wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). In early
February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries reproduced
some or all of the cartoons, which generated a great deal of resentment and
anger among Muslims around the world. Significantly, British and American
newspapers did not reproduce the cartoons. Jack Straw, Britain's former
Foreign Secretary, called the publication of cartoons "unnecessary,
insensitive, disrespectful and wrong".
Unlike in France, the wearing of the Islamic headscarf by Muslim women in
educational institutions in Britain is not prohibited. Unlike in Switzerland,
there is no ban on the construction of minarets on mosques.
In the past few years some British banks have begun to offer loans to
Muslims for house purchase which accommodate the Islamic prohibition of
interest. In Britain, one is required to pay a tax on the registration of a change
of title to a property, which in effect functions as a tax on house purchase. In
the 2003 budget the British government announced that the burden of double
stamp duty would be removed in the case of Muslims.
Though the wide prevalence of racism and Islamophobia in Britain and other European countries cannot be denied, racist ideologies and sentiments do not remain unchallenged. In spite of making determined efforts to capture political power by inciting primordial passions, the far-right parties in Europe have not made much headway. By and large, they have been rejected by the electorate. The European Parliament's far-right bloc collapsed last November after five Romanian MEPs resigned over an Italian colleague's "xenophobic" remarks. The resignations take the bloc's membership below the minimum required for a grouping in the European Parliament.
There are organizations in Europe which monitor the display of racist
behaviour in sports. Football Against Racism in Europe, for example, is an
organization that keeps a tab on the display of racist flags and chants during
football matches across Europe.
In Britain , government, civil society and Muslim organizations have been
making sustained efforts to combat racism and xenophobia and to heal the
divide between Muslims and mainstream society. Sometime ago, Prince
Charles had stated that he would prefer to be called 'Defender of Faiths'
rather than 'Defender of the Faith' (which is one of the official titles of
Britain passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act in 2006. The Act makes it
an offence to stir up hatred on religious or racial grounds. It applies to words
or behaviour and the display, publication, broadcast or distribution of words
or behaviour that is likely to stir up religious or racial hatred.
In Britain, bishops are members of the House of Lords by right and only the
senior bishop can crown a new monarch. A committee on the reform of the
House of Lords has recommended that this privilege should be extended to
Muslims and other non-Christian faiths.
Britain's Muslims took out a peaceful rally of over 10,000 people on 11
February 2006 in protest against the publication of the sacrilegious cartoons
of Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers. The rally was organised by
the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain and
backed by several Christian organizations as well as by Ken Livingstone, the
Mayor of London.
Non-governmental organizations such as the Runnymede Commission have
done commendable work, through various surveys and projects, by
disseminating awareness about the prevalence of racism and xenophobia in
the country and by working towards an inclusive, accommodative
multiethnic Britain. Similarly, Channel 4 has highlighted the insidious reach
and consequences of Islamophobia and has thereby sought to stir the nation's