Islamophobia myth

If there is a backlash against British Muslims, where is the evidence for it? Scaremongering about Islamophobia promotes a Muslim victim culture and allows some community leaders to inflame a sense of injury while suppressing internal debate. The new religious hatred law will make matters worse
February 20, 2005
[Click here for responses from the MCB and others]

Ten years ago, no one had heard of Islamophobia. Now everyone from Muslim leaders to anti-racist activists to government ministers wants to convince us that Britain is in the grip of a major backlash against Islam.

But does Islamophobia exist? The trouble with the idea is that it confuses hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims on the one hand with criticism of Islam on the other. The charge of "Islamophobia" is all too often used not to highlight racism but to silence critics of Islam, or even Muslims fighting for reform of their communities.

article body image

In reality, discrimination against Muslims is not as great as is often claimed. When making a film on Islamophobia for Channel 4, I discovered a huge gap between perception and reality. One issue is police harassment of Muslims. Last summer, the home office published figures that revealed a 300 per cent increase in the number of Asians being stopped and searched under Britain's anti-terror laws. Journalists, Muslim leaders and even the home office all shouted "Islamophobia." "The whole Muslim community is being targeted by the police," claimed Khalid Sofi of the Muslim Council of Britain.

The bald figure of a "300 per cent increase" suggested heavy-handed policing at the very least. But dig a little deeper and the figures show that just 3,000 Asians had been stopped and searched in the previous year under the Terrorism Act. Of these, probably half were Muslim. In other words, around 1,500 Muslims out of a population of at least 1.6m had been stopped under the terror laws—hardly a case of the police targeting every Muslim.

A total of 21,577 people from all backgrounds were stopped and searched under the terror laws. The majority—14,429—were white. Yet when I interviewed Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, he insisted that "95-98 per cent of those stopped and searched under the anti-terror laws are Muslim." The real figure is 14 per cent (for Asians). However many times I showed him the true statistics, he refused to budge. His figures appear to have been simply plucked out of the sky.

There is disproportion in the treatment of Asians: they make up about 5 per cent of the population, but account for 14 per cent of those stopped under the Terrorism Act. Could this be because of anti-Muslim prejudice? Perhaps. But it is more likely to be because most anti-terror sweeps take place in areas—near Heathrow airport, for instance—where many Asians happen to live. Almost two thirds of terrorism stop and search operations took place in London, where Asians form 11 per cent of the population.

The claims of Islamophobia become even less credible if we consider all stop and searches. Only a tiny proportion of the 869,164 stop and searches in 2002-03 took place under the Terrorism Act. If there were widespread Islamophobia within the police force, we should expect to find Asians in disproportionate numbers in the overall figures. We don't. Asians are stopped and searched roughly in proportion to their population, if age structure is taken into account.

All these figures are in the public domain. Yet not one reputable journalist challenged the claim that Asians were being disproportionately stopped and searched. So pervasive is the acceptance of Islamophobia that no one even bothers to check if it is true.

In the debate about stop and search, there is objective data against which to check claims about Islamophobia. For physical attacks, however, the truth is harder to discern. The definition of a racist attack has changed radically over the past 20 years. These days everything from name-calling to brutal assaults is included in the figures. The problem is compounded by the fact that, following the MacPherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the police are obliged to accept the victim's perception of an attack. If the victim believes it to be a racist attack, the police have to treat it as one, leading to a large subjective element in the reporting.

If statistics for racist attacks are difficult to compile, it is even more difficult to define an Islamophobic attack. Should we treat every attack on a Muslim as Islamophobic? If an Afghan taxi driver is assaulted, is this a racist attack, an Islamophobic incident or simply a case of random violence? Such uncertainty gives licence to peddle all sorts of claims about Islamophobia. According to Iqbal Sacranie, Muslims have never faced greater physical danger than they do now. The editor of the Muslim News, Ahmed Versi, similarly believes that, "After 11th September, we had the largest number of attacks ever on Muslims."

My personal experience and the statistics that do exist both challenge these claims. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, racism was vicious and often fatal. Stabbings and firebombings were routine in some parts of Britain. In May 1978, over 7,000 Bengalis marched from Whitechapel to Whitehall in protest at the murder of garment worker Altab Ali near Brick Lane—one of eight racist murders that year. In the decade that followed, there were at least another 49 such killings. For Muslims, the end of the 1980s—from the Rushdie affair to the first Gulf war—was particularly tough. I used to organise patrols on east London estates to protect Asian families from racist attacks.

Britain is a different place now—even for Muslims. There are still racist attacks. Early in December, three young Muslims were beaten up in Manchester by a 15-strong gang in what the police described as a "dreadful racial attack." Yet we have moved a long way from the 1970s and 1980s, and I get little sense of the intensity of racism that existed then.

What statistics are available lends weight to this personal perception. The EU was so concerned about attacks on Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 that it commissioned a special report. In the four months following the attack on the World Trade Centre, the EU discovered around a dozen serious physical attacks on British Muslims. That is a dozen too many, but it does not amount to a climate of Islamophobia.

Even Muslim organisations that campaign against Islamophobia find it hard to make the case that attacks on Muslims are routine. The Islamic Human Rights Commission monitored 344 attacks on Muslims in the year after 11th September. Most were relatively minor incidents such as shoving or spitting.

For Muslim leaders, inflating the threat of Islamophobia helps consolidate their power base, both within their own communities and wider society. British Muslims have long looked with envy at the political power wielded by the Jewish community, and by the status accorded to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. One of the reasons for setting up the Muslim Council of Britain was to try to emulate the political success of the board. Muslim leaders talk about using Islamophobia in the same way that they perceive Jewish leaders to have exploited fears about antisemitism.

Exaggerating anti-Muslim prejudice is also useful for mainstream politicians, and especially for a Labour government that has faced such a political battering over the war on Iraq and its anti-terror laws. Being sensitive to Islamophobia allows them to reclaim some of the moral high ground. It also allows Labour politicians to pitch for the Muslim vote. Muslims may feel "betrayed" by the war on Iraq, trade minister Mike O'Brien wrote recently in the Muslim Weekly, but "the Labour government is trying to deliver an agenda that has shown consideration and respect for Muslims." According to O'Brien: "Iqbal Sacranie, the general secretary of the Muslim Council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in his speech to the Labour party conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour government would ban religious discrimination. It was a major victory for the Muslim community in Britain."

Pretending that Muslims have never had it so bad might bolster community leaders and gain votes for politicians, but it does the rest of us, Muslim or non-Muslim, no favours at all. The more that ordinary Muslims come to believe that they are under constant attack, the more resentful, inward-looking and open to extremism they are likely to become.

In the course of making my documentary, I asked dozens of ordinary Muslims across the country about their experiences of Islamophobia. Everyone believed that police harassment was common, although no one had been stopped and searched. Everyone insisted that physical attacks were rife, though few had been attacked or knew anyone who had. What is being created here is a culture of victimhood in which "Islamophobia" has become a one-stop explanation for the many problems facing Muslims.

Consider the social problems which beset Muslim communities. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, who make up almost two thirds of the Muslim population in this country, are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than whites; the average earnings of Muslim men are 68 per cent that of non-Muslim men; 65 per cent of Bangladeshis are semi-skilled manual workers compared with 23 per cent among other ethnic minorities and 15 per cent among white Britons; 54 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi homes receive income support; in 2000, 30 per cent of Pakistani students gained five or more good GCSEs, compared with 50 per cent in the population as a whole. It has become common to blame all of this on Islamophobia. According to the Muslim News, "media reportage on Islam and Muslims has a huge impact on Muslim labour market performance."

Unemployment, poverty and poor educational achievement are not, however, new phenomena in Muslim communities in this country, and the causes are many and varied. Racism plays a role. But so does class. The social profile of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is closer to that of Afro-Caribbeans than it is to Indians or Chinese. While the latter are often from middle-class backgrounds, most Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Afro-Caribbeans come from working-class or rural backgrounds.

Some also point the finger at cultural practices within some Muslim communities. "By and large," the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown acknowledges, "the lowest achieving communities in this country are Muslim. When you talk to people about why this is happening, the one reason they give you, the only reason they give you, is Islamophobia." It is not an argument that Alibhai-Brown accepts. "It is not Islamophobia that makes parents take 14-year-old bright girls out of school to marry illiterate men."

Alibhai-Brown disagrees with me about the extent of Islamophobia, believing that it is a major force shaping Muslim lives. But, she adds, it has also become "a convenient label, a figleaf… and all too often Islamophobia is used to blackmail society."

What all this suggests is the need for a frank, open debate about Muslims and their relationship to wider British society. The likelihood of such a frank, open debate is, however, not very high. "Islamophobia" has become not just a description of anti-Muslim prejudice but also a prescription for what may or may not be said about Islam. Every year, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) organises a mock awards ceremony for its "Islamophobe of the Year." Last year there were two British winners. One was Nick Griffin of the British National Party. The other was Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. Toynbee's defence of secularism and women's rights, and criticism of Islam, was, the IHRC declared, unacceptable. Isn't it absurd, I asked Massoud Shadjareh of the IHRC, to equate a liberal anti-racist like Polly Toynbee with the leader of a neo-fascist party. Not at all, he replied. "We need to engage and discuss. But there's a limit to that." It is difficult to know what engagement and discussion could mean when leading Muslim figures are unable to distinguish between liberal criticism and neo-fascist attacks. It would be tempting to dismiss the IHRC as a fringe organisation. But it is not. It is a consultant body to the UN. Its work has been praised by the Commission for Racial Equality. More importantly, its principal argument—that in a plural society, free speech is limited by the need not to give offence to particular religious or cultural groups—has become widely accepted.

So the government is proposing new legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. The serious and organised crime and police bill will make it an offence "to knowingly use words, behaviour or material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intention or likely effect that hatred will be stirred up against a group of people targeted because of their religious beliefs." Supporters of the law claim that it will extend to Muslims, and other faith groups, the same protection that racial groups already possess. Sikhs and Jews are protected by the Race Relations Act. The new law is designed to meet the Muslim concern that they have been left out.

But it is already an offence to incite religious hatred. The 1986 Public Order Act was amended in 1998 to include the offence of "religious aggravation." A person commits an offence if he "displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress." The offence "may be committed in a public or private place." Shortly after 9/11, Mark Norwood, a BNP member, was convicted under this law after he placed a poster in his window with a picture of the World Trade Centre in flames and the slogan "Islam out of Britain."

In any case, there is a fundamental difference between race and religion. You can't choose your skin colour; you can choose your beliefs. Religion is a set of beliefs. I can be hateful about other beliefs, such as conservatism or communism. So why can't I be hateful about religion too?

Some supporters of the law insist that it will continue to allow us to mock and criticise religions. But in practice the law could be a nightmare to enforce. Every Muslim leader I have spoken to wants to use the law to ban The Satanic Verses. Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, thinks that Margaret Thatcher should have been prosecuted for suggesting that after 11th September there had not been "enough condemnation of terrorism from Muslim priests."

Ten years ago, the Tory government rejected a similar law because ministers feared that it could be used to ban The Satanic Verses. Today, home office ministers and the director of public prosecutions assure everyone that this won't happen. "We will still be free to insult each other," the director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, told me. This means many Muslims will not be satisfied. Having encouraged exaggerated fears about anti-Muslim prejudice, and led Muslims to believe that the new law has been designed to meet their concerns, ministers might find it difficult to dampen Muslim expectations. The current view of the courts is that any material that encourages public disorder can be seen as inciting racial or religious hatred. So the new law may establish an incentive to create public disorder as disgruntled groups attempt to censor what they regard as offensive. The scenes in Birmingham outside the Sikh play Behzti may be repeated many times.

In a sense, though, the flaws in the proposed law are irrelevant, because its real value is not practical but, in the words of the director of public prosecutions, "symbolic." The legislation sets out, not to provide legal remedy for a real problem, but to make a moral statement about what is and is not socially acceptable. The aim of the law is not to censor us, but to get us to censor ourselves.

The irony of this approach is that it undermines what is valuable about living in a diverse society. Diversity is important, not in itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare different values, beliefs and lifestyles, and make judgements upon them. In other words, it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help to create more universal values and beliefs, and a collective language of citizenship. But it is just such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that contemporary multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of "tolerance" and "respect."