The myth of Islamophobia
Nine years on from 7/7, the much-hyped anti-Muslim backlash is yet to appear.
7 July 2014
Children as young as 10 are among those racially abusing Muslims in Britain’, shouted the Daily Mail last week; ‘Women targeted in rising tide of attacks on Muslims’, asserted the Observer; ‘Action needed to tackle “rampant” Islamophobia on social media’, urged the Metro. It is apt, perhaps, that on the ninth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, the spectre of Islamophobia has once again been looming large in the UK media. After all, the assumption that in Britain, and in the West in general, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the Mosque-burning, veil-ripping march has been one of the most persistent political and cultural narratives over the past decade or so.
Here’s Massoud Sahdjareh of the Islamic Human Rights Commission speaking in 2000: ‘Muslims in Britain face the same fate this century as Jews in Europe in the last.’ Here’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a commentator for the Independent, writing a few days after 9/11: ‘We brace ourselves again for a period of bile and beatings and hate mail… Islamophobia will once more erupt worldwide and be legitimised by some political leaders. It is okay to hate a Muslim again.’ Here’s former Birmingham City councillor Salma Yaqoob writing in the Guardian in 2006: ‘[Muslims in Britain] are subject to attacks reminiscent of the gathering storm of anti-Semitism in the first decades of the last century.’
Again and again, the idea of a seething, popular mass of anti-Muslim sentiment is invoked by politicos and pundits (some Muslim, some not). And again and again, this seething, popular mass of anti-Muslim sentiment never actually shows its face. The not-very-racist reality has consistently failed to live up to the burning-and-bigoted hype.
Just look back: after every terrorist attack carried out by assorted jihad-espousing, al-Qaeda fanboys, there has been no shortage of politicians, commentators and so-called community leaders warning of an imminent surge in anti-Muslim attacks. And yet each time, the surge never came. A few months after 9/11, for instance, a spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police told spiked: ‘There isn’t really evidence of an increase [in assaults against Muslims].’ Again, in the year after the 7/7 bombings, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that, out of the 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, just 18 of them were against Muslims (or ‘perceived’ Muslims) – a decline from 23 anti-Muslim crimes in 2004-2005.
Even the recent headlines about a rise in Islamophobia following the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two wannabe jihadists are largely based on a rather dubious source called Tell Mama (an acronym for ‘measuring anti-Muslim attacks’). For those who don’t know, Tell Mama first made the news last summer when it claimed that there had been over 200 ‘Islamophobic incidents’ in the weeks following the Woolwich killing. ‘The scale of the backlash is astounding’, Tell Mama’s founder, Fiyaz Mughal, told the BBC at the time. Yet, what Tell Mama didn’t reveal was that several reports were unverified, the vast majority of ‘Islamphobic incidents’ consisted of postings on social media (some of which didn’t even originate in the UK), and no one who was involved in a real-world attack had required medical attention. The whole operation, from the conflation of rude tweets with attempts to set fire to mosques to the willingness to take reports at face value, looked like a desperate attempt to create the problem of Islamophobia out of resentment-thin air. Which is largely what it was.
Not that the criticism which came Tell Mama’s way last year has stopped it coming back for more. It was behind the reports last week that there had been a ‘surge’ in anti-Muslim feeling over the past year, citing 734 ‘Islamophobic incidents’ between May 2013 and February 2014. As before, however, the overwhelming majority of these incidents (599) consisted of online abuse, and the real-world incidents included everything from verbal abuse to the rarer cases of Muslim women having their veils ripped from their faces. Unpleasant stuff, but hardly proof of the long-prophesied anti-Muslim surge. In fact, even reports and analyses sympathetic to the idea of ever-rising Islamophobia carry the small-print caveat that actual data or evidence is extremely difficult to collate.
It seems, then, that this widespread anti-Muslim sentiment exists not so much in British society as it does in the minds of those determined to conjure it into being as a problem, from state-backed campaign/community groups to achingly liberal commentators. It is not actual victimisation that is the problem here; rather, the real issue is the wilful, eager perception of victimisation. Yet this perception of victimisation, this sense that there is an intolerant, niqab-renting threat around every corner is not inconsequential; it does, in its way, create real victims. It encourages people, in this case Muslims, to think of themselves as victimised; it invites people to experience their lives through the prism of being picked-on; it pushes people to suspect others unlike themselves of prospective ‘hate’ crimes, to read ominous intent into innocuous incidents. So, in the Telegraph this weekend, there was an interview with Sajda Mughal, a 7/7 survivor and a Muslim, who claimed that she is ‘scared to walk down the street’: ‘Islamophobia actually does keep me awake at night.’ In a very real sense, Islamophobia, once it has been dreamt into being, becomes a living nightmare for those convinced of its existence.
This sense of victimhood, this sense that the rest of society poses a threat, was not, as is sometimes thought, a by-product of the War on Terror. Yes, the Manichean rhetoric of that era, with the idea of the West sometimes counterposed to Islam, exacerbated the sense of threat on the part of Muslims. But the groundwork for a pervasive consciousness of victimhood was actually laid well before 9/11, in the form of multiculturalism. So from the 1990s onwards (the Muslim Council of Britain, for instance, was founded and backed by the Conservative administration in 1996), successive UK governments actively promoted and celebrated the idea of difference, the idea, that is, that British society consisted of different ethnic or religious groupings which needed especial promotion and protection. It was never really the positive move it was made out to be, of course. Rather, multiculturalism filled in the gap where the cohering myths of nation and empire used to be. The British establishment needed a source of legitimacy, and multiculturalism, with the state acting as the grand protector of different identities, dishing out money, disavowing and apologising for older national legacies, and passing various forms of anti-discrimination/hate-speech legislation, was ideal.
But the effect of multiculturalism has been as divisive as it has been debilitating. This is hardly a surprise given that it was premised on the idea that there are fundamental differences between people, rather than their moral and political equality. But what it also encouraged and invited was a profound sense of victimhood - and not just among Muslims. To win state protection, to acquire legal privileges, not to mention gain funding, groups based around a particular identity, be it ethnic, religious, sexual or gender, have been tacitly encouraged to play up the threats posed to them, to inflate assorted grievances, and to draw attention to various historical slights.
The phenomenon of Islamophobia, the determined attempt to create it over the past decade or so, and traduce the British public as racist in the process, is best seen in this context: as a product of the infernal logic of multiculturalism, where one’s particular identity is substantiated on the basis of the threats posed to it. The greater the threat, the more privileged the identity. Of course, everyone from Labour’s ex-prime minister Gordon Brown to his Tory successor David Cameron now criticises multiculturalism; at some level, they recognise its divisive legacy. But what they don’t recognise is that the victim identity at its heart continues to be socially cultivated and state validated. And that’s the key problem. Being a victim – a victim of racism, of religious hate, of homophobia, of misogyny, even of misandry – is too often presented as the only way to be. I hurt, therefore I am. This is no way to be. If we are to move on from this victimising moment, we, as a society, need to stop wilfully suspecting others of being out to do us harm. We need to stop seeing every abusive tweet with an EDL hashtag as evidence of deep-seated, pervasive animosity. We need to stop seeking out offence. And we need to develop new forms of social solidarity, to focus on what we have in common.