* This short article is an amalgamation of two chapters from my thesis which are more theoretical and rigorously argued than demonstrated here. I welcome feedback on any of the points raised in this article. I can be reached at [email protected]
Anyone who follows events relating to Muslims in ‘the West’ will know each week brings more bad news. It seems that wherever in Europe or North America that Muslims are, they are subjected to surveillance, interrogation, and restrictions that seem to be spurred on by Islamophobia, but crucially, which also perpetuate Islamophobia. Some well known examples from the last month are the recent ban on the niqaab in public spaces in France, the widespread condemnation of a mosque being built near to ‘Ground Zero’, and the proposed ‘Burn a Qur’an day’ that was called for and acted out in several locations. Closer to home, a recent investigation by The Independent found that “Hundreds of British Muslims leaving and returning from holidays abroad face harassment and intimidation by security forces when they pass through UK airports and seaports”. It seems that it is a well established fact that Islamophobia is firmly embedded in the experiences of Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim societies then. My own doctoral research focuses on the experiences of Muslim converts in Britain, particularly in relation to their experiences of Islamophobia and in this short article I will explain some of the findings that I deduced from the 37 in-depth interviews I conducted with Muslim converts from Greater Manchester.
Since The Runnymede Trust published a report entitled ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for us All’ in 1997, there has been much discussion about how much of a problem Islamophobia is. Many Muslim organisations and individual Muslim activists claim it is one of the most prominent and tolerated forms of prejudices of the 21st century, while others claim it is exaggerated. One of those in the latter camp is Kenan Malik who has argued in an article entitled Islamophobia Myth (2005) that the severity of Islamophobia has been greatly exaggerated in order to silence criticism of Islam and stifle free speech. This sentiment that Islamophobia is minimal was echoed by Sayeeda Warsi, a member of the Conservative cabinet who was recently described as ‘Britain’s most powerful Muslim woman’, who recently said: “From my own humble beginnings of [sic] daughter of an immigrant mill worker, to be, at 39, Chair of the Conservative Party, the youngest member of the House of Lords and have a seat at the Cabinet, I think sends out a very strong message to people of all backgrounds, but especially to Muslims and Muslim women to say there is no glass barrier anymore. That glass barrier has been broken”. For Warsi, the glass barrier of Islamophobia, and perhaps also sexism, no longer seems to be a hindrance in the lives of Muslims in Britain, which she feels is reflected in her professional success. But can the success of one woman who identifies as a Muslim truly mean that Islamophobia is not a major problem?
The experiences of the Muslim converts I interviewed lead to some interesting observations. To some extent, the Muslim converts’ experiences support the notion that Islamophobia is not as severe as many fear because they had very few experiences of being physically or aggressively confronted due to being Muslims. Moreover, the anti-discrimination laws that are in place seemed to give them sufficient protection from blatant forms of institutional discrimination, allowing them opportunity to educate themselves and embark on careers that they desired. In a nutshell, the Muslim converts were able to go about their lives without facing insidious Islamophobic attacks. Some may assume this is because Muslim converts are not visible as Muslims but in fact, many of the Muslim converts I interviewed were visible as Muslims because they had appropriated beards or certain types of clothing that marked them out as Muslims. So crucially, the Muslim converts I interviewed had not experienced much threatening Islamophobia even though they were often visible as Muslims. This led to a conclusion by Alison, a 20 year old university student, where she said: “I think people are making Islamophobia out to be bigger than it is, especially like the media. I think non-Muslims are quite friendly towards Muslims in the sense that… as long as they don’t feel threatened and don’t feel that Islam is being forced on them, they’re very happy to allow Muslims and any religious group to practice their belief” (Alison). This is a positive and optimistic point that is rarely mentioned when discussing Islamophobia, but indeed, the starting point for all discussions about Islamophobia must be that many non-Muslims in Britain are friendly and respectful towards Muslims and their beliefs.
To stop here would be to support Kenan Malik’s argument that Islamophobia is a ‘myth’ and doesn’t really exist, but my conversations with the Muslim converts revealed that something more was going on. That they don’t experience blatant Islamophobia very often does not mean Islamophobia didn’t surface in their lives whatsoever, but only that it appeared in different guises. Rather than overtly manifesting, the Islamophobia they were familiar with was of a much more subtle nature. For example, while none of the Muslim convert women who wore a headscarf had ever had their headscarf pulled off their head, all of them had been subjected to comments – sometimes as banter, sometimes of a more sinister nature – where they had been made to feel inadequate or foolish for wearing a headscarf. The Muslim converts had often been called ‘Taliban’, ‘Terrorist’, ‘Paki’, and ‘Bin Laden’ for example. Moreover, the Muslim converts knew that there were instances when they had been judged or reacted to in particular discriminatory way due to being a Muslim, even if it was left unspoken. The subtle Islamophobia they experienced was along the lines of verbal insults or supposed jokes about their Islamic beliefs, experiences that might seem tolerable but which deeply troubled and upset their sense of comfort living amongst non-Muslims. For the Muslim converts then, Islamophobia was very much a pressure that they felt they had to cope with, often leading to paranoia that everyone around them held animosity towards them.
This observation about the way in which Islamophobia manifests being more subtle than overt is crucial to be aware of. It is a common and unfortunate mistake made by well meaning non-Muslims and Muslims to assume that Islamophobia only refers to instances when Muslims are physically attacked. For example, I was surprised that even the most prominent Muslim organisation in Britain, The Muslim Council of Britain, had named an event I attended in the Houses of Parliament in March 2010 which was designed to expose the importance of challenging Islamophobia; ‘Tackling Islamophobia: Reducing Street Violence against British Muslims’. As is commonly done, the MCB had focused on the more blatant form of Islamophobia, ‘street violence’, failing to recognise it can take more everyday and subtle forms which are just as troubling. While it is important to strongly condemn the shocking and disturbing overt examples of Islamophobia such as when Marwa El-Sherbini was stabbed to death in a court room for being a Muslim in 2009, one should not forget that Islamophobia is also about the more mundane and subtle instances where Muslims are singled out, mocked, and ridiculed because surely, these more minor instances still cause much distress and are the foundations that lead to the more shocking and brutal instances of Islamophobia.
This understanding of Islamophobia mirrors an understanding of racism that has been offered in recent times by Philomena Essed (1991), who has argued that despite widespread beliefs in North America and Europe that racism is no longer a major issue, racism has merely taken on a new semblance in the form of ‘everyday racism’, a type of racism which frequently appears in mundane interactions and is not always so strikingly prejudiced. More recently, Barbara Trepagnier has argued in her book Silent Racism (2006) that we still live in an era when the majority of ‘white’ people think they are anti-racist but are still involved in perpetuating it in discreet ways. For Essed and Trepagnier, whether it is made visible or not, ‘everyday racism’ or ‘silent racism’ is ever-present and will continue to manifest in subtle ways regardless of our hopes that race no longer matters. I believe that efforts to understand Islamophobia in a similar manner must also be made, leading to recognising that Islamophobia is more often than not in the form of ‘everyday Islamophobia’ or ‘silent Islamophobia’. Yes, thankfully Islamophobia doesn’t manifest overtly in many situations meaning the Muslim converts had few clear-cut Islamophobic experiences to narrate, but no, unfortunately that doesn’t mean that Islamophobia is just a ‘myth’ as Malik claims. Rather, Islamophobia is typically more subtle, covert and harder to detect.
One of the consequences of the consistent yet subtle repetition of Islamophobia is that it leads Muslims to feel certain ways about how they relate to the non-Muslims around them. The typical attitude that the Muslim converts had towards how they felt non-Muslims was captured in the words of Laura, a 35 year old mental health nurse, who said: “So many people don’t like Muslims, hate Muslims…” (Laura). This is troubling because it reflects the way in which the everyday experiences of some Muslims in Britain lead to them conclude that they are disliked and even hated. There are all sorts of unfortunate implications for the individual Muslim due to internalising this perspective such as developing the same type of self-hatred that Frantz Fanon (1967) has explored in relation to colonial complexes, but there is also a more macro societal implication, which is that Muslims can feel alienated from British society, less likely to feel as though they belong here and are valued citizens. The frequent stigmatisation of Islam and demonization of Muslims in Britain then, does not encourage a more ‘cohesive’ society, but one where Islamophobia causes Muslims to feel as though they don’t belong. There has been alot of discussion about whether Muslims can ever feel as though they belong in Britain and whether they can be loyal to British society with those who are less optimistic pointing to 7/7 to offer an example of Muslims born and raised in Britain who murdered fellow British citizens. What is not included in this discussion often enough though is the extent to which experiences of Islamophobia prevent Muslims in Britain from feeling they have a place within the nation.
The Muslim converts I interviewed were unique individuals and so it is difficult to generalise about how they saw themselves in relation to British society, but nonetheless, I believe I can categorise the Muslim converts into two types with regards to their feelings about being loyal to Britain. The first type of Muslim convert was the one who perhaps fits the stereotype of the Muslim who refuses to integrate. These Muslim converts were adamant that Islam came before anything else and their allegiance was totally sided towards Muslims and they had the desire to emigrate out of Britain. For example, Zach, a 25 year old trainee teacher, said: “First and last I belong to the Muslim ummah and that’s it really… I cannot hold allegiance to Britain in the same way [anymore]” (Zach). It is tempting to overlook such positioning because it can reinforce stigma about Muslims that they are lacking loyalty to Britain. Yet, I believe it is important to recognise that such feelings do exist amongst some Muslims, but just as importantly, it is crucial to also recognise that these same Muslims who seem to be anti-British were still living lifestyles whereby they co-operated with non-Muslims and even admired certain achievements or traits that they perceived to be established in Britain. Furthermore, the majority of the Muslim converts were those of the second type, which were those who were comfortable reconciling their Islamic identity with their British identity. They perhaps occupied a ‘third space’ of ‘hybridity’ as Homi Bhabha (1994) explained was increasingly common in the complex post-colonial societies we live in. So whilst the Muslim converts reported being interrogated repeatedly about their loyalty to Britain and even faced numerous instances when they had been labelled as ‘traitors’, the majority of my interviewees still identified as ‘British Muslims’, admiring British people and British society, and desiring to make a contribution to wider society. In fact, in some cases, it was the case that becoming Muslim had meant the Muslim converts had become more loyal to Britain because they felt Islam taught social responsibility and consideration for wider society. This was a position taken by Sumayyah, a 24 year old A Level student, who made the following comments: “Well I suppose I’m very proud to be British now that I’m Muslim. Before I didn’t really think of it. Before I was Muslim I just thought about myself but now I’m Muslim I’m very proud to be a British Muslim because… I just am! Now I’m very proud to be a British Muslim, yeah, yeah I am” (Sumayyah). Such accounts where Muslims talk about their loyalty and dedication to British society are rarely mentioned, perhaps because they don’t allow the sensationalist ideas about a radical 5th column to be maintained. There was a clear link between experiences of Islamophobia and feelings or non-feelings of belonging/loyalty though, where those who had felt that Muslims were most victimised were also those who were less likely to feel they belonged comfortably in Britain. For example, the problem according to Michael, a 28 year old software programmer, was not that Muslims didn’t want to belong in Britain, but that others, through their Islamophobia, did not give them space to feel as though they could be ‘at home’ in Britain: “I guess [Muslims] can feel truly at home in Britain in themselves… but whether or not people will allow us to feel at home is a different thing. I think there is an opportunity there but whether or not people will allow us to feel that way is a different thing” (Michael). This sends a clear signal of the necessity of obliterating Islamophobia of all kinds if Muslims are expected to feel as though they are valued and equal citizens in Britain. This point is given even more credence after noting a recent poll conducted by Gallup which found that 77% of Muslim identified with the UK compared to just 50% of the general public. This suggests that not only are Muslims generally fairly loyal to Britain and British society, but also that, they are even more patriotic than the general population! This is not surprising given the masses of resources that have been pumped into ensuring that Muslims in Britain identify as British Muslims. The major obstacle in realising the plan to have a society where Muslims feel comfortable living alongside non-Muslims and vice versa is not Muslims lack of willingness to integrate then, but rather, the everyday and subtle forms of Islamophobia that repeatedly surface and make Muslims feel as though they are inferior and different from other citizens, which is one more reason why the irrational fear or hatred of Islam and/or Muslims, that can take violent forms but more often takes subtle forms, must be challenged more vigorously.
Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The Location of Culture. London: New York, Routledge.
Essed, P. (1991). Understanding everyday racism : an interdisciplinary theory. Newbury Park, Calif. ; London, Sage.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skin; White Masks. New York, Grove Press.
Malik, K. (2005). “Islamophobia Myth.” Retrieved 12th January 2010, from http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2005/02/islamophobiamyth/.
Runnymede Trust (1997). Islamophobia : A Challenge for Us All, Runnymede Trust.
Trepagnier, B. (2006). Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide. London, Paradigm Publishers.
The article entitled ‘They asked me where Bin Laden was, then they took my DNA’ is available here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/they-asked-me-where-bin-laden-was-then-they-took-my-dna-2084743.html
These comments are taken from a recent interview she gave to The Muslim News which can be found here: http://www.muslimnews.co.uk/paper/index.php?article=4646
Details of the poll can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/5287105/More-Muslims-identify-themselves-as-British-than-rest-of-population.html