Islamophobia rises in British society

Politicians and the media are still fuelling Islamophobia, says Professor Humayun Ansari.

7/7 Victims Are Remembered 6 Years On
Islamophobia is on the rise, and, instead of acting to curb it, the media and civic institutions are helping sustain its worrying rise [Getty Images]

On the 8th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, and in the aftermath of the killing of British army soldier Lee Rigby, it is timely to assess how Islamophobia within Britain’s political landscape has evolved since that tragic day in July 2005. Much evidence suggests that Islamophobia has moved beyond small fringe far-right groups to being far more widespread across broad sections of the population.

While the majority of Britons certainly do not regard Muslims as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers, the proportion leaning towards this position has doubled since 7/7. In 2011, 75 percent viewed Islam as the most violent religion and 43 percent saw Muslims as fanatical. Worryingly, large segments of British society today believe that Muslims possess dual loyalties and the number of those who perceive Islam as a threat to Western liberal democracy has risen sharply.

Islamophobia is becoming increasingly institutionalised – we find it in official policy documents and in the voices of state institutions and those holding authoritative positions

In a survey conducted immediately after the Woolwich murder, 59 percent of respondents regarded a “clash of civilisations” as inevitable, with only a third, in contrast, deeming Islam as compatible with the “British way of life”.

So what or who is fuelling this belief? I believe that political rhetoric and the media has a lot to answer for. In a whole host of speeches and acts since July 2005, Islamophobic discourse has become normalised and become more coded and subtle.

Indeed, some believe that an underlying hostility and resentment against Muslim communities was lying dormant, only for Lee Rigby’s murder to spark its re-eruption with a sharp rise in Islamophobic attacks, from online and hate-filled speeches, to arson and the fire-bombing of mosques.

The BBC’s knee-jerk response was to label the Woolwich attackers as of “Muslim appearance“, but then why was an arson attack and destruction of the two-storey Al-Rahma Islamic Centre, in Muswell Hill, described as possibly racially-motivated and not a terrorist attack, even with “EDL” (English Defence League) scrawled on the building’s charred remains?

It is also puzzling why the brutal murder, just a couple of months ago, of a 75-year-old pensioner in Birmingham, who was repeatedly stabbed, his head stamped upon as he walked home from prayers at his mosque, passed almost un-noticed in the media. There were no floral tributes laid outside Mohammad Saleem’s front door, nor was there any widespread outpouring of public emotional outrage on display.

In the wake of the Woolwich attack, the home secretary, Theresa May, has outlined tougher pre-emptive censorship of internet sites, a lower threshold for banning extremist groups and renewed pressure on universities and mosques to reject so-called hate preachers.

A range of people and social groups, including politicians, judges, journalists, intellectuals and university authorities feel obliged to be co-opted into the process of detecting, monitoring and reporting “suspect” Muslim individuals and behaviours. Islamophobia is becoming increasingly institutionalised – we find it in official policy documents and in the voices of state institutions and those holding authoritative positions.

Various research, including a 2010 report suggests that politicians – with their sensationalised focus on those fringe Muslim groups that adhere to anti-western ideologies – have pandered to, fuelled and reaffirmed Islamophobic anxieties in their ambition to achieve electoral advantage.

And in the media, the broad tendency has been to magnify the perceived threat posed by Muslims to entire communities. The public has been bombarded with negative, distorted and even fabricated messages regarding Muslims’ supposed inherent difference and incompatibility with “normal” values and “normal” ways of life – reason enough to view being anti-Muslim as acceptable and justified.

Compare Woolwich again with the death nearly 10 years ago of an innocent Iraqi hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa, who was kept hooded in British army custody for 36 hours and subjected to “appalling and cowardly… gratuitous violence”. For this, Corporal Donald Payne was charged with a war crime but was sentenced to only a single year in prison. What does such disproportion indicate?

It is important we don’t forget how such actions, along with Islamophobic discourse and rhetoric, can play into the hands of extremist groups and provide the fuel for extremist messages. But eight years after the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil, it seems this lesson still hasn’t been learnt.

Humayun Ansari is a Professor of History of Islam and Culture in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London.