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A Summer of Islamophobia: considering the lessons learned

The summer of 2018 is likely to be remembered for its record high temperatures and the England football team’s unexpected journey to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Maybe just Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat.

For some, the summer of 2018 will be remembered for a far more insidious reason: its Islamophobia. From allegations about the Conservative Party to premeditated slurs about Muslim women, Islamophobia was a marked feature of Britain’s public and political spaces.

Below, I draw some lessons from what unfolded over the summer months.

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The first is how many mainstream political actors care little about Islamophobia, to the extent that it really is quite unimportant. Think back to the calls for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party at the start of the summer. While one might have thought the Conservative Party’s leadership would have been outraged at the Muslim Council of Britain’s dossier of near weekly instances of Islamophobia perpetrated by Party members, the actual response was one of ambivalence and near silence. Having paid the merest of lip service to the issue, those including Theresa May (Prime Minister), Brandon Lewis (Conservative Party Chair) and Sajid Javid (Home Secretary) quickly allowed the matter to disappear from the political agenda.

This in spite of efforts by some within the Party to catalyse a response. These included Mohammed Amin — chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum — who criticised the Party’s leadership: “[the leadership] seems to be taking the approach that if it keeps quiet and does nothing the issue…will somehow magically go away”. Another was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former co-chair of the Party. For her, despite Islamophobia being “…widespread [in the Party]…from the grassroots, all the way up to the top…the leadership feels [it] can be easily ignored”. Despite their valiant attempts, the sheer disregard of the Party’s leadership to the allegations made illustrated just how unimportant the matter was to them.

The same could also be said of the political mainstream more widely. That is unless you consider the second lesson learned from the summer, that mainstream political actors can actively deploy and explicitly espouse Islamophobia for personal and political gain without fear of recourse or censure.

Cue Boris Johnson and his comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab looking like ‘letterboxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. As I wrote at the time, far from being gaffes or innocent ‘jokes’ Johnson’s comments were insulting, cowardly and clever. As regards the latter, both he and the Telegraph’s editorial team knew the impact his comments would have. Accordingly, Johnson not only sought to feed into and subsequently benefit from the wave of populist support being pursued by others on the right and far-right but so too did it enable him to come into conflict with the Prime Minister thereby enhancing his position for a future leadership contest.

While May and Lewis — both of whom had ignored earlier allegations of widespread Islamophobia in their Party — were reported to have told Johnson to apologise for his comments, he outright refused to do so. Add in how it was reported that his comments resulted in a spike in attacks against Muslim women and the fact that there was still no recourse or censure speaks absolute volumes.

The third lesson relates to how the mainstream media’s attitude towards Islamophobia can be seen to be worryingly and concerningly different in comparison to other forms of bigotry and hate. Think back again to Johnson. Within 24 hours of his comments being made, the mainstream media had transformed the debate by asking should the ‘burqa’ be banned. Within 72 hours, it had switched focus to Johnson’s eccentric buffoonery and his engineered publicity stunt where he served journalists tea and biscuits. All were in preference of pursuing an investigation into allegations of Islamophobia.

Would the same have occurred had his comments been deemed racist or antisemitic? I very much doubt it.

Having always been reluctant to make simplistic and superficial comparisons of Islamophobia with other forms of bigotry and hate — as I have often written, all forms of bigotry and hate are equally abhorrent as are attempts to create hierarchies of victimhood — the juxtaposition of allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party alongside allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party over the summer demands the matter is given at least some consideration.

While there has been widespread outrage — at times, faux outrage — and extensive column inches attributed to Labour’s antisemitism — and it’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn — it was quite different as regards Islamophobia and the Conservatives. Garnering far less column inches, the tone and emphasis of the two sets of allegations were significantly different. Towards Labour, the tone was largely condemnatory; towards the Conservatives, a far more ambivalent tone was the norm.

No doubt some will (deliberately?) misinterpret what is being posited here. To reiterate, the point is not that there is — or should — be any hierarchy between Islamophobia, antisemitism or any other form of bigotry and hate. Instead, that all forms of bigotry and hate should be understood and duly responded to in fair, consistent and equitable ways. The summer has shown that this is not the case when it comes to Islamophobia.

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This is best evidenced by a Rod Little article in the Spectator. Published shortly after Johnson’s comments, the original piece — Why Boris is wrong about burkas — was accompanied online by the sub-title, ‘My own view is that there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party’. Now re-read that and substitute the word Islamophobia with any of the following: racism, homophobia, sexism and antisemitism. What chance any of those would have been published?

What about if the sub-title had been, ‘My own view is that there is not nearly enough antisemitism within the Labour Party’: what chance that also being published? None whatsoever and rightly so I hasten to add. It is therefore both worrying and concerning that the mainstream media appears to have quite different standards when it comes to Islamophobia.

Another lesson is how non-political actors and organisations appointed by the Government to help respond to and tackle Islamophobia are not up to the task. Culpable here are the members of the Government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group (AMHWG). Having previously argued the AMHWG is little more than a political façade, the AMHWG’s continued silence against the backdrop of this summer’s unfolding events is as unfounded as it is unexplainable. One reason for stating this is because the AMHWG’s terms of reference suggest that it is responsible for reviewing “trends in anti-Muslim sentiment and hatred and suggest appropriate action(s) to be taken by communities and the Government” from which it is required to “communicate key messages on Anti-Muslim Hatred and respond to national issues in the media”. That the AMHWG and its members have again chosen to remain deafeningly silent against the backdrop of this summer’s unfolding events once again highlights the sheer impotency of both the Group and those who are a part of it.

In recent years, the AMHWG has been similarly silent about the Trojan Horse allegations in Birmingham, this year’s Punish A Muslim Day, and almost everything other Islamophobic issue, incident and event since its establishment in 2012. As I conceded five years ago on resigning from the AMHWG, individual members were — and indeed continue to be — unwilling to speak up against, criticise or challenge the Government on any issue. In my opinion, this was because some of those members did not want to lose their seat at the Government’s table and the benefits this had the potential to bestow on them. Fast forward to 2018— and noting how much of the AMHWG’s membership has remained unchanged — it is now time for members to take responsibility and offer an explanation for their collective inaction. An extremely cosy arrangement for all concerned, it is quite depressing that in more than half a decade since its establishment, there hasn’t been a single output from the AMHWG.

When considered together, it can be argued that something of a perfect storm evolved over the summer months in Britain. Drawing together the realisation that Islamophobia is politically unimportant, that it is routinely deployed by political actors for political and personal gain without recourse or censure, that it is worryingly accepted within the mainstream media to the extent that it is responded to differently in comparison to other forms of bigotry and hate, and that those holding positions of responsibility have collectively failed to hold political actors and others to account, the summer afforded us an opportunity to see just how far off we are from ensuring that Islamophobia is attributed with the importance it demands let alone tackle it in any meaningful way.

Sadly, the summer showed me that we are no nearer to tackling Islamophobia than we have been at point in the two decades I’ve been researching the issue. As regards ‘what next’, the perfect storm that emerged out of the perfect summer provides much food for thought. While so, how we respond to what we have learned isn’t — at this stage at least — readily apparent.

Some will no doubt look towards and place hope in the working definition of Islamophobia that is due to be put forward by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims later this year. For advocates of a working definition, the argument is that having one will not only help cut through the contestation and confusion attributed to Islamophobia but will also provide the foundation upon which to shape and inform much needed policy responses. Despite this optimism, there are no guarantees that a working definition will appease or placate those who seek to undermine, detract from or deny Islamophobia’s very existence. Nor is there any evidence that a working definition would have changed or impacted any of the issues considered here.

In this respect, it is unlikely that a working definition will provide the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ some advocates are clearly hoping it will. It is equally unlikely that Britain’s Islamophobia is going to be tackled in the foreseeable future.

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