Hope not hate: Can Britain win its battle against rising Islamophobia?

“Comment: A toxic mix of right-wing politicians, harmful media coverage and widespread inequality is fuelling Islamophobia in Britain and beyond, writes Sadek Hamid.

According to Home Office data released this month, UK police recorded a 40 percent increase in religious hate crimes over the last year — 52 percent of which targeted Muslims.

These depressing figures mirror a broader Europe-wide pattern of increased hostility and violence towards Muslims, as noted in a recent report describing a “worsening environment of Islamophobia” in which Muslims face a “new and acceptable hostility in many spheres of everyday life.

 This includes repeated attacks on mosques, micro-aggressions, insults, threats, acts of intimidation and direct verbal or physical violence in public space. 

These findings come as no surprise, and corroborate other work such as the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project which documents the levels of negative opinions about Muslims, Roma and Jews in many European states.

This increasing anti-Muslim sentiment is not only corroding trust between communities, but is resulting in open discrimination by public figures, institutions and ordinary citizens. 

Islamophobia in the UK is linked to certain types of political discourse and media content that rationalises prejudice against Muslims. The increase street protests orchestrated by far right groups such as the supporters of English Defence League founder, Tommy Robinson — who recently declared that he didn’t care if he incited fear of Muslims — is clear evidence of this.

“Challenging Islamophobia is made more difficult by the fact that anti-Muslim discourses have become normalised in government spheres”

But Islamophobia also shows its face among political and media elites, with the appropriation of right-wing arguments by mainstream politicians, as demonstrated by Boris Johnson’s comments comparing niqab-wearing women to letter boxes, and proudly Islamophobic journalists such as Rod Liddle.

Media bias against Muslims has also been documented in various studies that have tracked its growth from the beginning of the 2000s. Cardiff University’s research into the representation of British Muslims in the print media noted that the most common themes in stories about Muslims associate them with terrorism, religious extremism, veils, sharia law and forced marriages.

This has led some to argue that the media actually contributes to worsening Islamophobia. Negative coverage has clearly influenced perceptions, with almost a third of British people believing the myth that there are “no-go zones” for non-Muslims in areas with large Muslim communities.

 These fabricated stories pushed by some of the news media show little regard for accuracy and have a preference for sensationalism that often confirms the worst prejudices of their readers.

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Countering the current wave of hostility towards the Muslim citizens and residents of Europe is a major challenge that requires multidimensional responses. 

Much of the work in combating Islamophobia is delivered by community advocacy organisations working across faith communities and building alliances with human rights groups.

Its effectiveness is supported by research which indicates that people who know Muslims personally, are generally more likely to have positive opinions of Muslims and their religion. Constructive face-to-face conversations about sensitive issues such as religion, extremism or immigration are obviously the first steps to breaking down barriers.

Challenging Islamophobia is made more difficult by the fact that anti-Muslim discourse has become normalised in government spheres. 

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled unfavourably on cases of alleged state Islamophobia, for example, a situation that could easily deteriorate if more far-right political parties are elected to the European Parliament in 2019. 

In Britain, the current government that appears to be in denial about the very existence of Islamophobia, which makes political approaches to solving the problem more unlikely as there is little electoral incentive to do so.

“A YouGov poll of over 10,000 people and discovered that economic inequality was driving hostility against Muslims”

In July 2018, anti-racist advocacy group Hope Not Hate commissioned a YouGov poll of over 10,000 people and discovered that economic inequality was driving hostility against Muslims. 

The group’s CEO has suggested that the hardening of attitudes towards Muslims is due to a sense of loss of hope. “Political parties will not reduce anxiety or even hostility to immigration and multiculturalism by cracking down on immigration alone. It is about rebuilding these communities, equipping their young people with the skills that will enable them to compete more effectively in the modern global world and — fundamentally — giving them a sense of hope in the future.” 

Reclaiming hope, challenging hatred and building bridges in the context of increasing anti-Muslim attitudes underline the argument that Islamophobia is still a challenge for us all.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of ‘Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism’ and is co-author of ‘British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism’.

Follow him on Twitter: @sadekhamid

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

Sadek Hamid

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