Shaista Aziz on rising Islamophobia and why Labour needs to step up

The horrifying and devastating images from Afghanistan, showing the desperation of Afghans trying to escape their country to seek sanctuary in the West following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, will be archived forever and juxtapositioned alongside images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, twenty years ago. 

The launch of George W Bush’s and Tony Blair’s catastrophic “war on terror”, and the subsequent wars, political instability and upheaval they’ve created across the Middle East and North Africa, has accelerated and entrenched Islamophobia, anti-Muslim racism and bigotry in the UK and the West, alongside anti-refugee and migrant hate.

The words ‘Muslim’, ‘terrorist’, ‘ISIS’, ‘Taliban’, ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ have become interchangeable and mainstreamed in so much of our political and public discourse, fuelling racism. 

The UK’s Muslim population numbers around 3.4 million people, or 5% of the population. This number is likely to increase when the census data is published, which is likely to reflect how diversity has grown amongst British Muslims and how young the Muslim population is. There is documented evidence of Muslims having a presence in Britain since the 16th century. The UK’s first Muslims are documented to have arrived in Liverpool and were of Yemeni background. Britain’s Muslim communities are incredibly diverse, practice many strands of Islam, speak a number of languages and follow a diversity of cultural practices. Yet this plurality and diversity is very rarely seen or understood in the public, political or media representation of Muslims in the UK. 

Overwhelmingly, Muslims are viewed as outsiders and as ‘other’. We are viewed as separate from mainstream society and are suspect until we prove otherwise. Over the last few years, and especially since the Brexit campaign and referendum, the UK has seen a reported rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate.

The ‘phenomenon’ of Islamophobia isn’t new, however, and the alarm has been sounded numerous times over decades about the pernicious nature of this form of bigotry and its impact on British people and communities.  

Muslim women are disproportionately affected by Islamophobia. We suffer from the intersection of racism, Islamophobia, sexism and misogyny. We are viewed as foreign, alien, a threat to the West. Shamima Begum, the British teenager who left her home in East London and joined Isis in Syria, is just one case in point. Begum has had her British nationality stripped.

One of the UK’s highest profile Muslim politicians, former chair of the Conservative Party Sayeeda Warsi, has since 2011 consistently raised her voice against racism in her own party, government and society. In 2011, Warsi declared: “Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test”. The Tories have been accused of turning a blind eye to Islamophobia and continue to do so. The current prime minister, Boris Johnson, wrote about Muslim women in one of his newspaper columns, referring to us as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ for wearing the niqab, the face veil. The Muslim Council of Britain cited 300 allegations of Islamophobia against the prime minister and members of the Conservative Party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The group called on the commission to formally investigate the governing party over Islamophobia. It’s the second time that the Muslim Council of Britain has called for an inquiry to be launched, with no action taken. 

The Labour Muslim Network has been investigating Islamophobia in the Labour Party and has called on the party to root out Islamophobia, create Islamophobia awareness across the party’s structures, and to hold Islamophobes to account.

Islamophobia is not recognised along the same lines as other forms of racism; it’s even debated if Islamophobia is in fact real or exists at all. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims in 2019 adopted the following definition of Islamophobia: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” 

Drawing on analysis published since 2019, the Muslim of Council of Britain’s report sets out core conceptual components in accessible terms, establishing a framework of reference that helps determine what does – and does not – constitute Islamophobia. Types of intervention that would be Islamophobic include: “causing, calling for, aiding or justifying acts of aggression against Muslims”; “dehumanising, demonising or making stereotypical allegations about Muslims”; and “prescribing to/propagating conspiracy theories about Muslims”.

If we on the left are serious about creating and actioning equalities and anti-racism, Islamophobia has to be tackled head-on and rooted out. This means challenging all forms of Islamophobia, including structural racism, as part of creating a diverse and representative anti-racism movement and anti-racist politics and policies. There needs to be a far more sophisticated understanding of who British Muslims are in all our plurality and diversity, and the impact of social, domestic and foreign policy on our lives and life chances. We Muslims’ lived realities and stories need to be told as part of the wider narrative and stories of what this country was, what this country is, and what it could yet become if we enact the vision we have for creating a fair society that values everyone. 

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