'Islamophobia isn't confined to bigots; it permeates our politics and media'
Islam Channel columnist, Taj Ali, looks at the role major political parties and the media play in further dehumanising Muslims in the UK.
I was 11-years-old when I was told not to venture into Luton Town Centre because the English Defence League were in town. Like many British Muslims up and down the country, I’ve seen first-hand the consequences of dangerous hysteria whipped up about Muslim communities. Empowered by a hostile media climate that frequently demonises Muslim communities, far-right groups like Britain First and the English Defence League have plagued towns like mine for years.
But Islamophobia is not an issue confined to fringe bigots on the far-right. It is a systemic issue, permeating our media, our major political parties and our society in general. The effort to depict it as an issue on the far-right seeks to absolve many across the political spectrum of their complicity in Islamophobia.
In October 2020, Hope Not Hate published a report revealing poll findings which highlighted widespread Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. About 57% of party members reportedly held negative views about Muslims and nearly half believed Islam is ‘a threat to the British way of life’. This issue goes right to the very top of the party, with Boris Johnson himself stoking the flames of Islamophobia. In 2005, Johnson proclaimed that ‘Islam is the problem’ and trivialised the issue of Islamophobia by claiming that fear was a ‘natural reaction’ to the text laid out in the Quran.
A week after his derogatory remarks about niqab-wearing Muslim women, comparing them to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, there was a 375% increase in Islamophobic hate crimes. This is no coincidence. Islamophobic rhetoric has very real consequences.
Islamophobia within the Labour Party
While many Labour figures have rightly called out this vile Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, their silence on Islamophobia within their ranks has not gone unnoticed by many British Muslims.
In November 2020, the Labour Muslim Network released a report into Islamophobia within the Party. The report, which constituted the largest ever consultation of Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party, found 29% of Muslim Labour members suffered Islamophobia within the Party, while 37% witnessed it. Meanwhile, 44% said Labour doesn’t take Islamophobia seriously, and more than half of those surveyed said they didn’t trust the Labour leadership to tackle it.
Prior to the release of the findings, there was already evidence of inaction in tackling Islamophobia. A leaked internal party report in April 2020 found widespread Islamophobia from senior officials within the party had gone unchallenged.
The Forde report, an inquiry into this leaked document and its findings, was released last month after a two-year delay. It revealed – amongst other findings – that senior Labour staffers had sent several “insensitive and, at times, discriminatory” WhatsApp messages laced with anti-Black racism and Islamophobia.
The report accuses the party of ‘operating a hierarchy of racism or discrimination’, with many forms of racism and discrimination being ignored. In its public response to the report, the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) said: “Muslim members have consistently told us they feel Islamophobia often sits at the bottom of this perceived hierarchy. It is difficult to read this report and reach any other conclusion than there being institutional Islamophobia within the Labour Party.”
This should have been the wake-up call for the Labour Party to take decisive action to win back the trust of Muslim Labour members and supporters – and not just because it serves them electorally, but because being actively anti-racist is a moral imperative for any party framing itself as ‘progressive’.
Instead, when Muslims have highlighted Islamophobia in the Labour Party they are met with outright denial or told "It's worse in the Conservative Party." Claiming the issue is worse in the Conservative Party ignores the fact that the vast majority of British Muslims engage in party politics through the Labour Party. The lack of introspection and the inconsistency of Labour figures in calling it out Islamophobia suggests that they are more interested in political point-scoring than tackling a serious issue that has had violent consequences for British Muslims.
The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging there is one. We must acknowledge that Islamophobia is an issue across the political spectrum and we must be consistent in calling it out.
The media’s complicity
Notably, many journalists have omitted reference to Islamophobia in their reporting on Forde. Doing so is a conscious choice, itself reflective of their attitudes to the struggles of British Muslims. Instead of holding political parties and public figures to account on this issue, many media outlets have been complicit in it themselves. For years, the tabloid press have frequently dedicated their front pages to vilifying and demonising the Muslim community. In fact, a major study by the Muslim Council of Britain found that most UK news coverage of Muslims is negative.
It is abundantly clear that Islamophobia is an issue that is pervasive across society, yet it gets nowhere near the amount of scrutiny that it should. Such inaction has consequences. Islamophobic hate crime is on the rise. Between 2018-2019, nearly half of all reported religious hate crime offences in the UK were directed towards Muslims.
Three years ago, a neo-Nazi terrorist massacred 51 Muslims whilst they were worshipping in a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an attack driven by an Islamophobic ideology that continues to be prevalent in our society, and nowhere near enough has been done to challenge it.
The dehumanisation of Muslims doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it is enabled by rhetoric from the top. It’s vital that we take the issue seriously.