Islamophobia Awareness Month 2020: What it is and why it’s happening.

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This month, organisations across Britain, both Muslim and non-Muslim, will hold online webinars, panel discussions and workshops for Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM) 2020. These events aim to raise awareness of Islamophobia as a social phenomenon and lived experience; IAM encourages reflection on how businesses, institutions and communities can respond to Islamophobia. For this article, I have conferred with Muslim Engagement & Development (MEND) and have interviewed Professor Salman Sayyid because he is one of the main contributors to the definition of Islamophobia used by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, according to which Islamophobia is “a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

IAM is a campaign run every November since 2012 to draw attention to Islamophobia in its various forms and to question why it exists – often unchecked – in British society. IAM is also a campaign to improve prevention of Islamophobic incidents, particularly by improving the reporting of such incidents to the police so that the scale of the problem is better understood and can be tackled effectively. IAM was created by British Muslim organisations such as the anti-Islamophobia organisation MEND. The campaign engages organisations across the community – mosques, local media outlets, schools, universities, local councils and groups such as Stand Up To Racism – in activities which raise awareness of Islamophobia. Professor Sayyid notes that IAM is an “opportunity” to engage people in “conversations” and for communities to “coordinate activities” to reduce Islamophobia. This November 2020, organisations involved in the campaign will hold webinars and online events and show their support for IAM on their social media. Events include a corporate networking event for Muslims, plus a workshop on Muslims in the media. There will be panel discussions and talks on the ‘Causes and Cures’ of Islamophobia, ‘Muslim Experiences in the NHS’, and how to ‘fight racism and Islamophobia’.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims defines Islamophobia as “a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” This definition focuses not on Islam but rather on how Muslims are imagined by others and what people associate with ‘Muslimness’. The root problem of Islamophobia is therefore not ‘how compatible’ Islam and British society are, but how non-Muslim people perceive Muslims. Professor Sayyid comments that certain “attributes” – perceived as signs of ‘Muslimness’ – are “problematised”. Notably, around half of the hate crimes reported to the Islamophobia Response Unit come from Muslim women who are non-white and wear the hijab, the niqab or the abayah. Another example of ‘perceived Muslimness’ is a person’s name; according to BBC research, those who submit a CV with a “Muslim-sounding” name are three times less likely to obtain interviews than those submitting CVs with “English-sounding” names. Reflecting on where this hostility towards “perceived Muslimness” springs from, Professor Sayyid observes that in 2020 Britain exists in “an increasingly post-Western world”; the notion that the West is more civilised than other cultures and that the world will “be Westernised” over time has been severely undermined by such events as “the holocaust, ecocide [and] colonialism”. For some in Britain, the descendants of colonial subjects as equal citizens in ‘the motherland’ serve as a reminder of the loss of empire and power. Indeed, Professor Sayyid describes Islamophobia as a way of “blaming Muslims” for a “loss of privilege” among certain non-Muslim British people. Therefore, Islamophobia should not be viewed as a crisis of Islam, but as a crisis of national identity in the post-colonial West.  

Islamophobia exists throughout British society. It begins with media negativity: according to research by the University of Lancaster, for every single positive reference to Muslims in the British media, there are twenty-one negative or extreme references. This demonises Muslims and presents them as ‘the other’ (separate from the British ‘norm’), despite this notion being founded on ignorant, prejudiced stereotypes. This creates the conditions for hostility towards Muslims, leading to the desecration of Muslim graves and attacks on mosques (graffiti, smashed windows and arson). The next stage in the chain of Islamophobia: verbal abuse and bullying. Shockingly, Childline reported a 69% increase in racist bullying at schools, with ‘bomber’ and ‘terrorist’ among the most common terms used. The most extreme cases of Islamophobia in Britain are physical assaults, from the removal of a Muslim woman’s hijab to, in the most extreme cases, murders. For example, in 2017 Zaynab Hussein was run over by right-wing terrorist Paul Moore, who is now in prison for attempted murder. This chain shows how Islamophobia is entrenched in British society. It demonstrates how the hostile, hateful attitudes of some in Britain are causing great pain and suffering to Britain’s Muslim communities in a way that is shocking and unjust.

IAM is an opportunity to combat racist narratives as well as the hostility, discrimination and violence which they engender. It is an opportunity to raise the profile of Muslims in various organisations, communities and public spheres and provides a platform which centres Muslim voices and experiences, which are sorely lacking in the British media. IAM is also an opportunity to raise consciousness among non-Muslims: Islamophobia is not only a call to recognise and respect fellow citizens as equals, but a political alarm bell for anyone not on the far-right of British politics. Professor Sayyid comments that, “injustice doesn’t stay in one place”; in other words, if society allows some to be stigmatised, marginalised and persecuted, then the same can happen to others. Moreover, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardener has said, “This [division between Muslims and non-Muslims] is exactly what the extremists want, on both sides. Not just… ISIS and Al Qaid but far-right extremists, neo-Nazis… [they want] no mingling at all [between Muslims and non-Muslims].” As efforts are being made to break down community cohesion, it is all the more important we make efforts to build unity and solidarity across communities: IAM is the time to promote tolerance and social justice in Britain. 

In conclusion, IAM is an annual November campaign raising awareness of Islamophobia and the lived experiences of Islamophobia: “a form of racism which targets…perceived Muslimness” . Islamophobia manifests in a variety of ways, from negative media bias to discrimination in employment to attacks and murders. We can all take steps to tackle Islamophobia and create unity across communities; we can start by learning more about it and then raising awareness of it. 

Here are some places you can find out more: 

Author Philippa Humphreys is a volunteer with MEND. Interview given by Salman Sayyid, Professor of Social Theory and Decolonial Thought at the University of Leeds.

Header image credit: Festival of Faiths/Flickr