Love Thy Neighbour
Islamophobia & Racism in Britain
As a child in the 1970s, I fondly remember many of the decade’s sitcoms. Alongside the classics that many of us treasure, I also remember watching some of those we choose to forget. Having enjoyed watching both ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ at the time, I recently revisited them as a means of highlighting to students just how much Britain and British society has changed over the past forty to fifty years. Built around some of the crassest racial and ethnic stereotypes ever seen on British television, both programmes nowadays make me feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Is ‘anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination becoming ‘more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous’?
There is an argument to suggest that discrimination never goes away, it just changes shape. Whilst racism is no longer socially acceptable, other discriminatory phenomena are. As Baroness Warsi stated last year, in today’s Britain anti-Muslim prejudice and discourse had passed the ‘dinner table test’. For her, the routine expression of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic opinions and ideas was entirely accepted – both socially and politically – through conversational civility. To be fair, Warsi’s statement put forward nothing new. Fifteen years ago, the Runnymede Trust – the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank – noted something very similar. Publishing the report of the Commission for British Muslims & Islamophobia (CBMI) – entitled ‘Islamophobia: a challenge for us all’ – it noted that not only was anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination becoming ‘more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous’ but so too that such opinions were increasingly being seen to be ‘taken for granted’ and seen to ‘make sense’.
If nothing else however, the legacy of these two comedies serves as a timely reminder of the great strides forward we have made in pushing racism – and indeed many other forms of discrimination – to the margins of today’s society. This is not to say that racism and other forms of discrimination have been eradicated: far from it. As the recent furore surrounding Premier League footballers has shown, racism continues to rear its ugly head to damaging effect.
‘ordinary British citizens are indiscriminately spat upon, shoved, abused, assaulted or have their houses graffitied, fire-bombed or worse’
Since the publication of that report, much has changed. Who could have predicted the global impact of 9/11 or the impact of 7/7 here in the UK? Who could have predicted – not least as a response to both 9/11 and 7/7 – the unprecedented rise of the British far-right not least in winning two seats in the European Parliament? Who could have predicted that thousands of people would regularly march through towns and cities across Britain behind banners stating ‘Black and White unite against Islamic Extremism’?
In some ways, thinking only about these type of issues can be misleading because we forget about the actual impacts of such discriminatory phenomena. So in the same way in which the victims of racism in the 1970s were ordinary British citizens targeted solely because of their ‘race’ or ‘skin colour’, so too are the victims of anti-Muslim discrimination targeted solely on the basis of being or merely perceived to be Muslim. The markers for identification and discrimination change whilst the consequences remain the same, where ordinary British citizens are indiscriminately spat upon, shoved, abused, assaulted or have their houses graffitied, fire-bombed or worse. For the victims themselves, their everyday experience of life in this country can become untenable.
In the main, anti-Muslim discrimination has been termed as ‘Islamophobia’, not least as a legacy of the CBMI report. This has caused some contestation and indeed many of those who refute the very notion of any anti-Muslim phenomenon critique the term as a means of undermining or question the phenomenon itself. Without doubt, the term is a subjective one: it clearly does not do what it says on the tin. But given that the term homophobia is widely accepted and used without seemingly having the same contestation, such arguments are as regards anti-Muslim or Islamophobic discrimination mere smokescreens. Putting the wolf in sheep’s clothing – rejecting the term Islamophobia in preference of a far from obvious alternative – offers little except in appeasing its detractors.
But whilst this has been ongoing, a concurrent process has been underway that has sought to shape and inform the social and political consensus. Over the past decade, Britain’s Muslim communities have become the central focus of legislation and policies: those that have sought to curtail and control radicalism, proscribe ‘extremist groups’, and introduce new offences that include ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’, ‘encouragement to terrorism’ and the ‘dissemination of terrorist publications’. Whilst the atrocities committed on 7/7 remain all too vivid, as indeed do the news reports of various foiled terror plots that were to be perpetrated by those claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, the consequence of this has been that all Muslims have become seen to be presenting or at least supportive of such individuals and the atrocities they sought to inflict. To return to the 1970s, the old racist adage used to be that ‘all black people looked the same’. In 2012, the same adage might be that ‘all Muslims are the same’. Not only has this had the effect of raising and reinforcing fears and anxieties in wider society about Muslims, their beliefs and their practices, but so too has this also isolated and alienated Muslim communities. The consequence for all is therefore deeper divisions, less cohesion, greater tensions and increased social unrest across Britain.
But things are beginning to change. A year ago, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia was established in the Houses of Parliament to begin to consider the issue in a more balanced and objective way. To support this, a Cross-Government Working Group on anti-Muslim Hatred was also created and is currently working out of the Department for Communities & Local Government. More recently, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced a significant investment in a third party reporting service for victims of anti-Muslim and Islamophobic incidents. Baroness Warsi has also called on mosques to do more in terms of recording similar incidents, to feed into the reporting and monitoring process at the same time as offering support to victims.
‘Discriminate against or deny the rights of one person or group and it becomes much easier for the rights of others to be denied or to be discriminated against also, including one’s own’
All of course are positive developments and reflect the growing importance we place as a society on fairness and equality in 21st century Britain. As we’ve come to agree, equality is not only for those who come from a particular ethnic background, religion or have a disability. In today’s increasingly diverse Britain, more and more of us are beginning to come to terms with the realisation that equality must be for everyone.
As we saw during the Olympics, Britain is undeniably diverse. But not only that: our diversity is a cause for celebration. Those who were the targets of racism in the 1970s – those who were the butt of the jokes in ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ for instance – are an integral part of who ‘we’ are today.
And that is why addressing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination is as important today as indeed addressing racism on the basis of ‘race’ or skin colour was in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and indeed even now. It is no longer about ‘them’ but about ‘us’. And if we are as successful in responding to Islamophobia as we have been with racism and other forms of discrimination, then our present attitude to Islamophobia will be as uncomfortable and unwanted in the future as the casual racism of the past appears today.
By Dr Chris Allen