After a Decade of Rising Islamophobia, It’s Time to Reconfigure and Rethink Understanding

Chris Allen – Centre for Hate Studies, University of Leicester, UK

The publication of my new book, “Reconfiguring Islamophobia: a radical rethinking of a contested concept”(Palgrave) marks a decade since the publication of my first book on the topic (“Islamophobia”, Ashgate). In that time, much has changed. In 2010, religiously-motivated hate crimes had yet to be included in official data, the English Defence League was in its infancy, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi under the auspices of the newly elected Coalition, not only claimed Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner-table test’ but that her government would be the first to ‘get it’ as regards the need to address Islamophobia. 

A decade on and religiously-motivated hate crimes are not only at record levels but so too are Muslims most likely to be the victims. As regards the radical right, not only have groups and movements grown in confidence but so too have they and their messages become ever more normalised and mainstreamed. In the political spaces, the current newly elected government has a Prime Minister who has been accused of being Islamophobic

For the past three years, the number of religiously-motivated hate crimes have been at record levels in England and Wales. Having increased by 3 per cent in the past year, Home Office data shows that in the previous two years that rise was rather more significant. In trying to explain these rises, much has been made of the impact of the Brexit referendum. While so, when it comes to Islamophobic hate crimes one cannot ignore the various Islamist-inspired terror attacks that have taken place since 2017. As data from Tell MAMA clearly illustrates, a sharp increase in the numbers of Islamophobic hate crimes occurs in the immediate aftermath of such attacks.

The impact of terror attacks was readily apparent in the research for my new book. From engaging more than 100 victims of street-level Islamophobia, the experience of hate in the form of ‘revenge’ for terror attacks was sadly all too common. From male victims being routinely called ‘soldier killer’ in the aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby through to female victims being told to ‘go back to Islamic State’ in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack, at the heart of these different experiences was a key component to understanding Islamophobia. Similar to my findings from a decade ago, not only are all Muslims seen to be one and the same but so too are they all seen to be to blame. What my new book evidences however is the fluid nature of what exactly Muslims are held responsible for.

Having organised a mere handful of demonstrations a decade ago, the English Defence League’s success was in its ability to mobilise – at its height – thousands of people via the use of overtly Islamophobic messages and ideas. Among others, this saw its supporters protest against the building of mosques in different towns and cities on an almost weekly basis. While the movement went into near terminal decline once Tommy Robinson resigned as leader in 2013, its legacy cannot be denied. Had it not been for the English Defence League, it is unlikely that PEGIDA, Britain First, the Football Lads Alliance and Democratic Football Lads Alliance would have emerged. 

Each of those groups have – at times – drawn upon negative stereotypes about Muslims and the religion of Islam. As my new book illustrates, some of those that have been repeatedly and routinely used by the radical right over the past decade are today unquestioned. A particularly worrying trend identified by my research was how successful the radical right had conveyed the message that child sexual exploitation – using the moniker ‘grooming gangs’ – was endemic within Muslim communities. Accordingly, my research showed that ‘paedo’ was now the most common insult directed at Muslim men. For those insulted in this way, the question was why Robinson and others were allowed to espouse their bigotry and hate

While the ‘dinner-table test’ speech was a watershed moment, a decade on reports claim that not only has Robinson joined Warsi’s Conservative Party but so too that up to 5,000 members of Britain First have also joined. It has almost been almost two years since the Muslim Council of Britain’s published a dossier of near weekly instances of Islamophobia among party members. Prompting calls for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia, while some senior figures paid the merest of lip service others dismissed it out of hand. Now that an inquiry has been announced, the importance of Islamophobia has again been dismissed: focusing on how the party handles complaints about discrimination rather than anything else. 

Over the past decade, I accepted a number of invitations to work with those in the political spaces on the issue of Islamophobia. Drawing on first-hand experience, I use the book to try and better understand the contestation that exists between the real and tangible manifestation of Islamophobia as referred to previously and the Islamophobia conceived in the political spaces that is rather more ambivalent and far less real. It is in this contestation that the need to reconfigure our thinking is most urgent.

In the new book, this is no more evident than and the ongoing political ‘need’ to come up with a widely accepted working definition of Islamophobia: a ‘start-point’ they claim is necessary before they can respond to Islamophobia. While some pander to and perpetuate this by producing definition after definition – I have previously done the same – doing so is at the expense of those who experience the most virulent forms of Islamophobic bigotry and hate. They like the rest of us know that Islamophobia exists: no definition will any more confirm or deny this.

For this reason, I deliberately choose not to include any new definition in “Reconfiguring Islamophobia”. Instead, I emphasise the need to reconfigure our thinking onto the ‘real’ experience of ‘real’ Islamophobia. Challenging those in the scholarly, political and public spaces while calling out those needed to be, I hope the book inspires others to rethink what we can do to better respond to Islamophobia. Waiting another decade will be too long.

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