Islamophobia is on the rise in the United Kingdom, but current anti-racist initiatives are insufficient to tackle it.
Islamophobia has risen at an unprecedented pace in the United Kingdom in recent years. Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative Party chairman and one of the country’s most influential Muslim politicians, raised alarm bells in 2011 when she said that anti-Muslim bigotry had “passed the dinner table test.” Unfortunately for her and the broader Muslim community in the United Kingdom, things have only gotten worse. The Muslim Council of Britain gave the Equalities and Human Rights Commission a dossier of 300 Islamophobia charges against Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Conservative Party members in 2020. The Muslim Council of Britain had urged the equalities watchdog to open a formal inquiry into the governing party for the second time, but to no avail.
Since it has only been recognised in policy debate in a significant way over the last 20 years, Islamophobia does not receive the same attention as similar words including racism. Despite many high-profile attempts, such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims in 2018, there is still no generally accepted definition of Islamophobia.
More than 3.4 million Muslims live in the United Kingdom, accounting for approximately 5% of the population. The Muslim community in the United Kingdom is diverse in terms of language, culture, and socioeconomic status, as well as in terms of Islamic traditions. Despite the fact that Muslims have lived in the country since the 16th century, they are often regarded as “the other.”
Muslims are viewed as an outside threat, which makes them seem like legitimate targets for excessive levels of suspicion, surveillance, and intelligence gathering. Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism policy, arguably reinforces Islamophobia. Racism, othering, and Islamophobia are not only abstract ideas that exist only in academic circles; they have real-world negative implications for their victims in all facets of life. Even with the same grades, studies show that Muslim students are less likely to be admitted into Russell Group universities, which are considered the country’s top institutions. Meanwhile, Muslims in Britain continue to face “the greatest economic disadvantages of any race,” with unemployment rates double those of the general population. Just half of Muslims serve in higher-level managerial, administrative, or technical roles than the general population.
Many policymakers, including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, have called on the Muslim community to do more to adhere to “British” standards over the years. As scholar Leon Moosavi has written, many of these demands for greater integration are actually “assimilation disguised as multiculturalism.” It entails the oppressed group abandoning its own identity in favour of the dominant group’s, with the dominant group making no substantial concessions in return. Furthermore, following so-called British ideals hasn’t stopped influential Muslims like Baroness Warsi, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and journalist Ash Sarkar from being targeted.
Instead, accepting outgroups might be a good start, but it wouldn’t go far enough. Exclusion is about more than just a few prejudiced individuals with backward viewpoints. They are systemic and run deep. Indeed, the only way to address issues of this magnitude is through wholesale change, which must begin with recognising that Islamophobia is a real concern.
For instance, adopting the APPG on British Muslims’ working concept of Islamophobia—“Islamophobia is rooted in bigotry and is a form of racism that targets manifestations of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”—would go a long way toward demonstrating not only that policymakers are aware of the racist problem, but that it will be actively challenged. Previous efforts to convince the government to recognise this working concept were met with vehement opposition. It will take a lot of bravery and political will to get it passed.
If the Equality and Human Rights Commission listened to the Muslim community’s concerns and conducted an inquiry into the Conservative Party in the same way as it investigated anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, it will indicate that Islamophobia would no longer be accepted. This needs to happen as soon as possible. Muslims in the United Kingdom have already undergone enough suffering.