There is a lot of reference on the British left to “Islamophobia”, but less actual discussion about what it means. Do Muslims in Britain suffer oppression as Muslims, and if so what kind?
This article will argue that Muslims in Britain do suffer specifically anti-Muslim oppression and bigotry, but that in general anti-Muslim racism is a better way to understand and describe it.
The use of “Islamophobia” to describe anti-Muslim phenomena blurs the distinct concepts of Muslims as people, Islam as a religion (which like all religions is an extremely broad, variegated spectrum of ideas, practices and cultures) and right-wing Islamic-inspired politics, including Islamism (and, indeed, left-wing Islamic-inspired politics).
Whatever the intentions of those who first developed the term in the 1990s, and of many who use it now, its rise has been intertwined with the rise of right-wing religious reactionaries. As the East End Bengali leftist Ansar Ahmed Ullah put it: “We do not use the term ‘Islamophobia’. Calling things ‘Islamophobic’ is a defence card used by Islamists whenever they are criticised.”
The way use of the term has developed has promoted the implication that any criticism of ultra-conservative Islamic politics and practices is a criticism of Islam per se and moreover a bigoted criticism, i.e. expressing hostility against Muslim people.
Moreover, the implication of hostility to religion as such hardly gets to grips with the multiple aspects of discrimination and oppression which Muslims in Britain and elsewhere face, most of which have little to do with Islam per se (which is not to say they are entirely separable from the victims being Muslim).
The necessity of untangling things is shown by the record of the Blair government, which while it presided over racist policies of various kinds, including some which targeted Muslims specifically, was in many ways not Islamophobic but Islamophilic – funding Islamic organisations, facilitating the establishment of Islamic schools and so on. To call Blair an Islamophobe is to confuse, not clarify.
In various writings since 2007, Robin Richardson, who edited the Runnymede Trust’s influential 1996 report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, has made comparable criticisms of the term Islamophobia. He also argues that because it is widely accepted and used, particular by Muslims themselves, it is not possible to abandon it.
I would not make a big deal of opposing the term, but I am not in favour of using it. Another term Richardson suggests, anti-Muslim racism, makes more sense to me.
Anti-Islamic bigotry and anti-Muslim racism
There is a problem with bigoted attitudes towards Islam as a body of ideas, practices and traditions, because this is a definite theme of some right-wing ideologies: from commonplace ignorance about the facts of Islam to stupidity promoted by the right-wing press to the wild anti-Islamic claims of the organised far right.
There are numerous facets to this, from particular (often conspiratorial) views of international politics to claims about Islam and women’s rights, LGBT rights, etc. Sometimes such arguments are made on a more strictly religious basis (referring to the text of the Quran, etc); but even where they are made on a “cultural” basis and shade into more straightforward racism, arguments about the nature of Islam play a crucial role.
Sometimes isolated elements of such criticism will sometimes be true — but those making them have racist “real reasons” as well as more publicly acceptable “good reasons” for making them. Socialist criticism of Islam is radically different from the ill-informed, inconsistent and sometimes lying criticism of the right. Although we should be open-minded about the textual, ideological and in-social-practice differences between different religions, our criticism of each has to be consistent both with our criticism of all religions and our wider (including anti-racist) worldview.
Consistency is possible because Marxist criticisms have a materialist and not a religious basis. They seek to understand and criticise both Islam and Muslim-majority societies in the context of social development and class struggle, in the same way that we criticise Christianity and other religions and cultures.
Even bigoted hostility towards a religion does not necessarily produce the kind of racism which many Muslim people in Britain experience. In the US, for a long time, there was widespread vehement feeling against the Catholic religion but in so far as there was bigotry towards ethnic groups strongly associated with Catholicism (Irish, Italians, etc), this faded long before the anti-religious feeling did. For instance, Irish Catholics became a major force in US society and politics in the early 20th century.
Anti-Muslim racism has flared up since 2001, but the events of the “War on Terror” do not by themselves adequately explain why. After all, the early 1970s saw many more Irish Republican bomb attacks in England than there have been Islamist bomb attacks. There was quite a lot of anti-Irish feeling at the time, but it died away relatively quickly, even before the ceasefires in Ireland.
Most Muslims in Britain face material conditions which makes them vulnerable to racism. While opposition to phobia of or bigotry against Islam is necessary, socialists’ basic concern must not be to “defend Islam” but to understand this racism so we can help fight it.
What is racism?
To say “x group is not a race” as if this is straightforward is to misunderstand the nature of racism.
There is no such thing as a “race”: there is one human species. Today almost no one subscribes to 19th century or Nazi-style biological racism – which insists that there are indeed distinct races – or at least not openly. Racist arguments often involve some variant of “I’m not racist, but...”
Almost universally, racism is used to mean prejudiced hostility (and institutional oppression built on it) to all members of a group which may not be pseudo-scientifically defined as a “race” but which has shared characteristics based not on individual choice but some communal “tag” — often skin colour, but also sometimes other characteristics such as language or (presumed) religion.
In Britain there is a history of racism being closely bound up with the “tag” of skin colour, but many examples from all over the world show this is not a necessary part of it. Muslims in Gujurat or Catholics in Northern Ireland look physically the same as Hindus and Protestants – the point being that in these contexts the religious terms actually describe ethnic groups defined by religious heritage.
What are we talking about?
Muslims in Britain suffer hostility and oppression. Is it because they are Muslims? Well over 60 per cent of Muslims in Britain are of South Asian background (roughly 38 per cent Pakistani, 15 per cent Bangladeshi, 7 per cent Indian, 7 per cent other Asian...) Anti-South Asian racism (again “Pakis”) has a long history here. Aren’t we just talking about anti-Asian racism, perhaps with a new rhetorical coat of paint?
Anti-Asian racism must in part be rooted in the history of British imperialism eg in India. But it also reflects more modern conditions. The disadvantage in terms of poverty, jobs, housing etc suffered by South Asian people in Britain, particularly Pakistanis and even more so Bangladeshis, remains. There is a general law in capitalist society that those suffering from social disadvantage will also become the target for bigotry and oppression — in order to justify the disadvantage and because they are relatively easy and vulnerable targets or scapegoats. Irish Travellers and Roma are clear examples. Given this, it is unsurprising that anti-Asian racism has been more persistent than racism against (non-Traveller) Irish people, who for a long time have been better off, more integrated and more confident.
It is not at all clear that Muslims suffer discrimination in employment, housing, etc because they are Muslims — e.g. that an Albanian or Turkish migrant would suffer worse than a Bulgarian or Romanian one for specifically religious reasons. Nonetheless it would be perverse to ignore the fact that the big majority of Asians in Britain who suffer worst from poverty and disadvantage are Muslims — and that Muslims as a total group belong heavily to ethnicities suffering such disadvantage. (In addition to the 50-plus per cent who are Pakistani or Bangladeshi, over 10 per cent of Muslims are from black ethnic groups.) This must be part of what gives anti-Muslim racism its strength.
Moreover, since the 1980s, religion in general has become a bigger force in British and world politics, and Asian Muslims here are much more likely to prioritise their identity as Muslims. The worldview of anti-Asian racists has shifted too — including the far right, with a new emphasis from e.g. the BNP and the rise of specifically anti-Muslim organisations like the EDL. Racists are much more likely to focus their hostility on Muslims specifically, but at the same time the popular racist image of a Muslim is still Asian.
In other words, anti-Asian racism persists, but it is intertwined with anti-Muslim racism. The intertwining is demonstrated by the fact that an Asian person who is not Muslim but looks something like the stereotype of a Muslim may well become a target of anti-Muslim racism. Being darker-skinned may make you a target more than being from an ethnic group which is predominantly Muslim (eg Turkish people).
Of course, anti-Muslim racism has other aspects which affect all Muslims, as touched on above. These are often more vivid than the grinding disadvantage and poverty affecting South Asian Muslim communities in particular, though they happen in part because of them. Far-right mobilisations; attacks on mosques; street hassle or hate attacks on people dressed a certain way; bigoted nonsense in the right-wing press; state repression focused on Muslim men – these things can affect Muslims of different “races”, even if their focus is often on Asians.
The future of anti-Muslim racism
In the situation of cuts, worsening social conditions, etc, we know that racism is in general getting worse.
“Austerity” naturally effects the most disadvantaged most heavily, while scapegoating also increases. Despite the disarray of the organised far right, “hate crimes” against Muslims shop up in all major Muslim population centres in 2013. Figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales suggest that in 2012-13 religiously-motivated hate crime – which is predominantly anti-Muslim – grew fast, and much faster than racially-motivated hate crime.
2012-13 was the year of the Woolwich murder and the (as it turned out, relatively small) wave of anti-Muslim agitation which followed it. We will have to see how the figures look for next year.
It is true that anti-migrant agitation has displaced anti-Muslim agitation as a focus for the organised right, unsurprisingly given the disarray of the BNP and the EDL and the rise of UKIP. But unfortunately there are good reasons to suppose that anti-Muslim racism has deep roots and will persist. This is not just because UKIP is a less virulent force than the anti-Muslim far right, but because anti-Muslim racism keys into better established anti-Asian themes and because most European migrants are, with exceptions like Travellers and Roma, less poor and therefore less vulnerable.
This problem is not going away anytime soon.