The term ‘Islamophobia’ began to enter media and political discourse in Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a way of signalling a rejection of the growing Muslim population. However, a report published in 1997 by the Runnymede Trust – a body established in 1968 to advise government on matters of race relations – was pivotal in raising new social and political awareness of prejudice against Islam and Muslims in Britain.
The report published by the Runneymede Trust ‘Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia’ in 1997 (Islamophobia: a Challenge For Us All) broadly defined Islamophobia as ‘unfounded hostility towards Islam’ resulting in discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards Muslims. This might be manifest, for example, in a view of Islam as a static and monolithic worldview that encourages separatism and hostility towards the West and its values.
The Runnymede Trust report placed prejudice against Muslims in Britain into public, political and media debate on a new scale. Since 1997, there have been strongly argued contests not only about the definition and parameters of the term, but also about the nature and extent of the phenomenon it was referring to. There has been vigorous research activity about the relationship between racial and ethnic discrimination and religion, and the degree to which race and religion might intersect. Academics have tried to tease out the distinction between a ‘phobia’ of Islam as a religious worldview and prejudice towards ethno-cultural communities of Muslims themselves.
For example, scholars such as Fred Halliday argued that the problem was not about Islam as a faith, but about hostility towards Muslim communities. This would make ‘anti-Muslimism’ a better term, in his view, than Islamophobia. More recently, the eminent sociologist Tariq Modood has suggested that Islamophobia is best considered as involving both racial and religious discrimination and is thus a form of cultural racism, the result of which has been a ‘racialisation’ of Islamic identity.
These on-going contests reveal a lack of consensus about the term ‘Islamophobia’ in academic circles. Increasing numbers of doctoral theses, journals, and research centres are devoted to exploration of the term and the phenomenon. But moving away from these sometimes abstract theoretical debates, there is research evidence that demonstrates that Islamophobic views in Britain now have greater political significance that anti-Semitism, not only in terms of frequency but also in terms of being visible and overt. As the former Conservative Party Chair Baroness Saida Warsi claimed in 2011, prejudice against Muslims has “passed the dinner table test”. Although quantitative surveys are perhaps rather blunt instruments for measuring feelings or experiences of discrimination or prejudice, they nevertheless reveal some alarming trends. For example, about one in five Britons has a strong dislike of Islam and Muslims (Field, 2007), and the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2009-2010 found that Muslims were the least popular religious community (Allen 2013). Alongside this, there is good evidence to show that Muslims are subject to greater surveillance and profiling by the security services than members of other world religions, making contemporary Britain a very challenging place to live as a Muslim.
The launch of the ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia’, established under the current Coalition Government, and the Tell MAMA project, launched in 2012, reflect important political and British Muslim community initiatives to record and address experiences of prejudice against Muslims in Britain today.
© Cardiff University
Islam UK Centre Lecture: Approaching Islamophobia from a Human Rights Perspective – Dr Chris Allen