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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Denying the discrimination of British Muslims is its own twisted form of Islamophobia

The temperature of anti-Muslim hatred is rising at grassroots level and is embedded systemically into institutions, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Anti-racism demonstrators in Glasgow, Scotland, last month, highlighting the rise in racism across Britain. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty
Anti-racism demonstrators in Glasgow, Scotland, last month, highlighting the rise in racism across Britain. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

We are more than halfway through Ramadan, the season of goodwill, love, positivity – and sometimes, feeling a bit hangry. Although it seems that this month, in the UK at least, it is those who are not Muslim and not fasting that have got the grumps and can’t see things straight. What they are angry about is Muslims speaking up about the discrimination and bigotry they face.

Last week, the Muslim Council of Britain sent an open letter to the chair of the Conservative party asking them to open an independent inquiry into Islamophobia.

It’s something they’ve been calling for over a long period of time but were prompted to write the detailed letter outlining the incidents that are now weekly occurrences.

The extensive list of evidence makes for sobering reading. It also gives words to something so many of us have been discussing for so long – that the temperature of anti-Muslim hatred and violence is rising at both grassroots level and embedded systemically into institutions.

Two of the most high-profile examples given in the letter include the London mayoral campaign of 2016, when Zac Goldsmith ran against Sadiq Khan with a campaign widely acknowledged to be dogwhistle politics, smearing Mr Khan as an extremist. Conservative HQ allowed the campaign to run freely.

More recently, MP Bob Blackman hosted Indian extremist Tapan Ghosh in parliament itself. Mr Ghosh has openly perpetuated anti-Muslim hatred, including saying that the Rohingya Muslims should be persecuted. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has subsequently campaigned with Mr Blackman.

What has been refreshing is the support that the call for the inquiry has received, including editorials from UK newspapers, support from senior Muslims within the Conservative party such as Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and the Conservative home website itself.

More telling are the responses belittling and denying the fact that Islamophobia exists that merit further investigation.

The first and most surprising intervention was by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, someone who says he has Muslim heritage but does not practise the faith.

His response was: “Look who is home secretary,” which is the same as saying Mr Obama becoming president dissipated racism in the US. One instance doesn’t overshadow the evidence.

Mr Javid also said the organisation which wrote the letter was "extremist", despite saying himself in the recent past that he was more than happy to talk to them.

This is a typical case of shooting the messenger and gaslighting the victims. In fact, to accuse Muslims of extremism as a way to dismiss evidential claims is itself an Islamophobic trope.

When Muslims do talk about Islamophobia, they are accused of playing the victim, throwing the word around to draw attention to themselves.

Yet the evidence is clear in the letter but also in all the statistics, from violence to inequality in education, health and employment. Many Muslims are victims.

One of the most insidious ways of delegitimising Muslim experiences is giving the reason that a phobia is an irrational fear but it is perfectly rational to be scared of Muslims.

There are two problems with this. First, it’s deliberately obfuscating the generally accepted meaning of the word Islamophobia. It’s the word we’ve got to denote hatred and discrimination of Muslims. Just like homophobia is commonly understood to mean hatred and discrimination, the same applies here.

The second point is the myth that is perpetuated that it is rational to be fearful of Muslims because of terrorism.

There’s an implication that there is something inherently problematic in being Muslim yet the maths for that simply doesn’t add up.

There are more than 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide so the likelihood of someone committing a terrorist act is extremely small. But it also shows a bias on the part of the person perpetuating this theory in seeking to blame Muslims. In the US, for example, you’re far more likely to be killed by a gun than a terrorist.

To deny the evidence and experiences of Muslims provided in such a well-documented fashion is itself Islamophobic because it denies Muslims a voice and says they don't understand their own experiences – or that they don’t matter.

The answer is simple: hold the independent inquiry. And make sure you show enough respect to the subject matter by appointing someone who will do a fair and nuanced job.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World