Azru Merali offers some reflections on what the fight against Islamophobia entails today
As activists, we often find ourselves answering questions determined by those hostile to us. Does Islamophobia exist? How many incidents occur? What is Islamophobia? Aren't you just being oversensitive? Instead of understanding the power dynamic of being asked, or the fact that any answer is set up to fail by the question, we respond. Again and again and again.
Sometimes this endless cycle of repetition lives in the academy, sometimes in civil society, as evidenced by the growing explanatory literature of the concept, and the civil society projects monitoring attacks. Islamophobia – much maligned by said academics and civil society activists, Muslims and non-Muslims alike fifteen and twenty years ago – is now an industry, a niche offshoot to the 'war on terror'.
Such work is often replete with 'outreach work' where, for instance, in the UK, London-centric organisations send researchers or advocates to the North to advise on issues of racism: how people there should report incidents (depending on which organisation and which method, if any, is subscribed to), accompanied by 'awareness raising' of what 'Islamophobia' is, and a good dose of berating Muslims for their failure "in all these years" to report their experiences in sufficient numbers for the government to take the issue of anti-Muslim hatred seriously. Poor government, stupid Muslims. How can we expect the government to help when we don't tell them what is going on?
In the scramble for meagre government handouts and validatory applause from the great and good, what racism is in general, and what Islamophobia is in particular, is lost. Some thoughts follow from here as to where we can find meaning, and how.
Hate Crimes, reporting and statistics: Anti-Muslim racism in the post-racial society
"Been there, done that". That's what any self-respecting anti-racism NGO – such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Institute for Race Relations, or so many grassroots organisations – will tell you. The attempts at monitoring reports of hate attacks against Muslims, coupled with endless attempts to generate a movement towards reporting (where victims of hate attacks or discrimination report to the police or appropriate authorities) and third party reporting (where victims report to an NGO or other organisation that monitors attacks), have been tried, tested and proven themselves worthless for many reasons, including:
(i) Lack of trust in the police and authorities.
(ii) The fear of double discrimination – this is the worry that, already victimised, someone who has suffered an attack or discrimination will face further hostility or violence form those they report it to (whether the police or employers etc). A case in point is that of Yassir Abdelmottalib, beaten into a coma by a group of youths shouting anti-Muslim slurs against him. Whilst comatose, the police charged with investigating the attack took it upon themselves to search his residence on the basis that he may be a terrorist.
(iii) A feeling that no action would be taken by those who were attacked/discriminated against. Additionally, civil society, tasked with presenting statistics to the government (or to international and governmental organisations), to make their case about the existence of anti-Muslim racism/Islamophobia, were hampered form so doing by the following deterrences: Lack of governmental or institutional resourcing and the problems of sustainability without governmental or institutional funding. Though arguably the pot of government funding thrown at Tell MAMA in the last few years was an example of the opposite, it rather proved the point that when such funding is withdrawn, such projects (regardless of the methodological problems) are unsustainable without significant resourcing from those on high.
(iv) Problems of academic rigour and reliability of the statistics. How can enough chasing of incidents (the phone around, plus media monitoring plus field work approaches) be enough? And how can these figures be representative? Without the aforesaid funding and more, can each incident, or enough incidents, be sought out to justify the case that hate crime against Muslims exists, or exists on a troubling enough scale to warrant sate attention? Statistics collated like this, year on year, vary widely according to the funding of whichever initiative tries to have the widest reach that particular year. This is why, after years of working in this, IHRC moved to develop an academically rigorous survey model that could run without major investment on a sustainable basis (but more on that later).
In some ways, the technical problems of data collection are outweighed by the problems of good old theory: about ideas of what racism actually is and how it operates. The collection of data – of attacks whether against mosques, businesses of individuals, inadvertently lends credence to the idea of a post-racial society – a world where racism does not exist anymore, just individual racists.
These individuals are – in the sympathetic narrative – pathologised as deluded and abnormal in the sense that they violate the anti-racist basis of the liberal enlightened society that we live in. As Salman Sayyid asks in his seminal essay on the topic, 'Do Post-Racials Dream of White Sheep?':
"Racism was seen as something that only affects ethnic minorities, it was seen as a marginal and exceptional problem, it was not seen as being intimately linked with processes of national formation and maintenance and thus, its elimination would require not only the development of a new etiquette but rather structural reforms that would re-narrate the nation itself."
For those less sympathetic, attackers are seen as heroes, as the campaign to Free Marine A, convicted of murdering an injured Afghan fighter in his custody, attests. Either way, Marine A, or the attackers of Yassir Abdelmottalib (found guilty of the attack but not religious aggravation incidentally) are the abnormal ones. They distract from the fact that a racist war of empire rages in Afghanistan, or the inherent racism in media and political discourses that fuel the anger of the young against a person they have never met, enough to grievously hurt him.
Meet the elephant in the room: Structural racism and Islamophobia
Whilst perpetrators of racist acts and attacks cannot be exonerated, it is important to understand that they, too, are victims of racism. The Domination Hate Model of Intercultural Relations (DHMIR) developed by Saied Reza Ameli, places structure back at the centre of the discussion about hate crime and discrimination. The discourse of the media, politicians, and even academia; the policies enacted, and laws passed, by governments; the curricula designed for schools and campuses, all inhere the racism of old. And despite the anti-racist laws and the ideas of a post-racial society, little within these structures has actually changed.
It took the murder of Stephen Lawrence and subsequent corruption and negligence of police investigating his killing to (eventually) lead to an acknowledgement that police services in the UK are institutionally racist. The trauma of this declaration for the powers that be has seen successive attempts by governments – the present one in particular – to undermine the idea. The Mubarek Inquiry in the mid-2000s, also raised the spectre of institutionalised Islamophobia.
DHMIR argues that racists of all stripes cannot exist and be free to act without structural racism. Whilst there is some sanction by law of those who are caught, or who are the worst offenders, the level of experience of hatred is high, not simply because of overt and individual acts (e.g. being spat at or dismissed from your work because you are a Muslim,) but because of what is seen and heard. Whether it is being made invisible by neglect from the curriculum (where is black/Muslim/non-Western European heritage acknowledged?) or watching demonising images of Muslims on the news, Muslims (and other minorities) are victims of racism.
Without understanding that all these experiences need to be seen as a whole, sporadic hate crime monitoring also fixes arbitrary boundaries around notions of crime, attack and discrimination, that are neither helpful nor meaningful at the policy or legal levels, or adequately descriptive in sociological terms of minority experience. It just doesn't make sense, and by missing the bigger picture, is devoid of any potential for a solution.
Internalising Islamophobia: Selling out the struggle against Islamophobia and racism
One more obstacle to gleaning accurate experiences from monitoring and reporting is perhaps the most important for this examination, because it affects every layer of this argument, when it comes to making the case of (a) what Islamophobia is and (b) how Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims are affected by it.
Put simply, Muslims (this writer included) often internalise racism, including Islamophobia, and perpetuate it even whilst claiming to fight it. If we forget the bigger picture, or if we inadvertently feel that some members of our community invite negative responses and reactions, we perpetuate the idea of our inferiority and our lack of worth. Part of the process of demonization, whether against Muslims or other minorities, has been to flag the idea that the West is the realm of human rights BUT that not everyone who resides there is worthy of having these rights and, thus, it is okay to deny him/her them. Inequality becomes part of the premise of human rights rather than a violation of it.
In studies conducted by IHRC, often in response to an open-ended question about whether or not someone has experienced abuse of any sort, a respondent will say 'No,' followed by an explanation such as, 'apart from the comments and looks I get from the bus driver,' or 'aside from the rude comments I get while walking down the street'. Whilst the person answering has actually suffered repeated abuse, they perceive this to be normal and not worthy of logging as 'abusive'. They have normalised their everyday experiences in a way that those of the majority society would not accept if it had happened to them, and which the apparatus of the state would not accept if it were experienced by the dominant group.
How so, do attempts to monitor hate crime, or log instances of discrimination, perpetuate racism? It seems churlish to even suggest it. Some of the reasons documented above, though obstacles, can hardly merit such severe criticism, surely? This is not a condemnation of all or any such enterprise, but a plea for us to learn the lessons of the past. By repeating a much discredited mantra about reporting, by complaining in our outreach work and public talks about our newly perceived Muslim apathy and victimisation, and the failure of individual Muslims to report their experiences, we simply pathologies Muslims further and also deny the existence of the actual problems we/they face: a society that is based upon hierarchies of power that use race, as Ramon Grosfoguel argues, as their organising principle.
Islamophobia is a key facet of that. The failure to make Islamophobia taboo by those in whose hands cultural, political, educational and legal production exists i.e. governments, the media and institutions, not Muslim and other marginalised masses, has helped relegitimise biological and other racisms, that clearly had never been eradicated.
At the very least, Muslim civil society needs to understand that, and break out of this cycle of dependence on government validation coupled with a superiority complex over those they claim either to represent or advocate for.
A scan of DHMIR might also be a good start, and the last two reports on experiences of Hate Crime in France and the USA by IHRC might be a good start. (Shameless self-promotion notwithstanding, it is a genuine attempt to move the situation on from where it is now).
Muslims don't need an awareness-raising drive. They generally know of the existence of anti-Muslim racism. Even with the levels of normalisation documented, Muslims generally understand that racism exists and that they are targeted by it. They could do with a confidence boost, and that is the role of civil society. They need to lead by example and call-out structural racism, wherever it is, rather than pander to it.
Whether it is advocacy against imperialist, colonial wars, or activism against anti-terror laws, or studying hate crime and discrimination, the naming and vocalising of the roots of oppression is the only way that beleaguered communities can be made to feel empowered. It needn't be an academic tract, it can just be a joke, as the success of the Islamophobia Awards highlights.
Back after a hiatus, the Awards are presented to the worst Islamophobes as nominated and voted for by the public. Whilst its main function is to entertain and provide a focus for an IHRC community fundraising drive, it does carry a serious point and that is not to be afraid to name and shame. Whilst it may not be to everyone's taste, it does at least provide and space and a narrative where the marginalised can take control.