It is not Islamophobia

Though I do not dispute that some Muslims face discrimination, that Islam is derided (as Christianity is) and damned, that some Muslims are attacked for their beliefs, I have never liked the term “Islamophobia” for it is being used in Britain today as a mechanism of denial, a means of avoiding taking ourselves to account.

Were we like the best of people, I might not object to its use so much—in that case we really could decry irrational fear and prejudice—but we’re not. We’ve become a self-pitying nation, sobbing about victimisation, wallowing in denial about the diseases overwhelming us. To lament forced marriage and domestic violence* in the Muslim community is not “Islamophobia” (though it could be characterised thus if the focus was exclusively on Muslims, which it is not): it is an acknowledgment of reality. When I sat on the management committee of a charity that aimed to aid Muslim women in crisis for five years, the statistics about abuse were not made up, the imaginings of racists and politicians with foreign policy objectives. While this focus on PR remains, displacing pastoral care, thousands of real people must live with the consequences, their plight ignored. We are not in the world of hypotheticals, of disappointing words: this is the world of real lives, of the wellbeing of your sister, the happiness of your brother.

Imagine if you will a promising young student. Half way though the first year of her complex degree she comes to believe in Islam. She believes that none has the right to be worshipped except God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, so she decides to walk upon this path. She discusses it with her mother, who tells her that if she dares become a Muslim she will throw her out of the house. But she already believes—it’s in her heart—she’s sincere and strong in faith, and so her mother throws her out of the house. But she’s not turning back because her belief’s sincere and her faith is firm and strong. Her friends at university notice the changes—she’s wearing a jilbab now and she’s covering her hair because she believes it’s part of what being a Muslim’s about, she doesn’t hang about with boys anymore and now she’s fully focussed on her studies. She’s lost some of those friends along the way—those who think she’s lost her mind—but she remains steadfast. Within months she’s been advised that she ought to get married, because this is the second piece of advice it seems every new female Muslim must hear, so she’s looking for a good Muslim man. A few weeks later she invites her friends to her marriage to a man who has told her he’s a good and pious believer. The wedding is rather brief and she wonders why she went to all the trouble to have a beautiful but still modest dress made for the occasion, but she leaves for her husband’s home filled with great excitement and joy all the same, looking forward to years of marriage in which their love and compassion grows between them, carrying them hand-in-hand to Paradise. Instead her husband beats her up, yells abuse at her, calls her a nigger, flings her across the room and terrorises her.

Imagine if you will receiving an email one day in which the sender asks if you have heard from his wife and when you press him on it, he tells you that they are now divorced. Why, you ask, for it has only been a month or two? Imagine that he tells you that she complained that he was beating her. You press him on this as well: well is it true? Yes, he replies reluctantly, acknowledging his mistakes. You tell him that our blessed Prophet said only the worst of us would beat their wives, appealing to this pious man’s better nature, but he only responds with ferocious words: ‘I’m not the Prophet, am I?’ It is an addiction for him and he doesn’t know how to treat it. Still, his divorcee is undeterred. She believes in God and His Messenger. Her faith is strong and her heart is firm, and she will continue to tread this path whatever the test before her. Imagine if you will that a year or so after returning to her studies, the young student decides to marry again. She is not going to be deterred by one bad experience. So she weds a kind young man and together they have their first child; but before the baby has had the chance to get to know his daddy, daddy divorces mummy. Shirking on his responsibility (just think that “shirking” exists in the English language), he leaves his wife homeless to bring up their child as a single mother failing to provide child maintenance. Life is hard for that promising young student now: she has given up her studies and her dreams and now lives in poverty with no proper income, caring for a mischievous toddler who drains her energy away. But she’s not turning back because her belief in God is sincere and her faith is firm and strong.

Now imagine if you will that a year or so later she realises that the only way she is going to survive is with the support of a husband, so once more she seeks a good man, taking the most cautious steps this time. She meets his family, and she finds them kind and respectful. She doesn’t rush in, she gives it all the thought in the world, but eventually she decides to marry this man. She is a single mother—she never thought she’d be a single mother—and she can barely survive this way. It is the only way forward, she tells herself, so she marries this good man. But this good man does not know his responsibilities under the law of this deen, for shortly after their marriage when his new wife has just become pregnant he tells her that he can no longer afford to maintain her and a baby—as if he couldn’t have known that before—and promptly he divorces her before their child is born. Imagine if you will a young mother bringing up a toddler alone, nursing her pregnancy alone, a single mother living in poverty, with no child maintenance from two fathers.

Imagine if you will, a young single mother who quite understandably now hates all men, but Muslim men in particular, who finds her life a great burden. Imagine if you will, a once promising young student who finds herself seriously contemplating leaving her religion, although she won’t because she believes in it with certainty—it’s in her heart—for she’s strong in faith. She’s not turning back because her belief’s sincere and her faith is firm and strong. She’s not going to be driven out of the deen because she believes in the Day of Judgement and in Paradise and Hell. Imagine.

I wish I could tell you now that I made this story up, that it was from my imagination like in the books I write, but I can’t. I wish I could say I decided to write a short story based upon extremes. I wish I could say that this didn’t happen to a real person, that it was a metaphor or a fable. I wish I could, but I can’t for this happened to somebody my wife knows for whom I have immense respect because the strength of her faith provides massive inspiration to me. I wish too that this was the only story I could tell, but alas it is not. I wouldn’t say I know many cases—fortunately most people we know are happily married—but those cases that exist are quite enough to make us take note. There is the mother who brings up two severely disabled children all alone, left to cope when her husband walked out because he could not. There is the man living a solitary existence in the loveless marriage that will exist as long as it takes for his wife to get her whole family leave-to-remain. There are alas a multitude of stories I could tell of men and women living in crisis in the Muslim community in Britain.

When somebody highlights stories like these and you dismiss it as “Islamophobia” you are hurting every person affected by them and you are hurting this deen, because it means that the problems persist untackled. The charity I worked with that aimed to help Muslims in crisis had to close this year after almost twenty years serving the community, not because the problems have gone away—if anything they have increased in number—but because our community did not think it important to fund such an organisation. We have become a community which believes it has no problems and that every accusation of an issue is merely a manifestation of “Islamophobia.” Unpalatable certainly, but I raise it here because it matters. In this context the accusation of “Islamophobia” is not the saviour of this community, but its curse.


Please note

Those who rejoice in the problems in the Muslim community should note that it is estimated that a total of 18,569 women and 23,084 children were accommodated and supported by refuges during the year 2003/04, reflecting a deeper problem in wider society. It is said that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetime and between 1 in 8 to 1 in 10 women experience it annually. Source: http://www.womensaid.org.uk

“Domestic violence occurs across society regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, wealth and geography.” Source: http://www.crimereduction.gov.uk/dv/dv03a.htm

Responding to Runnymede

The opinions expressed and observations below are those of a number of Muslim students at SOAS, whose responses to the points were mixed. Despite the differences in views, however, there was a general consensus that discrimination on the grounds of religion does exist. While some agree that it is an extension of racism, others believe that it can and does exist on its own. A Ghanaian student who converted to Islam said he felt more discrimination against him now on the grounds of his religion that he ever did before on the grounds of race. The most obvious illustration that separates it from racism is seen in the case of British converts, some of whom feel a certain amount of hostility from family and friends. Statements of ignorance merge with misunderstandings, and questions like, “Why can’t you come to the Pub any more?”

That there are many British converts demonstrates that Islam is not a racially based religion. The idea that race legislation deals with religious discrimination, therefore, was disputed. Muhammed, a Kenyan student, said that Article 9 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges a right of Freedom to gather and Freedom of belief; so you can become a member of any faith you like; but there is no protection for you when you are within that religion. He mentioned that religious discrimination legislation exists in Northern Ireland, but in the rest of the UK Race legislation is said to be sufficient.

Legislation is a cause for debate. Some think that an effort should be made to improve things in parliament. The Salman Rushdie case, was mentioned as an example, where nothing was done despite the fact that his book was greatly offensive to many Muslims. Blasphemy laws are designed to protect Christians from such offence, so it seems strange that other religions may not be protected also. Prince Charles’ offer to be an inclusive Defender of all Faiths was also brought up.

Others think that there is no point attempting to get British legislation to protect Muslims from discrimination, because British law basically contradicts Islamic law. The view of some is that their priority is to spread Islam and it is seen as hypocritical to go through a non-Muslim system; Islam is more than faith alone, for the Koran is a constitution for a way of life.

One student said that there are some Muslims who believe that if Islam is to be implemented to the full, there should be an Islamic state, although there are some arguments about exactly how this should be done. Some people say that Muslims, when they have to think about their roles in this society, should make hijra: going to live in a Muslim society.

Despite the varying views on legislation, few can see any reason why they should not ask parliament to recognise a need for respect of Muslims. There is a feeling that Muslims should work towards there being no discrimination towards them.

Most agreed that there are a lot of stereotypes about Islam and those stereotypes, it was said, mostly come from people who know very little about it. Probably because the only way they find out about Islam is through the media, and of course the only news that makes the news is bad news. One student said it was “understandable” that people who are not Muslim are going to discriminate because they do not know about Islam; that it is a way of life, both socially and economically. Those who practice, especially, find themselves separated from the rest of society because they do not drink and because they are praying five times a day. It was also said that Islam is seen as something foreign from the British way of life and the things associated with it.

A British Muslim said that he did not think that he had been discriminated against personally, but he remembered seeing people shouting abuse at a woman wearing a jellaba from their cars as they passed her on Edgware Road one day. He also cited examples of discrimination against members of other religions, like where Sikh men had been prevented from work as cabin staff for an airline because of their turbans and beards.

One student stressed the existence of discrimination in academic, media and literary fields. Muhammed believes that there is bias in the teaching at SOAS. According to him, the text books used in teaching ‘Islamic Law’ do not treat the subject truthfully. Another student mentioned that, for ‘Origins of Islam’, the huge majority of books on the reading list are by non-Muslims, though there are some traditional sources. Of those few Muslim sources that are translated, they are translated by non-Muslims or Orientalists and are questionable in their accuracy, he said. Muhammed claims that N.J. Coulson’s work on Islamic Law distorts the source, and points out that an Arabic academic found many mistakes in it, but that SOAS will not bring the English version into the Library. He said, “The Orientalist view portrays Islam like the media. In the classroom we don’t call you a suicide bomber, but as not compatible with the modern system, it’s medieval, it’s primitive.” The other student said that the courses on Islam in SOAS are not really teaching you about Islam, but the Orientalist view of it.

So, is discrimination a challenge for us all? “It’s really a question of respect, but it’s unrealistic to say that everyone would believe in that. A lot of people aren’t concerned unless it’s affecting them. Depends on your goal. If you’re working for an environment where people aren’t discriminated against, then, yes, it is a challenge for us all.” The conclusion of one student was that there is not enough understanding of Muslims and not enough respect.

Religion: state of mind or state of being?

Is discrimination a challenge for us all?

You can see the colour of a person’s skin, but you cannot see their soul. To some, religion is a creation of the mind, while for others it is as much a part of them as the eyes in their head. But to be discriminated against on the grounds of your religion is a complex issue. Here I examine some of the initial points and asks, “Is religious discrimination real or just an extension of racism?”

Jack Straw, Home Secretary, supposed that religious discrimination can be dealt with under the same laws as racial discrimination. Such beliefs, however, may be misled. Even to attempt to represent the fact that religious discrimination exists is to enter a minefield of difficulties. On one side, while a white person may discuss racism and defend those that racism discriminates against, a person of one religion defending those of another who are affected by religious discrimination is a much more forbidding area. Issues of race are comparatively cut and dry; religion is based upon ideologies (of god or not) and, ultimately, the pursuit of a truth.
On another side, that person is faced with a barrage of questions, primarily relating to the fact that it is not a popular concern. Is there a reason for this; is that person only pouring salt on an already painful wound and digging holes that do not need to be dug? The answers to those questions depend upon your personal perspective.

Many who do not hold religious beliefs automatically reject the notion of religious discrimination because it simply does not affect them. This, however, is a questionable position to take. Others, who are religious, may be saying, “No, don’t, make me out as a victim. This isn’t an issue for me.” This also, I would say, is a questionable stance. Whether you reject or accept religion is another matter; the fact is, many religions do exist and religious discrimination is a problem.
The similarity that Straw talks of is the fact that it is ‘foreign’ religions that feel the greatest antagonism in this country. While Christianity, as a fairly indigenous religion, faces continual mockery; of which derelict blasphemy laws do little to abate because most is directed towards the institutions of the Church and not at the religion itself; the religious communities that arrived with migration appear to suffer far severer hostility.

On 22 October, the Runnymede Trust published a report entitled, “Islamophobia: a challenge for us all”, in which it was claimed that race relation laws are inadequate to protect Muslims from hostility. As a community of 1.5 million, made up of many ‘ethnic’ minority groups, British Muslims are often, according to the Trust, victims of what has come to be known as ‘Islamophobia’, an irrational anti-Muslim hostility. English law does not defend Muslims from discrimination in employment and the provision of services, slander and blasphemy, incitement to hatred, and violence.

While Straw recognised that race legislation is “not the answer to the particular problems of the Muslim community”, the pressures of the parliamentary programme means that he has no plans to legislate, and anyway, “religious legislation may not be the answer either.” he said.

It could be argued that the hostility towards Muslims is not religious at all, but racial. After all, many see themselves as Muslim first and foremost, thus indicating that they would consider hostility towards them as hostility because they are Muslim. As a group made up predominantly of migrants, the stigma associated with immigration is hard to be avoided, especially amongst the poorest. Such an argument, however, is not supported by much of the evidence. The Runnymede Trust believes that the term ‘racial violence’ does not protect those who suffer attack because of their Muslim dress codes, for example. Further to this, a white Muslim woman who is discriminated against because she wears the hijab has no grounds for protection under race legislation.

The report states that ‘Islamophobia’ “is a serious and dangerous feature of contemporary affairs and culture” with the assault on Muslims not only occurring in the form of individual violence, but also much evident in the prejudice of the press.

Yet, while the report, which set out to counter suppositions that Islam is one monolithic system, was welcome by many, some seemed to miss the point altogether. Polly Toynbee writing in The Independent told her readers that she was an Islamophobe and went on to justify that by citing examples of the cruelty of certain Muslims and groups of Muslims abroad. In this way she ignored what the report was actually saying. It was focussing on Muslim communities in Britain, and the actions of others is not justification for their mistreatment. Racists justify their mistreatment of individuals on the grounds of their stereotypes of whole groups of people. It should be apparent by now that this is wrong.

Though Toynbee can be forgiven, perhaps, because she admits that she is not just an Islamophobe, but more generally, a religiophobe. Bigot would do, but it does excuse her from her generalisations, as if Muslims were the only group to be governed by rules. She mentions the status of women, which is unsurprising, because the same is recited time after time if Muslims are to be criticised. Toynbee may overlook this point, for she evidently distrusts all religions, but what such remarks ignore is the fact that all the major religions are fundamentally patriarchal. In any religion taken to an ‘extreme’, the male domination generally becomes extreme.

Coupled with this criticism, a usual response to Islam is that “They’re all extremists / fundamentalists / terrorists*” (*delete as appropriate). The essential point here is not what some Muslims may be (as could be applied to some Christians, some Sikhs, some Hindus, etc., but usually isn’t), but the generalising first three words which are used too commonly to be taken seriously. “They are all” are the same three words used to describe any group that we are prejudiced against.

Beyond these two main reasons that justify hostility towards Muslims, definite responses are few, so some just settle for their unreasonable requests for a Prayer room and have done with it. Such a response simply illustrates the basic point that the Report made; that anti-Muslim hostility, in the same way as racism, is irrational.

So what can be done? The Home Secretary has ruled out the possibility of Religious Discrimination legislation being drawn up before the next General Election. The Runnymede Report suggests that the Press Complaints Commission should amend its code of conduct for journalists to guard against the media presenting distorted images of the Muslim world. The truth of the matter is, discrimination on the grounds of religion is a very complex issue to deal with. In the past, religious leaders were able to argue that racism was wrong, by the inclusiveness of their faith. Yet how could they respond to another religion when they insist that their religion is the religion.

Quite simply, I would imagine, by recognising that people should not be treated unjustly.