considerations of the lessons learned

The summer of 2018 is likely to be remembered for its record high temperatures and the England football team’s unexpected journey to the semi-finals of the World Cup. For some, the summer of 2018 will be remembered for its Islamophobia. From allegations about the Conservative Party to premeditated slurs about Muslim women, Islamophobia was a marked feature of Britain’s public and political spaces. Some lessons can be learned from this.

The first is how many mainstream political actors care little about Islamophobia, to many it being quite unimportant. Think back to the calls for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party at the start of the summer. While one might have thought the Conservative Party’s leadership would have been outraged at the Muslim Council of Britain’s dossier of near weekly instances of Islamophobia perpetrated by Party members, the actual response was instead one of ambivalence and near silence. Having paid the merest of lip service to the issue, those including Theresa May (Prime Minister), Brandon Lewis (Conservative Party Chair) and Sajid Javid (Home Secretary) quickly allowed the matter to disappear from the political agenda.

This was in spite of efforts by some within the Party to catalyse a response. These included Mohammed Amin — chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum — who criticised the Party’s leadership: “[the leadership] seems to be taking the approach that if it keeps quiet and does nothing the issue…will somehow magically go away”. Similarly Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former co-chair of the Party. For her, despite Islamophobia being “…widespread [in the Party]…from the grassroots, all the way up to the top…the leadership feels [it] can be easily ignored”. Despite their valiant attempts, the sheer disregard of the Party’s leadership to the allegations made illustrated just how unimportant the matter was to them. The same could also be said of the political mainstream more widely.

That is unless you consider the second lesson learned from the summer, that mainstream political actors can actively deploy and explicitly espouse Islamophobia for personal and political gain without fear of recourse or censure. Cue Boris Johnson and his comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab look like ‘letterboxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. As I wrote at the time, far from being gaffes or innocent ‘jokes’ Johnson’s comments were insulting, cowardly and clever. As regards the latter, both he and the Telegraph’s editorial team knew the impact his comments would have. Accordingly, Johnson not only sought to feed into and subsequently benefit from the wave of populist support being pursued by those on the right and far-right but so too did it enable him to come into conflict with the Prime Minister thereby enhancing his position for a future leadership contest.

While May and Lewis — both of whom let’s not forget had themselves ignored allegations of widespread Islamophobia in their Party — were reported to have told Johnson to apologise for his comments, he outright refused to do so. Despite reports that his comments resulted in a spike in attacks against Muslim women spiked, there was till no recourse or censure from the Party. That in itself can be seen to speak volumes.

The third lesson relates to how the mainstream media’s attitude towards Islamophobia can be seen to be worryingly and concerningly different in comparison to other forms of bigotry and hate. Think back again to Johnson. Within 24 hours of his making the comments, the mainstream media had transformed the debate by asking should the ‘burqa’ be banned. Within 72 hours, it had switched the focus to Johnson’s eccentric nature not least as a result of him having served journalists tea and biscuits rather than respond to allegations of being Islamophobic. Would the same have occurred had his comments been deemed racist or antisemitic? Almost certainly not.

Having always been reluctant to make simplistic and superficial comparisons of Islamophobia with other forms of bigotry and hate — as I have often written, all forms of bigotry and hate are equally abhorrent — the juxtaposition of allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party alongside allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party over the summer demands the matter is given at least some consideration. While there has been widespread outrage — at times, faux outrage — and extensive column inches attributed to antisemitism and Labour — especially Jeremy Corbyn — it was quite different as regards Islamophobia and the Conservatives. In addition to far less column inches, the tone and emphasis was also significantly different also. Towards Labour, this was largely condemnatory while towards the Conservatives, a sense of ambivalence was quite the norm.

No doubt some will (deliberately?) misinterpret what is being posited here. To reiterate, the point is not that there is — or should — be any hierarchy between Islamophobia, antisemitism or any other form of bigotry and hate. Instead, that all forms of bigotry and hate should be understood and duly responded to fairly, consistently and equitably. In this respect, the summer has shown that this is not the case when it comes to Islamophobia.

This can be evidenced by a Rod Little article in the Spectator. Published shortly after Johnson’s comments, the original piece — Why Boris is wrong about burkas — was accompanied online by the sub-title, ‘My own view is that there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party’. Take time to re-read that and substitute the word Islamophobia with any of the following: racism, homophobia, sexism and Antisemitism. What chance that would have been published? What about if the sub-title had been, ‘My own view is that there is not nearly enough Antisemitism within the Labour Party’: what chance that being published? Not a chance and rightly so I hasten to add. It is both worrying and concerning that the mainstream media appears to have quite different rules when it comes to Islamophobia.

Another lesson is how non-political actors and organisations appointed by the Government to help respond to and tackle Islamophobia continue to collectively failed. Most culpable is the Government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group (AMHWG). Having previously argued the AMHWG is little more than a political façade, the AMHWG’s continued silence against the backdrop of the summer’s unfolding events merely adds more fuel to the fire. This is because the AMHWG’s terms of reference state that it is responsible for reviewing “trends in anti-Muslim sentiment and hatred and suggest appropriate action(s) to be taken by communities and the Government” and is required to “communicate key messages on Anti-Muslim Hatred and respond to national issues in the media”. Given the AMHWG has remained deafeningly silent throughout again highlights the sheer impotency of the Group.

Should we be surprised? Not at all. In recent years, the AMHWG has been equally silent about the Trojan Horse allegations in Birmingham, this year’s Punish A Muslim Day, and almost everything other Islamophobic issue, incident and event since its establishment in 2012. As I conceded five years ago on resigning from the Group, individual members were — and indeed continue to be — unwilling to speak up against, criticise or challenge the Government on any issue. Sadly, this is because members do not want to lose their seat at the Government’s table and the benefits that duly bestows. Six years on and with much of the membership unchanged, it is time those individuals showed some responsibility and offered an explanation for their collective inaction.

This will not happen as the current malaise works for all concerned. For the Government, the AMHWG allows it to say that it takes Islamophobia seriously — as it did at last week’s NO2H8 Crime Awards. Knowing that the AMHWG’s members will never question, criticise or challenge it, there is no pressure on the Government to offer anything more. For the members, they use the privilege afforded by the AMHWG to refute criticism and challenge while also establishing themselves as ‘experts’ in their respective fields. An extremely cosy arrangement for all concerned, it is quite depressing that in six years since its establishment, there hasn’t been a single output from the AMHWG.

Combined, something of a perfect storm evolved over the summer months. Drawing together the realisation that Islamophobia is politically unimportant, routinely deployed by political actors for political and personal gain without recourse or censure, worryingly accepted within the mainstream media to the extent that it is responded to differently in comparison to other forms of bigotry and hate, and the collective failure of those appointed to hold political actors and others to account showed just how far off we currently are in Britain to ensuring that Islamophobia is attributed with the importance it demands let alone putting in place the necessary means through which to tackle it in any meaningful way. Sadly, we are no nearer to that goal than we have been at point in the two decades I’ve now been researching Islamophobia.

As regards meaningful responses, much is currently being made of the working definition of Islamophobia due to be put forward by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims later this year. For advocates of the need for a working definition, the argument is that it will help cut through the contestation and confusion attributed to Islamophobia while simultaneously providing the foundation upon which to shape and inform much needed policy responses. In spite of their optimism, there are no guarantees that a working definition will appease or placate those who seek to undermine, detract from or deny Islamophobia’s very existence. Nor is there any evidence that it will contribute towards addressing any of the issues considered here. In this respect, it is unlikely that a working definition will provide the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ I can only assume some advocates are currently hoping for.

In seeking to consider ‘what next’, the perfect storm of the perfect summer provides much food for thought. How we respond to what we have learned isn’t — at this stage at least — readily apparent. If nothing, neither should the task ahead be underestimated nor the value of the lessons learned.

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