Islamophobia: A new word for an old fear - Part I

Islamophobia: A new word for an old fear
By Imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid

Chairman Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony UK
8 Caburn Road Hove BN3 6EF (UK)

“And they ill-treated them (Believers) for no other reason except that they believed in Allah” (Al-Quran 85-8)

Hostility towards Islam and Muslims has been a feature of European societies since the eighth century of the Common Era. It has taken different forms, however, at different times and has fulfilled a variety of functions. For example, the hostility in Spain in the fifteenth century was not the same as the hostility that had been expressed and mobilised in the Crusades. Nor was the hostility during the time of the Ottoman Empire or that which was prevalent throughout the age of empires and colonialism.[1] It may be more apt to speak of ‘Islamophobias’ rather than of a single phenomenon. Each version of Islamophobia has its own features as well as similarities with, and borrowings from, other versions.

A key factor since the1960s is the presence of some Forty million Muslim people in European countries. Another is the increased economic leverage on the world stage of oil-rich countries, many of which are Muslim in their culture and traditions. A third is the abuse of human rights by repressive regimes that claim to be motivated and justified by Muslim beliefs. A fourth is the emergence of political movements that similarly claim to be motivated by Islam and that use terrorist tactics to achieve their aims.

The word Islamophobia was first used in print in 1991 and was defined in the 1997 Runnymede Trust report as ‘unfounded hostility towards Islam, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’.

The term Islamophobia refers to unfounded hostility and fear towards Islam.  It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination, prejudice and less favourable treatment against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affair. The word ‘Islamophobia’ has been coined because there is a new reality which needs naming –  anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that a new item in the vocabulary is needed so that it can be identified and acted against. In other European Union countries it is customary to use the phrase ‘racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism’ as a way of summarising the issues to be addressed. The phrase is cumbersome and is unlikely to be widely used in Britain.

Anti-Muslim racism

Anti-Muslim racism has been a feature of European culture at least since the Crusades, but has taken different forms at different times. In modern Britain its manifestations include discrimination in recruitment and employment practices; high levels of attacks on mosques and on people wearing Muslim religious dress; widespread negative stereotypes in all sections of the press, including the broadsheets as well as the tabloids; bureaucratic obstruction or inertia in response to Muslim requests for greater cultural sensitivity in education and healthcare; and non-recognition of Muslims by the law of the land, since discrimination on grounds of religion or belief is not unlawful.  Further, many or most anti-racist organisations and campaigns appear indifferent to the distinctive features of anti-Muslim racism, and to distinctive Muslim concerns about cultural sensitivity.

Silence about anti-Muslim racism was particularly striking in relation to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report. ‘Where’s the Muslim,’ asked a headline in the Muslim magazine Q News, ‘in McPherson’s Black and White Britain?’ The magazine welcomed the report but described it as a two-edged sword:  ‘As most of us are from visible minorities, we want racism to be firmly dealt with. But as victims of Islamophobia, we know that any attempts to tackle racism without also tackling Islamophobia will be futile … Much as Muslims want to confront racism, they have become disillusioned with an antiracism movement that refuses to combat Islamophobia and which, in many instances, is as oppressive as the establishment itself.’ An editorial in Muslim News commented that ‘the real litmus test of whether the lessons of the Lawrence tragedy have been learnt will be if … a Muslim youngster dies in an Islamophobic attack and his murder is not treated in the same way’.

The term ‘Islamophobia’

The term ‘Islamophobia’ is not, admittedly, ideal, for it implies that one is merely talking about some sort of mental sickness or aberration.  Some of the people quoted above do indeed sound as if they are mentally unstable. But the imagery, stereotypes and assumptions in their messages are widespread in western countries and are not systematically challenged by influence leaders. The writers quoted earlier, for example, are widely respected and are read with approval by millions of people. They don’t use obscene language and do observe elementary conventions of spelling, punctuation and grammar. They don’t propose violent removal or repatriation of Muslims; don’t deploy terms such as ‘subhuman freaks’, ‘animals’, ‘not people’, ‘vile’ and ‘evil’; and don’t express pleasure in the thought of Muslim men, women and children being slaughtered. But their basic message, at least in the perception of many British Muslims, seems similar to the one that underlies the inarticulate rants in ‘you don’t belong here’. 

The term Islamophobia is not, admittedly, ideal. Critics of it consider that its use panders to what they call political correctness and that it stifles legitimate criticism of Islam, and demonises and stigmatises anyone who wishes to engage in such criticism.  When our consultation paper was first published, the Independent on Sunday (2 March 1997) ran a large headline in which we were accused of wishing to be ‘Islamically correct’.  In a similar way there was a time in European history when a new word, anti-Semitism, was needed and coined to highlight the growing dangers of anti-Jewish hostility.  The coining of a new word, and with it the identification of a growing danger, did not in that instance avert eventual tragedy.  By the same token, the mere use of the new word ‘Islamophobia’ will not in itself prevent tragic conflict and waste.  But, I believe, it can play a valuable part in the long endeavour of correcting perceptions and improving relationships. 

Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism has been a feature of European culture at least since the Crusades, but has taken different forms at different times. In modern Britain its manifestations include discrimination in recruitment and employment practices; high levels of attacks on mosques and on people wearing Muslim religious dress; widespread negative stereotypes in all sections of the press, including the broadsheets as well as the tabloids; bureaucratic obstruction or inertia in response to Muslim requests for greater cultural sensitivity in education and healthcare; and non-recognition of Muslims by the law of the land, since discrimination on grounds of religion or belief is not unlawful with exception of EU Directive of 27 Nov 2000 which has been enacted in British domestic laws since 2 December 2003 only in the area of employment.  Further, many or most anti-racist organisations and campaigns appear indifferent to the distinctive features of anti-Muslim racism, and to distinctive Muslim concerns about cultural sensitivity. Silence about anti-Muslim racism was particularly striking in relation to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report. An editorial in Muslim News commented that ‘the real litmus test of whether the lessons of the Lawrence tragedy have been learnt will be if … a Muslim youngster dies in an Islamophobic attack and his murder is not treated in the same way’.

Islamophobia inhibits the development of a just society, characterised by social inclusion and cultural diversity.  For it is a constant source of threat and distress to British Muslims and implies that they do not have the same rights as other British citizens. 

Islamophobia increases the likelihood of serious social disorder, with consequent high costs for the economy and for the justice system. Persistent Islamophobia in the media means that young British Muslims develop a sense of cultural inferiority and lose confidence both in themselves and in their parents.  They tend then to ‘drop out’ and may be readily influenced by extremist groups which seem to give them a strong sense of identity. Islamophobia makes it more difficult for mainstream voices and influences within Muslim communities to be expressed and heard.  In consequence many Muslims are driven into the hands of extremists, and imbibe extremist opinions.

Islamophobia prevents Muslims and non-Muslims from cooperating appropriately on the joint diagnosis and solution of major shared problems, for example problems relating to urban poverty and deprivation.  Further, it prevents non-Muslims from appreciating and benefiting from Islam’s cultural, artistic and intellectual heritage, and from its moral teachings.  Likewise it inhibits Muslim appreciation of cultural achievements in the non-Muslim world. Islamophobia means that Britain is weaker than it need be in political, economic and cultural relations with other countries and it actively damages international relations, diplomacy and trade.

Islamophobia makes it more difficult for Muslims and non-Muslims to cooperate in the solution and management of shared problems such as global political, ecological issues and conflict situations (for example Bosnia, most notably, in the former republic of Yugoslavia). Many Muslims believe Islamophobia has played a major part in Western attitudes to events in Bosnia, and has prevented a just and lasting settlement.  The term ‘Islamophobia’ was coined by way of analogy to ‘xenophobia’. Its use involves distinguishing between unfounded (‘mad’) hostility to Islam on the one hand and reasoned disagreement or criticism on the other.


In Britain as in other European countries, manifestations of anti-Muslim hostility include:

      verbal and physical attacks on Muslims in public places[2]

      attacks on mosques and desecration of Muslim cemeteries

      widespread and routine negative stereotypes in the media, including the broadsheets, and in the conversations and ‘common sense’ of non-Muslims – people talk and write about Muslims in ways that would not be acceptable if the reference were to Jewish people, for example, or to black people

      negative stereotypes and remarks in speeches by political leaders, implying that Muslims in Britain are less committed than others to democracy and the rule of law – for example the claim that Muslims more than others must choose between ‘the British way’ and ‘the terrorist way’[3]

      discrimination in recruitment and employment practices, and in workplace cultures and customs

      bureaucratic delay and inertia in responding to Muslim requests for cultural sensitivity in education and healthcare and in planning applications for mosques

      lack of attention to the fact that Muslims in Britain are disproportionately affected by poverty and social exclusion

      non-recognition of Muslims in particular, and of religion in general, by the law of the land, since up until recently discrimination in employment on grounds of religion has been lawful and discrimination in the provision of services is still lawful

      anomalies in public order legislation, such that Muslims are less protected against incitement to hatred than members of certain other religions

      laws curtailing civil liberties that disproportionately affect Muslims.

Several of these matters are discussed later

Contextual factors

Islamophobia is exacerbated by a number of contextual factors. One of these is the fact that a high proportion of refugees and people seeking asylum are Muslims. 

Demonisation of refugees by the tabloid press is therefore frequently a coded attack on Muslims, for the words ‘Muslim’, ‘asylum-seeker’, ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’ become synonymous and interchangeable with each other in the popular imagination. Occasionally, the connection is made entirely explicit. For example, a newspaper recycling the myth that asylum-seekers are typically given luxury space by the government in five-star accommodation added on one occasion recently that they are supplied also with ‘library, gym and even free prayer-mats’.[4] A member of the House of Lords wishing to evoke in a succinct phrase people who are undesirable spoke of ‘25-year-old black Lesbians and homosexual Muslim asylum-seekers’.[5] In 2003, when the Home Office produced a poster about alleged deceit and dishonesty amongst people seeking asylum, it chose to illustrate its concerns by focusing on someone with a Muslim name.[6] An end-of-year article in the Sunday Times magazine on ‘Inhumanity to Man’ during 2003 focused in four of its five examples on actions by Muslims.[7]

A second contextual factor is the sceptical, secular and agnostic outlook with regard to religion that is reflected implicitly, and sometimes expressed explicitly, in the media, perhaps particularly the left-liberal media.[8] The outlook is opposed to all religion, not to Islam only. Commenting on media treatment of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked in a speech in summer 2003 that the church in the eyes of the media is a kind of soap opera: ‘Its life is about short-term conflicts, blazing rows in the pub, so to speak, mysterious plots and unfathomable motivations. It is both ridiculous and fascinating. As with soap operas, we, the public, know that real people don’t actually live like that, but we relish the drama and become fond of the regular cast of unlikely characters with, in this case, their extraordinary titles and bizarre costumes.’[9]  At first sight, the ridiculing of religion by the media is even-handed. But the Church of England, for example, has far more resources with which to combat malicious or ignorant media coverage than does British Islam. For Muslims, since they have less influence and less access to public platforms, attacks are far more undermining. Debates and disagreements about religion are legitimate in modern society and indeed are to be welcomed. But they do not take place on a level playing-field.

A third contextual factor is UK foreign policy in relation to various conflict situations around the world. There is a widespread perception that the war on terror is in fact a war on Islam, and that the UK supports Israel against Palestinians. In other conflicts too the UK government appears to side with non-Muslims against Muslims and to collude with the view that the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ are synonymous. These perceptions of UK foreign policy may or may not be accurate. The point is that they help fashion the lens through which events inside Britain are interpreted – not only by Muslims but by non-Muslims as well.

The cumulative effect of Islamophobia’s various features, exacerbated by the contextual factors mentioned above is that Muslims are made to feel that they do not truly belong here – they feel that they are not truly accepted, let alone welcomed, as full members of British society. On the contrary, they are seen as ‘an enemy within’ or ‘a fifth column’ and they feel that they are under constant siege.[10] This is bad for society as well as for Muslims themselves. Moreover, time-bombs are being primed that are likely to explode in the future – both Muslim and non-Muslim commentators have pointed out that a young generation of British Muslims is developing that feels increasingly disaffected, alienated and bitter. It’s in the interests of non-Muslims as well as Muslims, therefore, that Islamophobia should be rigorously challenged, reduced and removed. The time to act is now, not some time in the future.

A further negative impact of Islamophobia is that Muslim insights on ethical and social issues are not given an adequate hearing and are not seen as positive assets. ‘Groups such as Muslims in the West,’ writes an observer, ‘can be part of trans-cultural dialogues, domestic and global, that might make our societies live up to their promises of diversity and democracy. Such communities can … facilitate communication and understanding in these fraught and destabilising times.’[11] But Islamophobia makes this potential all but impossible to realise.

‘The most subtle and for Muslims perilous consequence of Islamophobic actions,’ a Muslim scholar has observed, ‘is the silencing of self-criticism and the slide into defending the indefensible. Muslims decline to be openly critical of fellow Muslims, their ideas, activities and rhetoric in mixed company, lest this be seen as giving aid and comfort to the extensive forces of condemnation. Brotherhood, fellow feeling, sisterhood are genuine and authentic reflexes of Islam. But Islam is supremely a critical, reasoning and ethical framework… [It] or rather ought not not to, be manipulated into “my fellow Muslim right or wrong”.’[12] She goes on to remark that Islamophobia provides ‘the perfect rationale for modern Muslims to become reactive, addicted to a culture of complaint and blame that serves only to increase the powerlessness, impotence and frustration of being a Muslim.’

Violent language

On 11 September 2001 and the following days there were strong feelings of powerlessness, impotence and frustration amongst non-Muslims as well as among Muslims. When people feel powerless and frustrated they are prone to hit out with violent language. Below “You don’t Belong here” for example, shows the kind of violent language that was used in email messages to the Muslim Council of Britain immediately following 11 September, 2001. The writers were under great stress and at least one of them later apologised. Their messages were nevertheless significant, for they expressed attitudes and imaginings that are widespread amongst non-Muslims and that are recurring components of Islamophobia.

“You don’t belong here”  Email messages to the Muslim Council of Britain, September 2001 – March 2003

“You don’t belong here and you never will. Go back to fornicating with your camels in the desert, and leave us alone.” (11/9/01)

“Are you happy now? Salman Rushdie was right; your religion is a joke. Long live Israel! The US will soon kill many Muslim women and children. You are all subhuman freaks!” (11/9/01).

“I really have tried not to follow my father who was a simple racist. However, I saw your people celebrating in Palestine and Libya and I was sick with despair. How on God’s earth can you justify killing in this way? HOW can you celebrate? I no longer have any respect for you. None at all. I am so sorry, but I just despise you and your cruel God. You are not people. Just cold killers. May God forgive you but from now on, may the Americans find you and remove you from my country. I can no longer be civil to you. I am so angry, so hurt, just…oh, leave it, and leave it there. Just get out of the UK. Go back to your homes and leave us alone. Cowards. ” (11/9/01).

“Have you heard the saying ‘crocodile tears’, well in my opinion your sentiments of sympathy regarding the attacks in New York and Washington are exactly that. I have never considered myself to be a racist – but I am now…Your kind knows nothing but force…. Well you’ve sown the seed, now reap the whirlwind, you have woken us up to what you all stand for.”

“It sickens me to now what a VILE EVIL race you load of Muslims are you have demonstrated this with the destruction in the USA. Get out of my country now! England is for white civilised English people.”

“The rest of the world will now join to smash the filthy disease infested Islam you must be removed from Britain in body bags. hope you like the bombs, payback for your satanic religion. We will kill you all if we have too stayed in the stone-age and may Islam burn under US bombs.” (14/9/01)

“Why do you bother to live here? you hate the English with a passion. You hate Christianity. You hate America.  but all of you like taking our hospitality and money and then turning on us. If we get attacked in this country I along with thousands of normal Christians will make absolutely sure that all Muslims will suffer. the worst thing this country did was offer refuge to animals who call themselves humans bombing places like the world trade centre is the action of scum.”  (13/2/03)

“We know where to find you.” (14/2/03)

Source: this is just a small selection of such messages posted on the website of the Muslim Council of Britain ( Original spellings and punctuation have been retained.

Islamophobia is the fear and/ or hatred of Islam, Muslims or Islamic culture. Islamophobia can be characterized by the belief that all or most Muslims are religious fanatics, have violent tendencies towards non-Muslims, and reject as directly opposed to Islam such concepts as equality, tolerance, and democracy. It is a new form of racism whereby Muslims, an ethno-religious group, not a race, are, nevertheless, constructed as a race. A set of negative assumptions are made of the entire group to the detriment of members of that group. During the 1990’s many sociologists and cultural analysts observed a shift in racist ideas from ones based on skin colour to ones based on notions of cultural superiority and otherness.

The term Islamophobia is a neologism dating from the early 1990’s and derives from Xenophobia. As such, it reflects the influence of such 1990s movements as multi-culturalism and identity politics.

The term Islamophobia most often appears in discourse on the condition of immigrant Muslims living as minorities in the West. In this case, the common experiences of immigrant communities of unemployment, rejection, alienation and violence has combined with Islamophobia to make integration particularly difficult.

This has led, in the United Kingdom, for example, to Muslim communities suffering higher levels of unemployment, poor housing, poor health and levels of racially motivated violence than other communities.

Islamophobia, as a phenomenon, dates back at least as far as the Crusades. It has been present in Europe and the West for many centuries. It has been argued that Islamophobia exists outside the West, for example in India. This is more closely related to Communal Politics in India, although Islamophobia in India does share, with western Islamophobia, the denigration of Islamic culture and history.

It has been argued by some, most notably Edward Said, that the denigration of Islamic civilisation associated with Islamophobia is central to the concept of Western Civilisation.

The ousting and marginalising of Islam marks the debut of ‘Western’ Civilisation and, thus, explains the depth and longevity of western Islamophobia:

“Islam was a provocation in many ways. It lay uneasily close to Christianity, geographically and culturally. It drew on the Judeo-Hellenic traditions. It borrowed creatively from Christianity - it could boast unrivalled military and political successes. Nor was this all. The Islamic lands sit adjacent to and even on top of the biblical lands. Moreover, the heart of the Islamic domain has always been the region closest to Europe… Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages, and together they dispose and re-dispose of material that is urgently important to Christianity. From the end of the 7th century to the 16th century, Islam in either its Arab, Ottoman, North African or Spanish form dominated or effectively threatened European Christianity. That Islam outstripped and outshone Rome cannot have been absent from the mind of any European.”   Edward Said: Orientalism., Penguin Books,  2003 Edition. Page 74 .

An alleged factor, that some argue drives Islamophobia, is the rise of anti-Western Islamist movements, which have either come to power outright in some countries (Iran, Sudan, post-Soviet-era Afghanistan), or else exerted a strong influence on government policy in others (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Many people mistakenly believe that most Muslims are Islamist, when in fact the Islamist movement is only a minority position.Perhaps the most important factor shaping the present wave of Islamophobia, though, is the extremely large and disproportionate media coverage given to Islamist-inspired terrorism, for example, to the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks, while relatively little media coverage is given to equivalent acts of terrorism by other groups or nation-states.

Recently there have been several efforts by non-Muslims to combat Islamophobia. In the wake of September 11, for example, a few non-Muslim women practiced hijab in a show of solidarity with their Muslim counterparts, who it was feared would be particularly vulnerable for reprisal given their distinctive dress. Non-Muslims also helped form community watches to protect mosques from attack.

Examples of Islamophobia

Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA): “Just turn (the sheriff) loose and have him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line” (to Georgia law officers, November 2001) (

Ann Coulter: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (

Robert Kilroy-Silk: “Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery. They behead criminals, stone to death female - only female - adulteresses, throw acid in the faces of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls and ritually abuse animals”

Jean-Marie Le Pen: “These elements have a negative effect on all of public security. They are strengthened demographically both by natural reproduction and by immigration, which reinforces their stubborn ethnic segregation, their domineering nature. This is the world of Islam in all its aberrations.” 

Jerry Vines: “Christianity was founded by the virgin-born Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Mohammed, a demon-possessed paedophile who had 12 wives, and his last one was a 9-year-old girl.” 

Little Green Footballs: “Refugee camp my tuchus!! Centre of terror and genocide, maybe, but no refugee camp. Is this part of the area the UN is bleating that it can’t feed? I hope so. If every subhuman piece of excrement in the Rafah non refugee camp dies slowly and painfully of starvation, I’ll have a great Passover”

Michael Savage: “I think these people [Arabs and Muslims] need to be forcibly converted to Christianity ... It’s the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings.” [05/12/03] (On his radio show The Savage Nation)

Institutional Islamophobia

The failure of race equality organisations and activists over many years to include Islamophobia in their programmes and campaigns appears to be an example of institutional intolerance. 

‘The concept of institutional racism,’ said the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report, ‘… is generally accepted, even if a long trawl through the work of academics and activists produces varied words and phrases in pursuit of a definition.’ The report cited several of the submissions that it had received during its deliberations and then constructed a definition of its own. If the term ‘racism’ is replaced by the term ‘Islamophobia’ in the submissions, and if other changes or additions are made as appropriate, the statements are as follows:[13]

‘Institutional Islamophobia may be defined as those established laws, customs and practices which systematically reflect and produce inequalities in society between Muslims and non-Muslims. If such inequalities accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, an institution is Islamophobic whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have Islamophobic intentions.’  (Adapted from a statement by the Commission for Racial Equality.)

‘Differential treatment need be neither conscious nor intentional, and it may be practised routinely by officers whose professionalism is exemplary in all other respects. There is great danger that focusing on overt acts of personal Islamophobia by individual officers may deflect attention from the much greater institutional challenge ... of addressing the more subtle and concealed form that organisational-level Islamophobia may take. Its most important challenging feature is its predominantly hidden character and its inbuilt pervasiveness within the occupational culture.’ (Adapted from a statement by Dr Robin Oakley)

‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to Muslims because of their religion. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping which disadvantage Muslims.’ (Adapted from the Stephen Lawrnece Inquiry report)

The impact of institutional Islamophobia is described below in examples. The An-Nisa Society, mentioned earlier in this chapter, provides a range of services for Muslim people in north-west London.

Institutional Islamophobia: Some Examples

Khalida Khan, director of the An-Nisa Society, says the draining effect of institutional Islamophobia affects entire communities and has both practical and psychological consequences. ‘Relentless Islamophobia directly affects the morale of Muslims themselves,’ she said. ‘It lowers their self esteem leading to withdrawal and stress.’

One person who sought help from An-Nisa gave a graphic example of how individuals are affected. ‘Sometimes the discrimination is subtle. It starts from the time they find out your name or the way you dress. Then they keep prodding you to see how much you can take. I normally don’t take much nonsense but soon you get tired. You can’t spend all your life trying to educate people who have decided to be ignorant. To be honest I have neither the time nor energy.’

An-Nisa argue strongly that the failure of institutions to service Muslim communities properly can be blamed, at least in part, on the reluctance of legislators and subsequently of officials to recognise Muslims as a distinct group. ‘For the last two decades Muslims have been subsumed under the category of “Asians”. And even then, the term only covers people from the Indian sub-continent. Whoever coined that term wiped off Turks, Iranians, Chinese, Filipinos and others from the continent of Asia. Workers on the ground are well aware that Muslims come from many races and national origins. But by treating such diverse communities as if they are one, the organisers of services have inadvertently devised insensitive and unjust policies with serious consequences.’

If institutions evolve a corporate ethos which is prejudiced against Muslims, or which doesn’t take their needs into account, how will their workers respond? Evidence compiled by An-Nisa suggests workers operating in such an atmosphere act in accordance with that ethos. Khalida Khan says one case brought to her attention proves how devastating ignorance or just lazy thinking can be. ‘A social worker was sent to assess a family in connection with a child being fostered and perhaps adopted.  She was told that the family prayed five times a day so she said that they were fundamentalists. The father was asked what he would do for the future and it is Allah’s will and we cannot predict the future. That too led to them being regarded as fundamentalists.’  (Source: interview by Hugh Muir, summer 2003) 

The concept of cohesion

The concept of cohesion was central to the arguments debates on multiculturalism in Britain by the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, chaired by Lord Parekh.[14] But unlike the government’s approach, the commission stressed that cohesion is only one value amongst others. Two other, equally important, social values, it argued, are equality and respect for significant difference. The three core values of cohesion, equality and respect for difference are like the three legs of a stool; if any one of them is de-emphasised the other two are damaged as well. In a lecture on cohesion organised by the Runnymede Trust in autumn 2002, Lord Parekh explained the concept of cohesion as follows:

‘A society is cohesive if (a) its members have a common commitment to the well-being of the community and are related to each other in a way that they are not related to outsiders; (b) its members are able to find their way around in it, that is, they know how to navigate their way through their society, if they understand its conceptual and cultural grammar, and know how to relate to each other; and (c) its members share a climate of mutual trust, and know that were they to make sacrifices today for the wider community, it will take care of them when the need arises.’

The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain pointed out also that a cohesive democracy must accept disagreements, differences and disobedience, and commended and reprinted in this respect the distinctions between closed and open approaches to disagreement proposed by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia.  Further, such a democracy must vigorously tackle racism in its various forms, including for example Islamophobia and the kinds of institutional racism in public institutions identified and described by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report.  The reports on northern cities and the government’s ensuing policy documentation about community cohesion contained little engagement with such points. For this reason, and because they similarly showed no awareness of the arguments set out by the Institute of Race Relations, they were an uncertain basis for action or for evaluation. They were, however, accompanied by quite substantial funding programmes. These led to some valuable projects, as outlined later in this chapter. It remains at present (early 2004) to be seen whether they lead also to useful development of theory. Two Home Office papers published in 2003 were not promising, at least with regard to addressing Islamophobia and recognising British Muslim identity.

The concept of community

The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain gave considerable attention to the meaning of the term community. It acknowledged that the term usually refers to something rather amorphous, but pointed out that nevertheless it can have legal significance, as for example in Northern Ireland. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a body of people having a religion, a profession, etc, in common ... a fellowship of interests … a body of nations unified by common interests’. This definition reflects the fact that in everyday usage terms such as the following are all fairly familiar: ‘the local community’, ‘a valued member of the community’, ‘the disabled community’, ‘a mining community’, ‘the scientific community’, ‘the gay and lesbian community’, ‘the two communities in Northern Ireland’. It would be consistent with the dictionary definition to envisage the United Kingdom as a community whose four principal constituent parts are England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and also to envisage each of the constituent parts as a community, as also each separate region, city, town or borough. Any one individual belongs to several different communities. This was vividly illustrated in a statement made to the Bradford Commission in 1996:

‘I could view myself as a member of the following communities, depending on the context and in no particular order: Black, Asian, Azad Kashmiri, Mirpuri, Jat, Marilail, Kungriwalay, Pakistani, English, British, Yorkshireman, Bradfordian, from Bradford Moor … I could use the term ‘community’ in any of these contexts and it would have meaning. Any attempt to define me only as one of these would be meaningless.’

Since communities overlap and interact, and since every individual belongs to more than one community, it is helpful to picture Britain as a community of communities rather than as a single monolithic whole. Similarly each town or city – Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, for example – may appropriately be pictured as a community of communities. A cohesive town or city is made up of cohesive communities in constant interaction with each other. Also, it shows due regard for the rights of individuals, not just (so speak) for the rights of members of communities. The commission’s full phrase to evoke the kind of society it commended was ‘a community of communities and citizens’.

Negative stereotyping

The negative image of Muslims and Islam began as early as the Crusades when Christian and mercenary soldiers marched to Palestine in order to “free” Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Islamic influence and authority. Songs were the sung by marching Crusaders characterizing Islam and Muslims not only negatively but Muslims as infidels and idolaters. Ever since the early Crusades, Islam and Muslims have been portrayed in a derogatory fashion. With the declaration of the Jewish state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians in 1948, there has been a continuing, sometimes covert, oftentimes obvious and blatant effort to stereotype Arabs and Muslims as barbaric terrorists possessing no conscience or mercy in their war against the civilized populations of the world.

Novels and encyclopaedic information either subtly and shrewdly or manifestly insert defamatory statements about Arabs and Muslims in such a way that the reader is unaware of these attacks. The film industry is even more effective in the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in a manner that creates hate and prejudice in the hearts and minds of international viewers. Arab and Muslim groups living within the United States have struggled to combat these negative images but do not have the power, the means nor possess as effective a voice as the billions of dollars that back the entertainment industry.

A United Nations special investigator on religion, a Tunisian lawyer, Abdul Fattah Amor, said on March 17, 1999, that a pervasive Islamophobia exists in the United States and is fed by a “hate-filled” image of Muslims presented in the media. Amor, who compiled his report after a visit to the United States in January and February of 1999, argues that, “The Muslim community can certainly flourish freely in the religious sphere, but it has to be recognized that there is an Islamophobia reflecting both racial and religious intolerance.” He went on to say, “This is not the fault of the authorities, but of a very harmful activity by the media in general and the popular press in particular, which consists in putting out a distorted and indeed hate-filled message treating Muslims as extremists and terrorists.”

It is sad that some of the greatest enemies of Islam can be found in the dictators of Muslim countries. Examples of so-called Muslim leaders who want a secular state at the expense of the lives and welfare of their people can be found in Algeria and Turkey. They day-to-day massacres of Algerian civilians are not carried out by true Muslims, but by paid mercenaries wishing to turn the hearts of the people against Islam. There are many other leaders of Muslim countries whose prisons are full of those wishing to promote Islam and Muslim governments.

The best solution to the stagnation of the current Muslim Ummah ( Global Nation) and to Islamophobia itself is to apply true Islamic principles based on the Holy Qur’an and Hadith. According to the great Muslim thinker, Muhammed Qutub, the best way to counter-act hostility to Islam and Muslims is through faith. A secular and non- religious approach will not solve the current crisis, but a solution can be found with new and brave ideas, regardless of their source as long as they follow and adhere to Islamic principles.

Essentially foreign

Some findings from research on Media and British Muslims.  A study was made of all articles on British Muslims that appeared in The Guardian/Observer and The Times/Sunday Times in the period 1993-97. There were 837 articles altogether, 504 in the Guardian/Observer and 333 in The Times/Sunday Times. In addition stories about British Muslims in 1997 were studied in the Sun and the Mail. A count was also made of stories about Muslims in the wider world. The findings of the research included:

Only one story in seven was about Islam in Britain, as distinct from the wider world. The implication was that Islam is essentially foreign.

Muslims in Britain were frequently represented irrational and antiquated, threatening British liberal values and democracy.

The agenda of Muslims in Britain was seen as being dictated by Muslims outside Britain.

A strong focus on extremist and fanatical Muslims marginalised the moderate and pragmatic stance of the majority of British Muslims.

Muslims in Britain were depicted as being involved in deviant activities, for example corruption and crime.

The Guardian gave much more coverage to Muslim issues than other papers and was more likely to write positively and to provide alternative viewpoints. It is read by far fewer people than other most other papers, however, and its secular, human rights stance means Islam is sometimes formulated as offensive to its liberal norms. 

Commenting later on the findings, the author noted that Muslims are becoming a more powerful lobbying force and have made efforts to create a representative body, the Muslim Council of Britain, with which the government can negotiate. She judged that lobbying by Muslims has had a positive effect on both the government and the media (Source: the research was undertaken by Dr Elizabeth Poole, University of Staffordshire. It is published in Reporting Islam, I.B.Tauris, 2002.)

Post September 11 there was a genuine recognition among most media outlets of the need to avoid content that would be inflames the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. Led by the line from Downing Street, even The Sun – long saddled with a reputation as a racially intolerant and a sensationalist newspaper – issued a high profile appeal for calm. On September 13, 2001, a full-page article written by David Yelland – then the editor – proclaimed Islam Is Not An Evil Religion. It may have been stating the obvious. But at the time it made a valuable contribution – a fact recognised by the Commission for Racial Equality which short listed the article for a Race in the Media Award.

Whose watchdog?

In July 2001, a month before the US terrorist atrocities, senior officials from the Muslim press and the Muslim Council of Britain met with Lord Wakeham, then the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Together the learned gathering discussed the ‘negative stereotyping’ of Muslims and Lord Wakeham assured those present that he understood their concerns. On the 15th of November, amid the pleas for calm and mutual tolerance and the establishment of Islam Awareness Week to promote greater understanding across the communities, the Daily Express published an article by columnist Carol Sarler which seemed to encapsulate all of the worries conveyed to Lord Wakeham just four months previously.

Under the headline Why Do I have To Tolerate The Rantings of Bigots Just Because They Are Muslim, Ms Sarler said even she, as a ‘conscientious, secular liberal’ felt unable to voice legitimate doubts about the Islamic faith and its adherents. The irony of the fact that she was doing so over an entire page of a national newspaper did not trouble her. Citing one single opinion poll which, she said, showed 70 per cent of British Muslims either support or condone Osama bin Laden, she said: ‘We are constantly told that the vast majority of Moslems in this country are moderates and hush your mouth if you even might think, oh really, so where are they then?’  She said many refer to Islam as ‘a religion of tolerance, peace and love’, adding: ‘Which is jolly splendid but goes nowhere towards explaining why every Moslem state in the world today is a cauldron of violence, corruption, oppression and dodgy democracy: the direct opponents of everything a liberal holds dear; yet at your peril do you mention it.’ The Qur’an she dismissed as ‘no more than a bloodthirsty little book.’ The equivalent insult if her target had been Christianity would have been ‘Jesus was no more than a bloodthirsty little man.’

On the day of publication, an Express reader submitted a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, still led by Lord Wakeham, on the grounds that the article was discriminatory and inaccurate.  But the complaint was rejected. In its adjudication, the PCC accepted the Express’s argument that ‘the article, headed as comment, was clearly distinguished as the opinion of the columnist, in accordance with terms of the Code.’ It noted the Express printed a letter of rebuttal from the Muslim Council of Britain the following week. Other complaints from the Muslim Council of Britain have been rejected on the grounds that individuals have a right to reply if inaccurate reports are printed about them, but not organisations on behalf of a religious faith.[15] The PCC said: ‘Clause 13 (Discrimination) relates only to named individuals and, as in the article no specific persons were subject to prejudiced or pejorative attack based upon their race or religion, did not consider that a breach of the that clause could be established.’ There are no plans to close this loophole, even when the new press regulator assumes responsibility.

What also disturbed many was the fact that the PCC seems unable or unwilling to act even when many of the comments made by the author are based on claims that are themselves open to challenge. For example, the columnist claimed that few Muslim leaders had spoken out against September 11. In point of fact the Muslim Council of Britain issued a condemnatory press release within three hours of the atrocity on 11 September and within 48 hours convened a meeting of community leaders from which emerged a joint statement denouncing the atrocities as indefensible.It is clear that the PCC is not an adequate bulwark against Islamophobia in the media. A more reliable bulwark, if it can be created, would lie in a revised code of professional ethics


As the shock from September 11 subsided, however, Muslim concern about the media’s tendency to elevate fringe figures to a place of mainstream importance became, once again, a live issue. For many years Muslims had complained about the prominence given to Omar Bakri Muhammed – the North London cleric with a penchant for publicity and the provocative quote. For all the good intentions, after September 11 many newspapers and broadcasters still found him a hard habit to break.  But the appeal of Omar Bakri paled dramatically when set against the attractions of Abu Hamza. Here, just waiting for an unquestioning press, was a villain straight out of central casting. He has an eye patch, a hook replacing an amputated hand, a claimed association with Taliban training camps and a knack for issuing blood-curdling threats.

In an analysis of the media post September 11, the academic researcher Christopher Price noted that the Daily Mail printed the same photo of Abu Hamza on the 15th, 17th, 18th, 20th and 21st. The paper also printed an interview with him on the 13th September that was partially repeated on the 15th and 18th as well. Days after the beginning of the war in Iraq, his views were sought again. The Press Association, which supplies all national and regional papers, described him as ‘one of Britain’s best known Muslim preachers’. For journalists from the Telegraph to the Today Programme, and from the News of The World to Newsnight, he was a top attraction.

Of course, figures like Hamza and his associates have a right to have their views reported, as does any other citizen of this country. But too often such views are reported as representative of all Muslim communities. Moderates who sought to place them in their proper context struggled to make their voices heard.  Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain voiced the frustrations of many. ‘There are over 800 mosques in the UK and only one of them is run by a known radical. Yet this one mosque (Finsbury Park, London) seems to get more coverage than all the rest put together! The situation is akin to taking a member of the racist BNP and saying his views are representative of ordinary Britons.’ [16]

Ahmed Versi, the editor of the Muslim News says that frustration remains. ‘The Muslim community is attacked for not denouncing September 11 enough, yet the newspapers and television news will give an enormous amount of space and airtime to people like Abu Hamza and not seek out moderate voices. He is a nothing figure in the Muslim community. He doesn’t have a major following. Young Muslim men are not particularly attracted to his teachings. So why do newspapers continue to give him so much space? It is Islamophobia.’

‘Historically,’ the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Christmas Day sermon in 2003, ‘religious faith has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity. It has appeared as itself intolerant of difference (hence the legacy of anti-Semitism), as a campaigning, aggressive force for uniformity, as a self-defensive and often corrupt set of institutions indifferent to basic human welfare. That’s a legacy that dies hard, however much we might want to protest that it is far from the whole picture. And it’s given new life by the threat of terror carried out in the name of a religion – even when representatives of that religion at every level roundly condemn such action as incompatible with faith.’ [17]


Hostility towards Muslims is still a major problem in Britain, according to a new report published on Tuesday 2 June 2004 and is not being taken seriously enough by race relations bodies. The report is by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. It was seven years ago that the Commission produced its first report. This follow-up report, researched by journalists Hugh Muir and Laura Smith, considers the progress that has been made and the unfinished business still needing attention.

Credit for tackling anti-Muslim prejudice over the last seven years, the report says, must go first to Muslim organisations, particularly the Muslim Council of Britain. But also the Government deserves some credit. It has made important changes in employment law and the criminal justice system and most schools and hospitals are more sensitive to Muslim needs and concerns than they used to be.

But 9/11 has made the position of British Muslims more difficult and the race relations industry has been slow to respond. The report quotes a range of Muslim opinion about this. Baroness Uddin says: ‘After Sept 11th, the Prime Minister made a real effort to communicate to the world that ordinary Muslims were not the target of the effort to tackle terrorism. But actions spoke louder than words and the attacks on Iraq have taken us back decades. Each of us is constantly being asked to apologise for the acts of terror that befall the world. To make matters worse, there is not a day that we do not have to face comments so ignorant that even Enoch Powell would not have made them.’ 

The Muslim Council of Britain declares: ‘Very little progress has been made in tackling the horror of Islamophobia in the United Kingdom since it was brought into sharp focus by the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in its report published in 1997.

‘Whilst we recognise the adverse impact of international politics on the perception of Islam generally and Muslims living in the United Kingdom, we strongly feel that the government has done little to discharge its responsibilities under international law to protect its Muslim citizens and residents from discrimination, vilification, harassment, and deprivation.’

The report discusses employment, education, policing, legislation and the media and considers the potential of the government’s community cohesion programmes to heal conflicts on the streets. It strongly criticises antiracist organisations for failing to tackle Islamophobia as a form of racism. It ends by revisiting the 60 recommendations that were made in its 1997 report and points out that too many of them have not yet been implemented..

But it’s upbeat too. It sets out its vision for a fairer and more inclusive Britain and sketches a roadmap for getting there.

Its key questions, says Dr Richard Stone, the commission’s chair, are these:

Ø        How can a broadly secular society such as Britain, but with many Christian traditions and reference points, provide space for observant Muslims?

Ø        How much action has been taken since the alarm was first raised about the debilitating effects of Islamophobia?

Ø        Has there been a genuine, principled response from officialdom, or just rhetoric and grudging compliance?

Ø        Why is the antiracist movement so reluctant to address prejudice, hate and discrimination based on religion?

Ø        Should Islamophobia be defined as a form of racism, in much the same way that anti-Semitism clearly is, and should the full force of race relations legislation be brought to bear to defeat it?

Ø        Should a key idea in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, institutional racism, be adapted, so that tackling institutional Islamophobia is put firmly on the agenda?

Ø        Is the failure of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act to refer to anti-Muslim prejudice a poignant example of institutional Islamophobia?

Don’t Blame the Muslims: Headlines in September 2001

Islam is not Evil Religion: the whole world lines up to condemn murderous fanatics: The Sun, 13 September

Don’t Blame the Muslims: The Mirror, 14 September

Reach Out to Muslim as Friends: The Sun, 17 September

We Know the Vast Majority of Muslims Condemn Atrocities

Article by the Prime Minister, Sunday People, 23 September

One Britain, Standing Up to Terrorism – to believe that all Muslims should be blamed for those appalling crimes is both ignorant and disgusting.  The Mirror, 28 September

Don’t Blame Islam for the Madness of Terrorists: Sunday Mirror, 30 September

Open and closed views

In order to begin answering this question it is useful, we suggest, to draw a key distinction between closed views of Islam on the one hand and open views on the other. Phobic dread of Islam is the recurring characteristic of closed views.  Legitimate disagreement and criticism, as also appreciation and respect, are aspects of open views.

In the tabulation below we itemise eight main features of closed views, and contrast them in each instance with eight main features of open views.  We hope that readers will look quite closely at the table, since it underlies much of our Islamophobia report.  A disadvantage of tabulations such as this, however, is that the various points which are itemised, each in its own tidy little box, can appear separate from each other.  In point of fact closed views feed off each other, giving and gaining additional resonance and power and giving each other kickstarts, as it were – they are joined together in vicious circles, each making the others worse. Also they sometimes provide codes for each other, such that whenever one of them is explicitly expressed some of the others may also be present, tacitly between the lines.  Similarly it happens that open views feed off each other, and give each other additional clarity – they interact in virtuous circles, each making the others stronger and more productive. 

In summary form, the eight distinctions which we draw between closed and open views are to do with:

1   Whether Islam is seen as monolithic and static, or as diverse and dynamic.

2   Whether Islam is seen as other and separate, or as similar and interdependent.

3   Whether Islam is seen as inferior, or as different but equal.

4   Whether Islam is seen as an aggressive enemy or as a cooperative partner.

5   Whether Muslims are seen as manipulative or as sincere.

6   Whether Muslim criticisms of ‘the West’ are rejected or debated.

7   Whether discriminatory behaviour against Muslims is defended or opposed.

8   Whether anti-Muslim discourse is seen as natural or as problematic.

Closed and open views of Islam

In the following paragraphs we consider each of these eight issues in turn.  In each instance we discuss mainly the features of closed views, i.e. the features of Islamophobia.  But first, we recall briefly the historical context.

The historical context

In 1920, when the French army entered Damascus, their commander marched directly to Saladin’s tomb and declared, famously: “Nous revoila, Saladin” – “we’re back!” or “here we are again!” [1]  It was the end, so the commander believed, of an episode which had begun in November 1095, when Pope Urban II urged his audience to undertake a ‘just war’ against Muslims.  The episode included the spread of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Crusades themselves.  When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Cardinal Bessarion, writing to the Doge of Venice, encapsulated the view which dominated western perceptions for centuries: “A city which was once so flourishing ... has been captured, despoiled, ravaged and completely sacked by the most inhuman barbarians ... by the fiercest of wild beasts”.  In the nineteenth century the French humanist Ernest Renan said that a Muslim is “incapable of learning anything or of opening himself to a new idea”. [2]  Such views were used to legitimise the colonisation of most Muslim countries by European powers. 

Whether there is a continuous line from the Crusades of medieval times through the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism to the Islamophobia of the 1990s, with each main event having an element of “here we are again”, is a question on which historians disagree.  At first sight, certainly, there appears to be continuity.  It is present in the perceptions of both Muslims and non-Muslims.  An alternative view is that human beings make selective use of the past in order to understand and to justify aspects of the present, and that the past is continually being re-defined, even re-invented. [3]  According to this view both Muslims and non-Muslims choose to ‘remember’ the past (more accurately, choose stories from the past) to illustrate feelings, fears and animosities in the present.  Either way, the task of combating Islamophobia involves a repudiation of the power which stories about the past in general, and about the Crusades in particular, do certainly have.  The task involves having an open view of Islam, in opposition to the closed view which the stories themselves reflect and perpetuate.

‘Mindless Islamophilia’

In The Guardian (18/9/01) Julie Birchill drew an interesting and potentially valuable distinction between what she called ‘mindless Islamophobia’ and ‘mindless Islamophilia’.  She appeared, however, to think that the latter is considerably more prevalent and serious than the former and directed virtually all her polemic at fellow journalists who try to counter Islamophobia by presenting positive images of Islam in their work. She mocked the BBC for giving airspace to what she called a Strong Muslim Woman (SMW for short), and for systematically implying that ‘British Empire = bad’ whereas ‘Islamic Empire = good’. There was no mention during the BBC’s recent Islam Week, she complained, of ‘the women tortured, the Christian converts executed, the apostates hounded, the slaves in Sudan being sold into torment right now.’ She continued: ‘Call me a filthy racist – go on, you know you want to – but we have reason to be suspicious of Islam and treat it differently from the other major religions … While the history of the other religions is one of moving forward out of oppressive darkness and into tolerance, Islam is doing it the other way round.’

Birchill’s emotive generalisations and imagery (‘oppressive darkness’) were deeply offensive. Her claim that she was being rational, however, (‘we have reason…’) was interesting and worth attending to. For clearly there is such a thing as legitimate criticism and suspicion of religious beliefs and practices, even if Birchill’s colourful language implied that she was not herself in this instance engaging in it. In castigating both mindless Islamophobia and mindless Islamophilia she was commending a stance that is mindful. Such a stance is suspicious when suspicion is warranted. But also it is ready, as appropriate, to respect and appreciate.

The eight differences between open and closed views are discussed and illustrated below.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV