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

Consequences and connections of Islamophobia
The consequences of Islamophobia may be summarised as follows.

1. Injustice

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. 

2. Effects on the young

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.

3. Dangers of disorder

Islamophobia increases the likelihood of serious social disorder, with consequent high costs for the economy and for the justice system.

4. Muting of mainstream voices

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.

5. Waste in the economy

Islamophobia means that much talent is wasted.  This is bad for wealth creation and the economy, and bad also for international trade.

6. Obstructing cooperation and interchange

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.

7. Harming international relations

One of the great strengths of a multicultural society is that it is more likely to be efficient and competitive on the world scene.  But 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.

Further, Islamophobia makes it more difficult for Muslims and non-Muslims to cooperate in the solution and management of shared problems such as global ecological issues and conflict situations (for example, most notably in recent years, 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 so far a just and lasting settlement.  One of our correspondents (not himself a Muslim) wrote as follows:

“During the Bosnian war I had many encounters with politicians, including a senior cabinet minister.  It was clear to me that irrespective of their political loyalties their reluctance to sanction military intervention in Bosnia was rooted in a large degree in their reluctance to support the creation of a new Muslim polity in Europe.  ‘Muslims have a tendency to radicalism,’ the cabinet minister told me, when I asked why the government was refusing to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government.”

How can Islamophobia be fought? To answer this we must examine its causes. Firstly, there is prejudice, and no amount of education will dispel it. The only answer is power. In 1913, Leo Frank, a Northern Jewish industrialist in Georgia, was wrongly convicted of the sexually-motivated murder of young Christian girl Mary Phagan. He was lynched in 1915 by ‘The Knights of Mary Phagan’, which metamorphosed into the Ku Klux Klan. Attacks on Jews followed his conviction, and Medieval smears of ‘Jewish ritual murder; re-surfaced. The case caused the Jewish community to be more pro-active and they formed the Anti-Defamation League specifically to combat negative stereotypes of Jews. By the 1940s, few US politicians could afford to offend the community as it became an influential political force. British Muslims should learn from this, by voting tactically en bloc, not just against the BNP but against any candidates supporting the Occupation of Muslim lands. Then the parties and media will be too scared to promote (or even acquiesce in) Islamophobia in future.

Secondly, the smear of terrorism: I am truly tired of the slanders issued by leading figures that Muslims have not sufficiently condemned Al-Qaeda. Have these people blocked eardrums or glued eyelids? Muslims both in the Islamic world and in the West have been vehement in their denunciation of 9/11, 3/11 and the murder of Nick Berg. This modern ‘blood libel’ happens because Western Muslims are politically weak. Again the display of electoral power is the answer, and something further, which we will now explore.

The third cause is ignorance. The Hijab issue is a classic example. I wonder how far Muslims realise that non-Muslims have little understanding of Islamic distinctive. Only grass-roots contact can combat this. Recently I spoke in a mosque at a Christian-Muslim ‘Meeting for Better Understanding’. Instead of debating, the imam and I presented the position of our religions on the particular topic. These meetings have proved immensely helpful in building understanding and good community relations. Holding them would enable greater understanding of issues like the Hijab or why Muslims were so offended at Rushdie’s obnoxious book. They would also nail the lie that most Muslims support Al-Qaeda.

Finally, the fourth cause is the lack of democracy in the Muslim world, both in terms of free elections and public liberties. Here is the one issue where critics have a point. Only a minority of Muslim states are genuine democracies, and in far too many non-Muslim minorities are marginalised if not harassed. Even if the average Briton rarely darkens a chapel door, traditional British sense of fair play will cause him to view negatively the denial of religious liberty and/or equality to non-Muslims, especially Christians. Of course, Islamophobic politicians and other leading figures are hypocritical in their attacks at this point, ignoring that many despotic Muslim states are pro-Western, such as Egypt and Tunisia where the Presidents romp home with over 95% of the vote, but the fact remains that most Muslim states are repressive.

British Muslims cannot be held responsible for this, except if they are silent about religious discrimination against non-Muslims, or in some way collaborate with such regimes. Anti-Catholic prejudice was rife in 1920s America, and helped prevent the Democratic Party candidate, Al Smith, a Catholic, from being elected. Protestant Americans associated Catholicism with the sectarian and undemocratic states to the south in Latin America. Any association with such regimes would have been the kiss of death for US Catholics. By contrast, it is no secret that British Muslims frequently approach undemocratic regimes for financial sponsorship. This frequently comes back to haunt them, as when Birmingham Muslims approached the Iraqis for finance and are now stuck with an imposing edifice called ‘Saddam Hussein Mosque’. In other cases, ambassadors representing states devoid of religious freedom have been invited in public ceremonies to dedicate mosques.

Inevitably, other Britons conclude that Muslims are just itching to take over and impose a Taliban-style regime here, destroying our heritage of political liberty and religious freedom and equality. It is essential that British Muslims become very vocal in demanding full democratic political and religious liberty in all Muslim states, and distancing themselves from those engaged in repression. This will sap the strength of Islamophobia, both in the BNP and among Labour and Tory MPs. It will strengthen their demands for true freedom in Iraq and full equality for Palestinians. Above all, it will enhance their own position in the UK. Much of the oppression, discrimination and terrorism Latin American Protestants faced ended when President Kennedy – a Catholic – after talking to Billy Graham, pressured Latin American states to change. Perhaps one day, a British Prime Minister called Ismail Ali will pressure Middle Eastern states to change in the same way – but only if British Muslims can silence Islamophobes by demonstrating that their accusations of supporting oppression are baseless.

Vision for the future: A statement of vision

The 1997 report on Islamophobia included a statement of vision. It is reprinted here. Together with doubts and fears expressed earlier in this chapter, and with the review of positive developments summarised in Box 1, it provides the context for the report that follows.

The day will come when …

British Muslims participate fully and confidently at all levels in the political, cultural, social and economic life of the country.

The voices of British Muslims are fully heard and held in the same respect as the voices of other communities and groups. Their individual and collective contributions to wider society are acknowledged and celebrated, locally, regionally and nationally.

Islamophobic behaviour is recognised as unacceptable and is no longer be tolerated in public.  Whenever it occurs people in positions of leadership and influence speak out and condemn it.

Legal sanctions against religious discrimination in employment and service delivery are on the statute book and offences aggravated by religious hostility are dealt with severely.

The state system of education includes a number of Muslim schools, and all mainstream state schools provide effectively for the pastoral, religious and cultural needs of their Muslim pupils.  The range of academic attainment amongst Muslim pupils and students is the same as for the country generally.

The need of young British Muslims to develop their religious and cultural identity in a British context is accepted and supported.

Measures to tackle social and economic deprivation, unemployment and neighbourhood renewal are of benefit to Muslims as to all other communities.

All employers and service providers ensure that, in addition to compliance with legal requirements on non-discrimination, they demonstrate high regard for religious, cultural and ethnic diversity.

The Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, 1997, slightly adapted (

Extended Footnote: the history and meaning of ‘Fundamentalism’

Fundamentalism in Christianity

The term ‘fundamentalism’ was coined as a proud self-definition by a movement within American Protestantism in the period 1865–1910.  It became publicly well-known from 1919 onwards, with the foundation of the World Christian Fundamentalist Association The movement stood for a re-affirmation of historic Christian theology, morality and interpretation of scripture –  the so-called ‘fundamentals’ – and was in opposition to modernising and liberalising tendencies in American church life.  Its essential distinguishing feature was an insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible, as distinct from treating stories such as the Creation in the light of modern scientific knowledge, and therefore as symbolic.  For decades after 1919 the only people who used the term ‘fundamentalist’ were Christians.  Some used the term in proud self-definition, others as a term of disapproval.

Fundamentalists tended to be in sympathy with, and frequently indeed associated with, the political right.  Christian fundamentalism, in both its theological aspects and in its interaction with right-wing politics, continues to be considerably stronger in the United States than in Europe.

Application to Islam

The term was first used about Islam in the Middle East Journal in 1957.  But it was not until 1981 that its application to Islam gained currency.  On 27 September 1981 there was an article by Anthony Burgess in the Observer.  This referred to “the phenomenon of the new, or rather very old, Islam, the dangerous fundamentalism revived by the ayatollahs and their admirers as a device, indistinguishable from a weapon, for running a modern state”.  Burgess said also that Muslim states such as Iran were “little more than intolerant, bloody, and finally incompetent animations of the Holy Book [the Qur’an]”.  He compared the Qur’an to Mein Kampf and concluded that there is “more blood and stupidity than glamour in the theocracy of the Sons of the Prophet”.

Burgess’s article was widely influential and quite soon the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘fundamentalist’ became almost inseparable in the Western media.  For example, in the Daily Telegraph’s on-line archives from November 1994 to May 1997, there were 194 items containing the word ‘fundamentalist’ and 142 of these (almost three quarters) also contained the word ‘Islamic’.  Only 29 (15 per cent) contained the word ‘Christian’.

When applied to Islam the term refers virtually always to political matters not to theology, and more especially to the use of terror or repression.  But because of its origins in Christian theology and disputation, particularly with regard to doctrines about the inerrancy of scripture, there is a tacit assumption in the Western media that the use of terror by dissidents or repressive states is sanctioned or even encouraged by the Qur’an.  Actually, this assumption is no more true of the Qur’an than of the Bible.

Groups around the world labelled as fundamentalist by their opponents have relatively little in common with each other.  They include (a) pro-democracy movements engaged in struggles against authoritarian regimes; (b) separatist or secessionist movements; (c) dissidents in exile; and (d) various governments with appalling human rights records.  Politically they have a wide range of goals and religiously a wide range of belief and practice.

Information about the full report from which this extract is taken can be obtained from the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. The report itself can be ordered through any bookshop (ISBN 0 9022397-98-2). A progress report entitled Addressing the Challenge of Islamophobia, published by the Commission in late 2001

The new report on Islamophobia entitled “Islamophobia: issues, challenges and action” was published on 21 June 2004 by Trentham Books, ISBN 1 85856 317 8, price £12.99

This report is a successor to Islamophobia: a Challenge for Us All, published in 1997 and launched at the House of Commons by Jack Straw, then the Home Secretary. The new report, Islamophobia: Issues, Challenges and Action, says that not enough progress has been made in tackling the problem since the earlier report. Hostility towards Islam permeates every part of British society and will spark race riots unless urgent action is taken to integrate Muslim youths into society, according to this new devastating report on Islamophobia.

The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (CBMI), which is chaired by a key government adviser to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, warns that more and more Muslims feel excluded from society and simmering tensions, especially in northern English towns, are in danger of boiling over. Members of the commission interviewed scores of British Muslims for their report, which will be published this week and will conclude that Britain is ‘institutionally Islamophobic’.

“Muslims in Britain are now at the sharp end of race hatred and xenophobia.”

For further information contact:

Uniting Britain Trust C/O The Stone Ashdown Trust, 4th floor, Barakat House, 116-18 Finchely Road, London NW3 5HT

Trentham Books, Westview House, 734 London Road, Oakhill, Stoke on Trent ST4 5NP

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV