Expert comment: Islam in Britain - Reframing representationsMonday 18 January 2016
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Sadek Hamid reflects on the representation of Muslims in Britain, as the international community observes World Religion Day.
Over the last decade, Muslims in Britain have become communities living under pressure. No other minority is subjected to the same level of hostility or public scrutiny. British Muslims are often accused of holding values that are antithetical to liberal democracy, and amongst other allegations, are said to be disinterested in gender equality, distrust the concept of freedom and prefer theocratic modes of governance. This intense focus can be understood within the context of the hyper visibility of Western Muslims and fears about violent radicalization, making Islam the explanatory mechanism for public debate about Muslims in relation to immigration, crime, violence, terrorism and gender inequality.
British Muslim youth in particular have become the conduit for these social anxieties illustrated in the frequent media stories about violent extremists and young people joining ISIS. Headlines such as ‘Surge in Muslim youth who want Islamic rule in Britain’ (Daily Express), ‘Extreme youth: the Muslims who would swap law for Sharia (The Times) or the heavily criticised recent Sun newspaper survey that claimed ‘1 in 5 British Muslims Sympathise with Jihadis,' fails to increase understanding of what young Muslims think and may have said to pollsters. Sensationalist journalistic coverage of these complex issues stigmatises an entire faith, fails to engage with the broader social, economic and cultural factors that contextualise difficult issues and flattens young Muslim Britons into one dimensional characters. The result has been the normalisation of negative attitudes towards Muslims, discrimination and hate crime. Evidence of increasing Islamophobia is demonstrated by polling, which suggests:
…more than half of Britons (56 per cent) regard Islam as a threat to the UK. Some might say that this attitude relates only to the religion and is not about Muslims per se. However attitudes to Muslims are no better, 37 per cent would support policies to reduce the number of Muslims in the UK, and 31 per cent of young children think Muslims are taking over England.[i]
This leaves us with a serious set of challenges and opportunities. Ignorance perpetuates fear and one way to tackle it is to increase inter-faith literacy. However, to truly enhance relationships between communities, we should move beyond polite dialogue between religions to encouraging active co-operation, contribution and service to society. Encouragingly, this is taking place and in modest ways. The negative framing of British Muslims is starting to be disrupted by mainstreaming the achievements of visible Muslims in sports, charity work and popular culture. Long-distance runner Mo Farah, boxer Amir Khan and the cricketer Moeen Ali have all challenged stereotypes and acted as ambassadors for their faith. Muslim charities such as the Al-Imdaad Foundation were among the first to respond to the floods that affected people in Cumbria and delivered £10,000 in donations to victims. Local Muslims raised £38,000 to buy life-saving equipment for the Royal Preston Hospital. Volunteers from Sunni Muslim Youth, ‘Bite-Size’ Madrasah of Oldham, Greengate Trust and the Drive4Justice Team from Blackburn, raised thousands of pounds and drove to France to help refugees in Calais. [ii] Visibly, Muslim females are making an impact too, with the Muslim Women's Council in Bradford providing more than 2,000 meals to vulnerable people in the city since 2013. The entertaining, Hijab-wearing Nadiya Hussain became a household name after winning the Great British Bake Off in 2015 and other Muslim women, including the writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah and ITV reporter Fatima Manji, have become established television journalists in recent years.
Though British Muslims are breaking down barriers, much more needs to be done within communities to address sensitive issues such as religious radicalisation. While there is a genuine problem with young people and violent extremism, its scale has been grossly overstated.[iii] The vast majority of Muslim youth are more likely to be pre-occupied with the everyday challenges of adolescence and despite having grievances against British foreign policies, are more concerned about domestic social problems, such as increasing far-right racism and inequality, and are reluctant to express dissent due to the fear of being described as “un-British” — topics rarely given media air time. Despite all of these problems, most British Muslims are interested in fairness not favours. To achieve a level playing field, structural socio-economic disadvantage need to be addressed by central government and local authorities if they are serious about promoting social mobility. Racial prejudice and religious hostility needs to be challenged outside and inside faith communities. This is easier said than done and requires changes in mutual perceptions, and how we relate to people different from ourselves. British Muslims and people of different faiths and none, have their work cut out as so much more needs to be done.
[i] Miqdaad Versi. A message to British Muslims - keep calm and carry on. The Independent. Thursday 24 December 2015.
[ii] 35 Great things British Muslims did in 2015 - Wednesday 30th December 2015. http://www.asianimage.co.uk/news/14173869.IN_PICTURES__35_great_things_British_Muslims_did_in_2015/
[iii] Arun Kundnani. The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror London and New York: Verso. 2013.