Thirteen years on from the Runnymede report ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for us All’, the threat to community cohesion and integration posed by hate crimes carried out against British Muslims and a prevailing popular discourse which vilifies and ridicules Islamic beliefs and practices remains ever present, ever potent.
The establishment of the English Defence League (with its regional spin-offs) and the electoral campaigns run by the British National Party in recent years, reminds us that singling out Muslims and other minority groups in Britain continues to animate sections of our society with detrimental consequences for the security and wellbeing of others.
Since the Runnymede Trust’s seminal report, British Muslims have been affected by a multitude of exogenous factors, not least the 9/11 attacks and the London bombings, and the subsequent development of a programme devoted to ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’. They have also been positively affected by the changes to the legislative framework in the UK, the introduction of the Single Equality Act, with its inclusion of religion and belief among strands for pursuing equality, and the introduction of legislation on Incitement to Religious Hatred, though this particular addition to the statute books is widely seen as having failed to meet its objectives. The Speakers Conference launched in 2009 with the objective of exploring ways of widening participation to render political representation more representative of Britain’s multicultural society is a further commendable measure in aid of greater equality in our society.
While British Muslims face a heightened discourse on ‘integration’ ‘social cohesion’ and the two latterly conflated with ‘counter-terrorism’ an anomaly that persists in the changes that British Muslims observe in the policy debates and discourses that surround them is why, when millions have been diverted to projects funding capacity building in the community to deter young Muslims from radicalisation and to strengthen community resilience against violent extremism, so little comparably has been done to tackle impediments to community cohesion emanating from incendiary speech, narratives demonising British Muslims in the media and physical assaults on Muslim persons and property.
The Institute of Race Relations in its briefing paper on acts of racial violence committed in the first six months of 2010 notes, ‘Attacks on Muslims and vandalism in and around mosques … feature highly on our list’
While policy agendas have been heavy with initiatives designed to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam with democracy and life in modern Britain, supporting and compounding the ‘community-led’ approaches to counter-terrorism, remarkably little attention has been invested in understanding the obstacles that stand in the way of British Muslims fully participating in British society and tackling them.
With a review of the previous Government’s ‘Prevent’ policy underway, this is the right time to raise the issues and concerns that first surfaced in the Runnymede Trust report on Islamophobia and to urge a more robust institutional response, in the form of an all party parliamentary committee on Islamophobia.
Anti-Muslim prejudice has become a serious concern among anti-racist campaigners and British Muslims. The frequent derogatory and divisive commentary on Islam and Muslims in the UK, from platforms occupied by far right racist groups, to traditional and new media, is a challenge that threatens to undermine the work done by government and British Muslims in advancing the equality agenda and ridding our society of the prejudicial sentiments that feed violent extremism, of all hues.
As the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, puts it in the foreword to the Minority Rights Group’s report 2010 on the ‘State of the world’s minorities and indigenous peoples’, “when governments work to ensure that the rights of members of religious minorities are protected, this not only leads to a more stable and secure society, it is also an indicator of how seriously invested they are in the protection of human rights.”2
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance in its General Policy recommendation no 5, ‘on combating intolerance and discrimination against Muslims’ (adopted on 16 March 2000) recommended governments of the EU Member states to ‘provide for the monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of all measures taken for the purpose of combating intolerance and discrimination against Muslims’.
This briefing is a call for the establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia tasked with executing ECRI’s recommendations on monitoring and challenging intolerance and discrimination against Muslims through a ‘regular and even closer process of consultation with representatives of the Muslim communities of the UK’ and through the elaboration of an overall strategy against Islamophobia. It is a call for politicians to respond to the challenge of Islamophobia and its harmful effects on British Muslim citizens in the manner and degree to which it has worked to challenge racial hatred, including anti-semitism in the UK. It is a call for an investment by Government and British politicians to defend and protect the right of Muslims to hold and practice their beliefs free of suspicion, disparagement and, more importantly, fear.
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