Many people may be aware of the alarming scale Islamophobia has festered within the United States over the last decades, following the rise of Trumpism, the War on Terror, and a general sense of hostility towards Muslims.
However, across the Atlantic Ocean, America’s close ally the United Kingdom, has its own problem with Islamophobia. The ruling Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has allowed anti-Muslim sentiment to flourish, backed by a legion of pro-Conservative media outlets which have further fed these narratives.
The disillusionment that the 2007-2008 financial crisis engendered gave rise to a virulent wave of populism worldwide, which hardliners used to shift hatred towards minorities for their own political ends. In the UK, xenophobia has reared its ugly head in various ways, such as contributing to the 2016 Brexit vote and scapegoating of Eastern European migrants for Britain’s domestic woes. Muslims have also been targeted by right-wing entities, who seek to capitalize on pre-existing vilification of Islamic communities.
“We feel that no British government has properly reckoned with the reality of Islamophobia in Britain over the last couple of decades, in large part because it has been fostered by Islamophobic security policies pushed through by those very governments,” Anas Mustapha, a spokesperson for CAGE, a London-based advocacy organization that helps communities impacted by the War on Terror, told Inside Arabia.
“We feel that no British government has properly reckoned with the reality of Islamophobia in Britain over the last couple of decades.”
A recent investigation carried out by Dr. Swaran Singh, a Professor at the University of Warwick and former representative for the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, depicted a clear scale of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party. The report, known as The Singh Investigation, documented 1,418 complaints over 727 incidents of reported racism from the beginning of 2015 until the end of 2020, around two-thirds of which were Islamophobic.
“Judging by the extent of complaints and findings of misconduct by the party itself that relate to anti-Muslim words and conduct, anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the party,” Singh wrote in his report. “This is damaging to the party and alienates a significant section of society.”
Despite these damning findings, the investigation claimed that there was no evidence of “institutional racism” within the bloc, drawing complaints from many Muslim members of the Conservative Party. Lady Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative cabinet member and now a member of the House of Lords, said the party’s “processes, attitudes and behavior” were at fault from its leadership to its grassroots.
“The report concludes that from the top – from the Prime Minister at one level – to local associations at the bottom, there is an attitude issue and a problem and a behavior issue in terms of Islamophobia,” she told Sky News.
Indeed, it is quite far-fetched for the Conservative Party to claim there is no institutionalized discrimination against Muslims, when its own leader, Boris Johnson, once compared women wearing burkas to “letter-boxes” and “bank robbers,” comments which instantly begot a rise of Islamophobic attacks.
In another instance, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith’s divisive 2016 London mayoral election campaign saw him accuse rival Labor candidate Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, of providing “cover for extremists.” Goldsmith also alleged Khan had “tried to silence questions about his links [to extremists] by shamelessly accusing anyone who raises them of being Islamophobic.”
“The Conservative party has a serious problem with Islamophobia on several fronts. First, it has attempted to underplay Islamophobia within its ranks no matter how loudly senior Muslims in the party have tried to draw attention to the issue,” Mustafa Al-Dabbagh, a spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain, told Inside Arabia.
“Secondly by expanding and supporting the Islamophobic mass suspicion program called Prevent, that allows the entire Muslim community to be seen through a security lens. This breaks the bonds of trust by demanding all public servants, universities, and charities to do the same.”
Indeed, the Prevent program – deemed an anti-radicalization initiative in the UK – is another key factor, that has been blamed for further alienating Muslims and fueling Islamophobic sentiment.
“Thirdly,” Dabbagh continued, “[the Conservative party] associates with known Islamophobic groups such as the Henry Jackson Society [a right-wing, conservative think tank], and creates an artificial state where Muslim representatives are used in a way in which the Conservative Party has no need to address the real needs and grievances of the Muslim community.”
“As the party in government, the Conservative party’s normalization of Islamophobia in their public messaging and even from the Prime Minister has negative effects on the lives of Muslims in the UK. Experiencing Islamophobia isn’t a rare occurrence to Muslims, it’s a daily occurrence. Islamophobia is an issue not treated with the seriousness it deserves,” Dabbagh added.
Meanwhile, Anas Mostapha of CAGE said: “We were not at all surprised to see the scale of Islamophobia within the ruling party’s ranks. But it appears that the Conservatives are more content to externalize Islamophobia and racism as the preserve of a far-right fringe, or treat it at most as a PR problem, rather than something which intimately shapes the lives of Muslim communities across the country.”
Thus, it appears that for some a study such as The Singh Investigation was not needed to gage the severity of Islamophobia within Conservative ranks.
Still, in July 2020, a YouGov poll commissioned by the UK-NGO Hope Not Hate, found that 57 percent of Conservative Party members held a negative attitude towards Muslims, with 21 percent of members reporting a very negative attitude. This contrasts with only 3 percent that held very negative attitudes towards Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus. Just less than half, at 47 percent, also believed that Islam as a religion represents a threat to the British way of life.
In July 2020, a YouGov poll found that 57 percent of Conservative Party members held a negative attitude towards Muslims.
Yet, it is not just the Conservative Party that can bear responsibility for the rise of Islamophobia in the UK. The media has, after all, also played a big role. The Sun newspaper, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, released a shocking front page in 2016 with the false headline “1 in 5 British Muslims sympathize with Jihadis,” accompanied by a picture of a Daesh extremist. Even though The Sun was forced to detract it, after admitting the headline was misleading, the perceptions perpetuated by releasing such a story are likely irreversible.
Furthermore, on June 4, the Daily Mail, a right-wing newspaper known for its xenophobic tones, released a startling headline: “British towns that are no-go areas for white people,” in which parents allegedly “make families live under Taliban-like rule and women who can’t leave home without permission.” The troubling article reveals how Islamophobia is indeed a form of racism, given the distinction made between “white people” and Muslims.
Such claims of radical “no-go areas” have often attracted derision from those who have lived in these areas, or even taken the time to befriend a Muslim community or visit a mosque. However, The Sun and Daily Mail have long been the two most popular newspapers in the UK, and therefore influence much of the British public. Even prominent figures like ex-US President Donald Trump claimed in 2017 that these supposed “no-go areas” were widespread in Britain, adding further fuel to the fire.
“News about Muslims in the British press is rarely positive, no other community in Britain receives such regular torrents of bad press. Such bad press and normalization of Islamophobia in British society has detrimental effects on everyday Muslims,” said Mustafa al Dabbagh.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as cases like this are widespread. Nevertheless, such incidents paint a picture of how anti-Muslim hatred has been able to thrive in the UK.
Alas, until the government and media are held accountable for stoking Islamophobic views, Muslims in Britain will continue to feel threatened, and it could even further empower such narratives abroad.