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Reports of Islamophobia: 1997 & 2017

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Reports of Islamophobia: 1997 & 2017

“Reports of Islamophobia: 1997 & 2017”

by S. Sayyid & AbdoolKarim Vakil

The Road Travelled

Earlier this month the Runnymede Trust launched a new report, “Islamophobia: Still a challenge for us all”, to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of the landmark 1997 report, “Islamophobia; A challenge for us all”. The significance of the original Report is hard to under-estimate. While it is the case that it did not coin the term Islamophobia, it certainly gave it legs. And while it is also true that the report did not end Islamophobia, it did indict it.

The 1997 report was the first comprehensive combined survey and policy intervention on an increasingly prominent phenomenon and against the context of heightened global problematisation of Muslims as Muslims. This is worth remembering for two reasons. Firstly, whatever its final form as a document, the consultative nature of the work which fed into its pages generated a momentum and a sense of stake-holding important to its reception and impact. Whether adopted as leverage or contested in whole or in part, the report and the momentum of its discussion produced Muslim agency over Muslim agendas. The publication of the report propelled Islamophobia into public consciousness. It shaped the national and global conversation, even if much of that conversation was only to contest the vocabulary that the report sought to establish. Second, because it is worth being reminded that already in 1997 the report was a response to diverse interrelated historical shifts, both local and transnational: the post third worldist and post-67 global resurgence of Muslims signified by the Revolt of Islam; the increasing debasement of the grand narratives of modernisation come-secularisation in the social sciences; cumulative postcolonial and post-cold war challenges to the Eurocentric world order; the identification and ascriptive reclassification of ethnically marked and immigrant populations as Muslim, and concomitant mobilisations over the way in which existing race-relations based anti-discrimination legislation afforded them only uneven and inadequate protection, recourse, and redress as Muslims. This isn’t just about recasting a twenty year view into a longer genealogy. Against presentist fixation on framing the Muslim Question in the horizon of 9/11, it bears remembering that the report was published four years before George W. Bush declared the ‘war on terror’, and that in some ways this never-ending war was as much a reflection of Islamophobia as it was its intensification.

The 2017 report does not repeat the impact of the original report; perhaps never could. In any case, it is a very different document. The 1997 report was the work of a commission; the present report is an edited collection. It is based neither on community consultation, nor on new research and evidence into the policy areas it covers, but rather on commissioned chapters by academics summarising their research in different registers. Each chapter, as their bibliographical references mostly attest, speaks in an individual voice, and the volume makes little effort to engage let alone convey or build upon the mounting and increasingly diverse body of academic scholarship on Islamophobia produced across the world, including in two specialist journals, and numerous reports. Even its most significant departure from the 1997 report, that of defining Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism, is eroded by this lack of engagement. There is something to be said for an edited collection of single-theme focused chapters, but the absence of connection and engagement across the chapters is problematic.

The difference between the two reports provides a useful index of how Islamophobia as concept and phenomena has changed in the intervening twenty years. What follows is a brief comparative and relational analysis of the two reports as a way of arguing for the need for a theory of Islamophobia which can broaden the diet of examples by which we can apprehend this phenomenon. Theorizing Islamophobia is important not just because of reasons of intellectual aesthetics but because only such an account can turn the noise of data into facts, organise our perceptions and fortify any recommendations which we care to make.

1. What’s In A Name

It is almost a cliché that any substantive writing about Islamophobia from any genre will begin with a rather hand-wringing acknowledgement about the inadequacy of the term. What animates this anxiety seems to be the belief that the problem with the reception and effectiveness of the term is a matter of etymology rather than of politics; that a different word would not have elicited the hostility that Islamophobia does. The problem with this is not only the apparent underlying assumption that a word has an isomorphic relationship with the object that it names and constitutes, but a historical naivety about our political vocabulary. The use of words to challenge entrenched structures of power elicits the same response and contestation that meets the work they are called to do. Even a cursory glance at the range of expressions within various forms of civil rights struggles in the Western plutocracies would make clear that it is not Islamophobia’s morphology which is the problem but the phenomena that it seeks to designate and the challenge that it implies to the prevailing established order. Racism, feminism, antisemitism, genocide, hate crime, to note the most obvious examples, were all contested and considered inappropriate and counter-productive in their time.

What this constant anxiety over the correct designation for Islamophobia, already present in the original report and manifest with greater virulence in this latest report points to, is a conceptual lacuna. The various attempts to read Islamophobia as anti-Muslim bigotry, or anti-Muslim prejudice, or anti-Muslim hostility, are attempts to resolve the theoretical problem by etymological diktat. This is most evident in the 2017 report, where, despite the editors’ acknowledgment of the bad faith of literalist etymological readings, lingering anxieties over the inherited term appear to require both constant reassurance that the use of the term will not curtail freedom of speech, and robust protestation that Islam is, must be, and will continue to be open to criticism as a religion. The almost logical concomitant to this ambivalence is not merely the inclusion of a chapter in the report which argues that the term is inadequate and counter-effective, but that the argument goes unanswered.

A similar and related anxiety concerns the obsession to establish a single definition of Islamophobia, which appears to have gained consensus as the next most imperative priority to follow the report. The focus on a single definition is problematic in three respects. First, much of the work of challenging Islamophobia is and will be done irrespective of a definition since it is about calling out and challenging the curtailment of Muslim autonomy and barriers to equality of participation and outcomes in ways that have little to do with government legislation per se. (The far more fundamental obstacles are the lack of political will to resist populist and racist electoralism and the public courage to commit mainstream political agendas to antiracist futures backed with effective funding, resources, and mandates). Second, because it implicitly takes the contextually specific and especially legal terrain of British law as the parameters both of a definition and of its scope of action. Third, because it construes Islamophobia, and the combating of Islamophobia, within the confines of the existing racial grammar of race and religion which underpins public discourse and legislation, rather than challenging it in the articulation of a radical and global social justice agenda.

2. Islamophobia and Racism

The 2017 report signals a welcome shift in its short definition of Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism. But to describe Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism is only an advance if racism is not being used merely as a euphemism for bigotry. Racism means not so much a set of beliefs and attitudes that individuals hold, but rather a form of governmentality that establishes systems of practices and protocols which distribute power and opportunity unevenly across populations. Islamophobia belongs to the genre of racism understood as racialised governmentality. What is brought to bear in the experience of passing through airport security, is not just the individual beliefs and attitudes of the security staff, it is also their training, the expectations of their senior managers, the establishment of key performance indicators, the assessment of targets, all the panoply of the contemporary organisation of workflow, as well as the multiple registers of insecurity nested in successive technical and regulatory framings of securitisation. The problem is not the definition of Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism per se, but that in the context of this report what it signals is a failure to grasp the sense in which Islamophobia is racism fully.

This failure arises from the insufficient attention paid to the category of racism; in fact, the word racism is conspicuous largely by its absence. The report is populated by categories such as prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination which are presented as being equivalent to racism, when at best they have only a metonymic relationship to racism. Reading racism from the prism of bigotry and its cognates renders racism as a ‘boo word’ rather than an analytical tool. It evacuates the dimension of power, empties out the category of racism, and opens the door for charges and counter-charges of racism to circulate between and within Muslims, Muslim communities, and ethnic minorities, with little sense of the structural overdetermination of unequal social relations. It is also unclear what the greater emphasis on individuals (highlighted at the launch as one of the significant differences between the original and current reports) means for the discussion of structural and institutional racism. Nor, for that matter, is it made clear what the reframing of Islamophobia by reference to human rights, in the wording of the longer definition, adds to the effectiveness of the work of the term or concept.

The practical consequence of this is that while the 2017 report is highly critical of the government’s PREVENT programme, it is unable to account for the myriad ways in which state agencies sponsor and promote Islamophobia without it being reducible to the remit of PREVENT. The failure to acknowledge that Islamophobia is racism results not only in the loss of the vital tool in the work of combating Islamophobia which establishing its equivalence with racism enables, but the loss of robustly and consistently addressing the dimensions of institutional Islamophobia. The chapters that allow that racism is structural are the chapters most focused on ethnic minorities and only indirectly on Muslims. Without the conceptualisation of structural and institutional Islamophobia, evidencing Islamophobia requires identifiable individual Islamophobes. To demonstrate that the Office for Standards in Education demand that Muslim girls should be interrogated on their reasons for wearing the hijab is Islamophobic; that the Charity Commission’s hounding of Muslim charities is Islamophobic; that government department directives are Islamophobic, calls for the identification of institutional arrangements, policies and practices, not of card carrying Islamophobes.

3. The Globalization of Islamophobia

Islamophobia is global; the 2017 report is national. The rationale for such a narrowing of focus could be that as policy-making is within national jurisdiction a report that wishes to change policy must be resolutely framed within the horizon of policy-makers. Such a rationalisation, however, does not accord with how struggles against racism have rarely been led by policy changes. Most often it is mobilisation that facilitated policy shifts in the direction of anti-racism. Further, an exclusively nationalist focus on phenomena which is transnational risks its elision rather than elaboration. Islamophobia is always contextually and historically specific, but it is never reducible to its context, least of all to any disarticulated single framing of context abstracted from the overlapping spatial scales and interlocking formations which constitute it. Thus, combating Islamophobia can never be framed either in exclusion of its transnational articulations or of more concerted global action. After Brexit, after Counter-Jihad, after PEGIDA, after Trump and White revanchism it seems even more quixotic to dispense with the global in favour of an exclusive focus on Islamophobia in England (and it is England, since the report neglects a UK wide coverage).

The globalization of Islamophobia presents a challenge not only of scale but of significance. This was a challenge that perhaps the writers of the original report could not envisage. Islamophobia in 1997 was for them essentially a problem akin to those that afflicted other ethnically marked population in the UK. In a sense, the 1997 report was only extending the conceptual policy matrix to a community that hitherto had been obscured, that of Muslims. But the globalisation of Islamophobia does not mean the multiplication of national sites in which the phenomena is present, rather its institutional embeddedness in the international system. This is illustrated by the way in which standard measures that curtail and regulate expressions of Muslimness are now part of the trans-national machinery of the war on terror. It is represented by the way in which Islamophobia provides a common platform in which various geopolitical actors coalesce and co-operate. Most of all, it is represented in the circulation of the ideology of white revanchism which is connected through the glue of Islamophobia. The circulation of Islamophobic tropes is not restricted to one national jurisdiction. Nor is state centred securitisation disentanglable from trans-state and global articulations. Twenty years on from the original report this is even clearer. So whether the exclusive focus on ‘British Muslims’ in the 2017 report is a principled or a pragmatic concession, the end result is the same capitulation, a parochial solution for a global problem. In this sense too, the ‘us all’ in the call for understanding Islamophobia as a Challenge for us all remains, twenty years on, short of its promise.

4. The Muslim Ghost in the Machine

The emergence of Muslims is supplemental to many of the chapters in the 2017 report. It is of course possible, as is similarly known from the historical literature on antisemitism, to have Islamophobia without the presence of Muslims; but it is impossible to have Islamophobia without the figure of the Muslim. And without an account of the emergence of Muslims in Britain, of how ethnically marked and subaltern populations increasingly identified and mobilised as Muslim, it is impossible to historicize Islamophobia. The inability to historicise Islamophobia has important implications even for the currency of policy-making. Firstly, because if Islamophobia is something constant since the advent of Islam in the seventh century, it is difficult to see how the policy of amelioration can be formulated and implemented with any degree of precision or confidence. Second, because neither the specificity of the contemporary racial formation – of race, of racialisation, of the state, of its technologies, of its global articulations – nor the Muslim agency which is the condition of possibility of naming and problematizing it as Islamophobia, would be possible.

In a sense, Muslims continue to haunt both the 2017 and 1997 reports. It is true that, in its rather fragmentary and sometimes contradictory manner, it does point to significant differences between Muslims in the Britain of 1997 and Muslims in Britain in 2017. That, for example, the Muslim population has grown and become more confident, with the newer generation of young Muslims better able to navigate the norms of contemporary society. This, of course, is a version of the narrative of progressive ‘integration’ through succeeding generations which had been such a staple of the sociology of race relations. There is, though, little recognition that the various populations that are described as Muslim in public discourse were not constant. Britain’s ethnoscape, as one of the contributors spells out, has been transformed by the various permutations of Black, Asian, and now Muslim identification and mobilisations. Yet by and large the report essentialises Muslim identity and by so doing contributes to the conceptual obfuscation of Islamophobia.

In two other regards, not much ground has been gained since the original report. The inclusion of a comparative discussion of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the present report is one of its critical strengths. A striking, and ideologically loaded contrast had marked the discussions of the role and responsibility of Jews and of Muslims in accounting for antisemitism and Islamophobia in the respective Runnymede reports of 1994 and 1997, A Very Light Sleeper and A Challenge for Us All. Ironically, the very discrepancy which the addition of this chapter contributes so much to undo, continues to linger in the rest of the report through the discussion of the Islam as religion strand of the Islamophobia neologism. Similarly, while it is true that the current report decidedly moves beyond the original report’s overemphasis on interfaith relations as a core strand in tackling Islamophobia, the same limitation over the question of religion and race riddles both reports’ conceptions of Islamophobia. The thrust of the 1997 report was the need to expand racial discrimination policies and legislation by supplementing their scope as racial and religious discrimination; the most fundamental failure of the 2017 report’s conception of Islamophobia as racism is the failure to queer the categories of race and religion and their ontologies.

Are We There Yet?

Contradictorily, the new publication both acknowledges and falls short of some of the critical shifts in the activist work and academic scholarship on Islamophobia over the twenty years that separate the two reports. It is disheartening, on the one hand, to see research so narrowly construed as academic research, with little effort to acknowledge, draw upon, or connect with, the breadth of critical research and policy recommendations generated by activist work on the ground. Given the privileging of academic work, it is also remiss, on the other hand, to see little acknowledgement of the role of impact-driven and public funding carrots in reshaping university research agendas, and the contribution of their disproportionate focus on Muslims, from radicalisation to integration and related ‘problem’ areas, in entrenching Islamophobia.

The fall of the Soviet Union signalled by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 meant the retreat of ontological social science and the domination of ontic social science. That is, a social science unable to historicize its object of enquiry, and the marginalisation of genealogical accounts. The ‘normal science’ version of the humanities and social sciences are inadequate to deal with epistemological challenges raised by the growing post-Western world. The demands to decolonise the curriculum can be seen as recognition of this challenge. The emergence of Muslim political subjectivity is deconstructive not only of a geopolitical or cultural order but also of an ontic epistemology. That is, the emergence of Muslim political identity interrupts the paradigms which governed the production of knowledge and policy towards those deemed to be outside the pale of white normativity. The attempt to write about Islamophobia without that genealogical imagination perpetuates Islamophobia. The struggle against Islamophobia has to be a decolonial one. The failure of this latest report to even cite the coloniality of Islamophobia, more than an omission, becomes a marker that while it may have been written twenty after its predecessor, in many ways it speaks to the same starting point.

S. Sayyid and AbdoolKarim Vakil
Salman Sayyid
S. Sayyid is currently based in the University of Leeds. From 2010 to 2013 he was the inaugural Director of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding in Australia. His main intellectual interests are in the areas of critical Muslim studies and political and cultural theory. Dr Sayyid’s numerous publications been translated into a number of languages including Persian, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic.
His first book: A Fundamental Fear was upon publication nominated for British Sociological Association’s prize for the best first monograph, however, subsequently it was banned by the Malaysian government. His most recent publications include a co-edited volume: Thinking Through Islamophobia and a co-authored book Racism, Governance, and Public Policy. Dr Sayyid’s new book Recalling the Caliphate is due out later this year. He is a joint editor of the monograph series: Decolonial Studies/Postcolonial Horizons published by Pluto Press, and a frequent contributor to international and national media.
AbdoolKarim Vakil
AbdoolKarim Vakil is Lecturer in Contemporary History in the departments of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies and History at King's College London. He is co-editor with S. Sayyid of Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives (2010) and co-author of Moçambique: Memória Falada do Islão e da Guerra (2011), an archival and oral history exploration of Portuguese colonial and counterinsurgency policies towards Muslims during the decolonisation war in Mozambique. His research interests have ranged over Portuguese intellectual and cultural history, nationalism and national identity, Islamophobia and the comparative history of contemporary Muslim communities in Europe, and is currently involved with ReOrient: the Journal of Critical Muslim Studies. AbdoolKarim has been academic advisor to Muslim organisations in Portugal and the UK.