Know Your Enemy: Racism and Islamophobia

By Prof Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights (University of Bristol Law School)

According to a recent report by a cross-party group of MPs, ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’. This definition has, however, been rejected by the government and criticised by others[1] not least on the grounds that, although Islamophobia coincides with racism in certain contexts, this is not always the case. Understanding the differences and similarities between various kinds of social prejudice is important not only for intellectual reasons, but also because a lack of clarity may militate against tackling them effectively.

In the popular sense, ‘race’/‘ethnicity’ involves shared physical identity (particularly skin colour and facial features), plus assumptions about kinship and origins more often imagined than real. Standard components of ‘racism’, typically based on myth, caricature and stereotype, generally include the belief that races possess distinct and inherent characteristics including social practices, the sense that one’s own race is superior to most if not all others, and express or implicit prejudice against people of races apart from one’s own.

‘Islamophobia’ generally refers to irrational antagonism towards Islam and/or Muslims also typically based on myth, caricature and misleading stereotype. Strictly speaking, a ‘phobia’ is a clinically observable anxiety disorder defined by recurrent and excessive fear of an object or situation. The term has, however, been extended to include individual and collective hostility towards minorities such as homosexuals (homophobia), foreigners (xenophobia) and Islam/Muslims (Islamophobia).

Racial and anti-Muslim discrimination can clearly overlap, particularly in England and Wales where over 90% of Muslims are non-white. According to UK law and international human rights law, where this occurs, one element may constitute a form of indirect discrimination compounding the direct discrimination arising from the other. But religious prejudice, including Islamophobia, is not regarded as simply a species of racism.[2] This is entirely appropriate for several reasons. For one thing, religious prejudice can occur between people of the same race, as for example, it regrettably still does in Northern Ireland in spite of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Adherents to global proselytizing religions, such as Islam and Christianity, also come from many races. And although it is generally impossible to change one’s race or apparent race, in principle, changing religion is simply a matter of no longer believing in or practising it, and possibly converting to another. However, social and cultural pressures may make this a difficult or costly choice. A person’s name may also continue to imply a religious identity long abandoned. Acts of racial prejudice are often triggered by visual cues. But religious affiliation is generally less visible without the distinctive clothing or symbols – such as crucifixes, skull caps or hijabs – which declare it. Religions also invite reflection and debate, especially about their social, political and legal implications, in ways which race does not. The distinction between legitimate critique and prejudice is not, however, always easy to draw. It would, for example, be Islamophobic to declare that all Muslims are homophobes and are, therefore, stupid and/or wicked. But it is not Islamophobic to oppose those Muslims who object to school children being educated about LGBT+ issues.

What constitutes a ‘race’ or ‘religion’, and how instances of each differ from one another, are not clear-cut either. It is, for example, a mistake to regard ‘white’/‘non-white’ and ‘Muslim’/‘non-Muslim’ as straightforward, mutually exclusive categories. For instance, some of the offspring of a white and non-white parent may look and feel white, while their siblings may look and feel non-white. The only formal test for being a Muslim is to endorse the shahada, the affirmation that there is only one true God and Mohammad is his Prophet. Yet, some Muslims, for example Salafis, regard other Muslims, for example Shia, as apostates or heretics, firmly outside the authentic community of the faithful. This, therefore, raises the paradoxical prospect of Muslims being capable of Islamophobic hate crime against other Muslims, including those of the same race. And, in England and Wales, where Muslims constitute just under a third of the non-white population, there is plenty of scope for Islamophobia on the part of non-Muslims irrespective of race. Each of the prejudices under consideration is also capable of supplanting the other. For example, antagonism towards immigrants in post-2nd World War Britain initially manifested, and was debated, in racial rather than religious terms. Yet, the Satanic Verses controversy of the late 1980s and the events of 9/11, shifted the focus from colour-based racism against Asians in general, and Pakistanis in particular, to hostility against largely the same minorities on religious, ie anti-Muslim grounds.

For these and other reasons it would, therefore, be more accurate to regard racial and religious prejudice as distinct types of social prejudice connected and disconnected in various complex ways. Ignoring this, the MPs’ report misses a golden opportunity to provide the subtle illumination necessary to address the multi-dimensional social challenges Islamophobia and racism present.

[1] ‘Definition of Islamophobia is rejected by government’, The Guardian, 16 May 2019.

[2]  See, for example, S. Fredman, Discrimination Law, 2nd edn., 2011, pp. 73, 74, 108; Equalities Act 2010, ss. 9 & 10; Mandla v Dowell Lee [1982] UKHL; Crown Suppliers (Property Services Agency) v Dawkins [1993] ICR 517; Commission for Racial Equality v Precision Manufacturing Services ET Case No. 4106/91.

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