islamophobia book

The contributions in What is Islamophobia? show it as a form of racism driven in the first instance by the state and the war on terror, finds Shabbir Lakha


What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State, eds. Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills, and David Miller (Pluto Press 2017), xiv, 286pp.

There is little doubt that in Britain today, Islamophobia is on the rise. From the recent threat of ‘Punish a Muslim day’ to the rallies organised by the Football Lads Alliance and their splinter group going under the title of ‘Football Fans United against Islam’, Muslims are facing increasing amounts of hate crime and discrimination. In the last year, hate crimes against Mosques in the UK have more than doubledand in London Islamophobic hate crimes have risen by 40%.

In this context, understanding what Islamophobia is, what are its driving forces and how we can fight against it, is critical. In their book What is Islamophobia? the authors develop a comprehensive understanding in theorising Islamophobia and analysing the main social actors that ‘produce the ideas and practices that result in disadvantage for Muslims’ (p.4).

In explaining what Islamophobia is, the authors take on the deficit in academic work, which focuses solely on religious, cultural or political identities of Muslims, without considering institutions and policies that affect Muslims. The authors use the concept of racialisation as a means of explaining why Islamophobia is a form of racism, and explain that ‘the anti-Islam element of anti-Muslim racism is itself racist’. The book offers a materialist approach because ‘ideas do not float “freely”, they are materially produced and disseminated by particular social actors with particular interests.’ Therefore, to tackle Islamophobia ‘requires a movement able to address broader political and social processes’ (pp.6, 37).

The State and counter-terrorism

‘Anti-Muslim racism can only be understood if placed in the context of empire – that is, a system for the management and development of global capitalism under the control of powerful nation-states which both compete with and cooperate with one another’ (p.68).

The authors identify five ‘pillars’ or currents that are the main drivers of Islamophobia. They argue that the state, ‘an increasingly powerful and largely unaccountable set of institutions, with close relations with multinational technology and security companies’ is the first of these pillars. The state and particularly its counter-terrorism apparatus is ‘absolutely central to the production of contemporary Islamophobia – it is the backbone of anti-Muslim racism’ (p.8).

Arun Kundnani and Deepa Kumar explain in detail how the circulation of Islamophobia is related to US imperialism and how it can be placed within ‘longer trajectories of racisms that are embedded in the social structures in the US’. They explain how racism against Native Americans, black people, Latin Americans and asylum seekers have shaped how Muslims have been racialised. Similarly, in the UK, Kumar argues that Islamophobia is a ‘product of the complex interaction of colonialism, immigration and neoliberalism’, and that the scapegoating of Muslims post-9/11 can be traced back to a xenophobic mythology that was rampant in the political establishment and media in the 1990s (pp.40, 59).

As far as Western imperialism has needed a justification for its actions in the Middle East and an explanation for the resistance from the indigenous populations, the Orientalist ‘clash of civilisations’ argument has been recycled by neoconservatives, as well as liberal imperialists defending their understanding of liberal values and ‘modernity’. Kundnani says; ‘Ideas of a Muslim threat have been systematically and consciously circulated by Western ruling elites in order to provide cover for imperialist foreign policies’ (p.39).

Asim Qureshi argues that ‘Islamophobia as a form of racism manifests itself within the nexus of counter-terrorism’ and that the ‘provisions of counter-terrorism measures in the “law” provide a legal framework for intervention by the state’ which ‘amounts to structural violence and racism against communities’ (pp.75, 95).

Under the Terrorism Act of 2000, the UK’s counter-terrorism apparatus, born from the ‘temporary provisions’ created in response to Britain’s conflict in Northern Ireland, was put into law and on a permanent footing. Section 44 of the Act gave police the power to stop and search any person or vehicle without requiring ‘reasonable suspicion’ and the Metropolitan Police were given rolling authorisation to use these powers for almost a decade throughout Greater London.

In their guidance on Section 44, the Home Office states that officers can take into account a person’s ethnicity when deciding to stop and search an individual in response to a terrorist threat and go on to say ‘for example, some international terrorist groups are associated with particular ethnic groups, such as Muslims’. Studies show that ‘Asians in 2009/10 on average [were] over six times more likely to be stopped and searched and black people on average almost eight times more likely.’ In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights declared this unlawful (p.9).

Schedule 7 of the Act gives similar draconian powers to port and border officials, allowing them to detain and search people, again without requirement for ‘reasonable suspicion’ and those being detained are ‘not entitled to a publicly funded lawyer, are obliged to answer questions and, if detained at a police station, provide biometric data, including fingerprints and DNA’ (p.9). Studies show once again that ethnic minorities are disproportionately targeted, particularly Pakistani travellers who are over fifty times more likely to be stopped, over 130 times more likely to face over-the-hour examinations, and over 150 times more likely to be detained than a white traveller.

As part of the UK’s counter-terrorism matrix is the Channel programme, which comes under the Prevent or ‘pre-crime’ strategy. Data from the referrals to Channel show that between 2007 and 2012 over 90% of those referred (whose religion was known) were Muslims and in the following two years Muslims made up 78% of the referrals. According to the last census, Muslims only make up 4.8% of the population of England and Wales, which shows how grossly disproportionate the referrals to Channel are.

In 2015, the government introduced the Counter Terrorism and Security Act which made it a statutory duty for designated public institutions (the NHS, schools, universities, libraries and even nurseries) to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. The result was a sharp increase in the number of referrals made:

‘While there was a total of 6,306 individuals referred in the eight years between April 2007 (when Channel was established) and May 2015, between July 2015 and June 2016 there were 4,611 referrals, a 75 percent increase on the previous year. Notably, of these some 2,311 were children (including 352 under nine years old). At the time of writing, the youngest person known to have been referred to Channel was three years old’ (pp.11-12).

Under the Prevent programme the state was able to expand its counter-terrorism apparatus into private life, and at the same time the powers and extra £8million in funding that David Cameron gave to the Charities Commission in 2014 to ‘confront the menace of extremism’ made it ‘increasingly difficult for Muslims to engage in politics or public life’ (p.12).

In Chapter 4, Asim Qureshi explains the various components and intersections of the UK’s counter-terrorism matrix through the case study of Mahdi Hashi, a Somali-born UK citizen who was targeted by the security services under the counter-terrorism apparatus from the age of sixteen, which resulted in his detention, torture and the stripping of his citizenship.

Social movements from above

Social movements from above, made up of elite think tanks, policy planning and lobby groups and intellectual movements, play a significant role in the development of consensus around particular issues and in pushing for social change, in line with their ideology, directly through state institutions. These movements have aided heavily in the mainstreaming of Islamophobia. In the UK, the Conservative Prime Minister in 2016, David Cameron, openly suggested Sadiq Khan was a terrorist sympathiser for no reason other than that he is a Muslim, and the front pages of mainstream newspapers are often filled with anti-Muslim messages.

In the US, the Islamophobic ‘alt-right’ movements laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s campaign filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The appointment of Steve Bannon, the Islamophobic and anti-Semitic former editor of Breitbart, as the President’s Senior Counsellor and Chief White House Strategist for the first seven months of Trump’s Presidency, signalled the convergence of these currents into state institutions. Since Trump’s Presidency, a whole host of Islamophobic policies has been pushed through from the Muslim Ban to designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, as well as Trump giving a platform to the far-right.

The authors identify four social movements from above that are the key drivers of Islamophobia: the neoconservative movement, parts of the Zionist movement, the counter-jihad movement and some overlapping liberal and left movements (the pro-war left, New Atheists, New Secularists and some feminist currents).

In the UK, two major organisations in the neoconservative movement are the Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange. As an ‘elite social movement’, their orientation is not towards popular support but rather their terrain is policy and they ‘haunt the corridors of parliamentary buildings, government departments and policy venues’. They have been important in pushing forward Islamophobic ideas and policies (p.230).

In 2006, Douglas Murray, the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, said in a speech in the Dutch Parliament: ‘conditions for Muslims in Europe should be made harder across the board.’ The 2011 revision of the Prevent strategy towards tackling ‘non-violent extremism’ and the doubling down of surveillance in the private lives of people, particularly Muslims, as well as the 2015 Counter-terrorism and Security Act that put it into law, were clearly influenced by the neoconservative ideas that both these organisations had been propagating. In 2007, Policy Exchange published a report claiming that ‘“extremist material” was available in 25 percent of British mosques, and called on mosques to be subject to “greater regulation”’. The BBC then discovered that some of the supposed evidence had been fabricated (pp.195, 224).

The counter-jihad movement is a strand of the far-right that operates within the ‘climate of fear and mistrust, generated by governments’ counter-extremism policies, that has provided fertile ground for the paranoid conspiracy theories of the far-right counter-jihad movement’. Adopting the language of liberal counter-extremism, the counter-jihad movement’s intellectual wing overlaps with the neoconservative movement as well as the state, and the movement is able to organise grassroots action on the streets as well as exerting influence in the corridors of power (p.170).

There is a huge overlap between parts of the Zionist movement and the neoconservative movement. In Chapter 9, Sarah Marusek provides thorough empirical evidence of some of the figures who provide huge amounts of funding for both organisations that peddle Islamophobia and organisations that lobby in favour of Israel (and even to ‘community organisations’ that build illegal settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories). Similarly, the counter-jihad movement sets itself apart from the old far-right by claiming it is not anti-Semitic because it supports Israel. And, vice versa, staunch Zionist organisations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organisation of America came to the defence of Steve Bannon when he was subject to allegations of peddling anti-Semitism.

In 2013, the Henry Jackson Society through their Student Rights projects produced a report about gender segregation at Student Islamic Society events at Universities. Following the report, David Cameron and Michael Gove made statements talking about ‘hotbeds of extremism’ and calling for an end to the practice (p.172). And following that, far-right groups including Britain First and the EDL began ‘mosque invasions’ and demonstrating at universities to shut down Islamic Society events. This is an example of how these social movements from above, including elite think tanks and organs of the far-right, work in tandem with the state, its institutions and leaders to spread Islamophobia.

Challenging Islamophobia

‘Ultimately, Islamophobia is not, as liberals tend to assume, rooted in ignorance and bigotry, and the challenge for anti-racists is not only to confront wrong ideas, but also the powerful actors and movements mobilising such ideas in pursuit of certain interests’ (pp.271-2).

To conclude, it is critical for anti-racist campaigners to understand the driving forces of Islamophobia and build a strategy that takes a broader approach to tackle it at its root. As well as mobilising against the far right and overt racism, we must challenge the state and its counter-terrorism apparatus. And we must ensure that our movement is active in showing solidarity with victims of racism and marginalised communities.

When the Stop-the-War Coalition was founded in 2001, its principal aims were to oppose the war on terror and militarism, but also the inevitable rise in Islamophobia and the erosion of civil liberties. The evidence in this book goes a long way in vindicating the positions of Stop the War which correctly anticipated that the drivers of Islamophobia in the West will come from the state as a direct result of its imperialist foreign policies. As such, it is clear to me after reading this book, that Stop the War will continue to play an integral role in challenging the root causes of Islamophobia and that the stronger the anti-war movement is, the better placed we are to tackle Islamophobia.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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