Question Time: What’s going wrong in the public discourse on British Muslims? Prof. Mona Siddiqui and Omar Khan discuss

By Myriam Francois|July 22, 2015|Question Time|1 comments

In our first instalment of the MuslimWise series on “What’s going wrong in the public discourse on British Muslims?“, two of the UK’s leading thinkers  – Professor Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh  and Omar Khan, Runnymede Trust, offer their thoughts:

Omar Khan (Runnymede Trust): The public discourse on Islam: a lack of British values?

Almost twenty years ago Runnymede published the report ‘Islamophobia: a challenge for us all’, produced by a commission whose creation was a key recommendation of our previous report on anti-Semitism ‘A Very Light Sleeper: the persitence and dangers of antisemitism’. A key framework for that report was to contrast ‘closed’ and ‘open’ views of Islam, a framing clarified through eight further distinctions. To the extent that our public discourse describes Muslims as a monolithic, inherently separate, inferior and manipulative enemy and denies the validity of criticism of the West, discrimination, and Islamophobia, it continues to express what we called the closed view of Islam that hinders the equal participation of British Muslims in our society.

Runnymede continues to argue that Islamophobia is a kind of racism. We summarised these consequences in terms of exclusion, discrimination, violence and prejudice, and these remain key challenges for British society to realise the lofty ideals of democracy and fairness. For example, people with an Asian or African sounding surname have to send twice as many CVs just to get an interview even where they have the same qualifications as white British people. In our All Party Parliamentary Group report on Black and minority ethnic female unemployment, we heard from women who changed their surname or removed their hijab in interviews in the hope of improving their chances of getting an interview, unsurprising given that Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have the highest unemployment rates of any ethnic group. There are a mere handful of Muslims in position of power or influence in Britain, whether in terms of politics, economics, the arts or the charitable world. Physical assaults and verbal abuse appear to be on the rise, while well over 40% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani children live in poverty (compared to 15% of white children). And while some explain away employment disadvantage because of the foreign or low qualifications or poor English of immigrants, ethnic penalties in the labour market are as bad for British-born Bangladeshi males as for their overseas-born fathers.

The three most common responses to the above have been to deny the statistics, to blame British Muslims for their circumstances, or to suggest that this has nothing to do with religion or Islam. While it’s certainly true that many Arabs, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Somalis experience a more ‘old fashioned’ form of colour-based racism, researchers have also found a separate ‘Muslim penalty’ over and above their ethnic penalties in the labour market. Furthermore, definitions of race and racism have always noted their socially constructed nature, and the role of cultural difference in racist discourses, and so it’s never been a very good argument to say ‘Islam isn’t a race’. ‘Race’ has always been a socially constructed category (and not just for Muslims, but for Black people and Jews too), but that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t have real effects in the world for its victims.

A recurring example of the prevalence of ‘closed’ views of Islam is the persistent questioning of British Muslims’ values. Despite countless academic research showing British Muslims strongly identify with Britain  – more so than other ethnic groups, including White British people – and that they are more confident in British democratic institutions, their commitment to ‘British values’ remains in question. In fact, Maria Sobolewska’s work suggests religiosity among Muslims is strongly correlated with British identity, and higher trust of institutions, more so than Christians.

As a researcher, it’s deeply discouraging to see zombie arguments resuscitated again and again in the face of all evidence, but for British Muslims the effect is obviously much deeper, questioning whether they will ever be viewed as equal citizens, and trivialising the role of economic and social exclusion. It’s perhaps worth noting here that White British people are the group least likely to marry outside their own group, and show rising concerns about the presence of Muslims, while they are as likely (15%) as other groups to agree that violence can be a legitimate form of political protest.

In terms of integrating into British values, then, it appears a minority in all ethnic groups reject fairness, tolerance and democracy. But I want to conclude by highlighting a final value that isn’t heard enough, namely racial equality. On the day the Prime Minister gave his speech on countering terrorism, his government announced welfare reform changes that will inevitably increase child poverty among Bangladeshis and Pakistani households, and indeed increase racial inequalities for most BME groups. Perhaps inadvisably, he suggested that those who note the persistence of poverty and discrimination are ‘justifying grievances’ at the same time as his government implemented measures that would further impoverish Muslim infants for being a third born child.

It is deeply unfortunate that Cameron’s reference to ‘grievances’ is more widely shared, as it minimises the real harms of discrimination and implies British Muslims are subjectively complaining about non-issues, and doing so to justify terrorism. This leads to a wider and final point, namely that the dominance of closed views of Islam has real consequences in the world, and not just in the heads and hearts of British Muslims. Because of these views, teachers assume Muslim children are less creative, employers refuse to shortlist Muslim candidates, or wonder whether they can work together in teams, police disproportionately stop and search Muslim men, and people are subject to innuendo, abuse and violence on public buses, in the street and at work.

What, then, can be done to overcome this public discourse? We need to challenge on a variety of fronts, but one point Runnymede would emphasize is the need for British Muslims to work together with others on a common platform of anti-racism. Some anti-racists do need to understand better the nature of Islamophobia, but by bringing a wider group of people together to challenge racial injustice we can more effectively ensure that the value of racial equality is advanced in 21st century Britain, for British Muslims and for other disadvantaged ethnic minorities too.

Prof. Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh:

Radicalisation, counterterrorism and extremism – these words have a complex and varied history but today they are all used by the media,  politicians and commentators to define and explain one community – Muslims. Yes, we all know there is no such thing as one Muslim community, but as we increasingly view issues to do with Muslims through the prism of terror,  trying to inject some nuance and complexity into the debates, often polarises both the Muslims and the media.

That there existed cultural differences between the various minority groups in the UK had been accepted for the last 50 years; indeed that was the vaguely defined ethos of multiculturalism. But 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005 branded multiculturalism a failure and in particular the Islamic component of multiculturalism. It  was thought that the bombings were the result of a deep malaise amongst many second or third generation Muslims who felt no loyalty to Britain. The question amongst the population at large and the policy makers was whether Muslims hold different values which will inevitably clash with the values of liberal democracies and civil societies of the west? When you add the words such as extremism or radicalism and they gradually become part of everyday language in the media and for policy makers, whole communities are then seen quite simply as a problem.

A minority but significant religion in the west, Islam has recently come under fierce criticism as a faith which nurtures intolerant theological orientations and its frequent clashes with the freedoms of the west is based on a stringent adherence to isolationist principles of shari`a. The most recent examples of the Trojan horse case in Birmingham, the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, have convinced many that for all their talk of integration, many Muslim communities neither understand nor appreciate the software of pluralist societies. The recent focus on citizenship has assumed a new urgency as to how can governments create and nurture a sense of citizenship amongst ethnic groups and especially amongst Muslims. In the classical Islamic theological and juridical literature the changing political contexts demanded an appraisal of what constituted right belief and right action on matters where loyalty to faith might conflict with loyalty to state. But today the issue of citizenship has become politically charged as a result of a growing perception that many people are just citizens of a state by birth or passport but feel no engagement with society as a whole; not just in political participation but in their sense of emotional and intellectual belonging.

The question for me is that this debate has acquired a new focus today with questions over the place of religion in public life and more specifically the place of Islam in liberal democracies. I propose that this is essentially a debate about ethics rather than religious truths. The way to enter this debate is not with a victim or closed mentality, or in the hope of finding a single answer in classical texts. Classical juridical literature does not contain the appropriate equivalents of words like liberalism, human rights, or democratic pluralism, the global vocabulary of the modern age. With new contexts emerges new language and one of the biggest challenges for many Muslims who reflect on these issues is the alignment of text to context.

Notwithstanding the current fears around terrorism, the power struggles in so many Muslim countries, there is the reluctance even fear of diverse ways of thinking and living within some Islamic societies. There is also a propensity amongst many to undermine any kind of intellectualism, critical inquiry about beliefs, traditions and institutions with the label of westernisation and regard only certain cultural norms as the true expression of Islam.  These are not symptoms of a yearning or a nostalgia but a malaise which has made Islam appear a social and political problem in the eyes of many outside and inside the faith. Muslims should not see themselves at war with the media, because the media is not making everything up; there are issues and we need to recognise this. Thinkers, writers, artists, scholars and economic producers must all be committed to injecting new dynamism, thoughts have their own life force and no dominating ideology can encapsulate the richness of Islam. We need the freedom to think the unthought as the late Muhammad Arkoun said, because otherwise we remain intellectually and emotionally trapped in certain ways of thinking and speaking. If we don’t we are only deceiving ourselves that there is no problem. And long after the media spotlight has disappeared, many Muslims will still be left struggling with what it means to be British and Muslim.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her/his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of SOAS or the CIS.




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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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