The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik insists Islamophobia doesn't exist. Is the notion of Muslims being under siege merely a myth? Shiraz Maher argues that Malik's assertion rests on a false premise, leading him to misunderstand the rising anxiety within Britain's Muslim communities.
In February's edition of Prospect, writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik insisted that Islamophobia is a misnomer fuelled by the 'victim culture' of Muslim community leaders. 'In reality, discrimination against Muslims is not as great as is often claimed', he says.
The evidence he cites certainly substantiates this claim, but also underscores how Malik has misread the phenomenon of Islamophobia. Although the Home Office revealed a 300% increase in the rate of young Asians being stopped and searched under new anti-terrorist legislation, Malik is right to urge caution. 'Dig a little deeper', he argues, 'the figures show that just 3,000 Asians had been stopped and searched in the previous year under the Terrorism Act. Of these, probably half were Muslim. In other words, around 1,500 Muslims out of a population of at least 1.6m had been stopped under the terror laws; hardly a case of the police targeting every Muslim.' He is also right to acknowledge that in the year following September 11th only 344 incidents of racially motivated attacks were recorded against Muslims.
If all this holds true, then why are Muslims complaining so often about prejudice or being under siege? Clearly there is a palpable feeling of fear permeating through Britain's Muslim communities, which cannot be understood merely through an examination of stop and search figures or other, similar, empirical sources.
Although Muslims in Britain have not been the victims of widespread physical attack, since 9/11 incessant tirades in the media have served only to heighten their anxieties. While Ground Zero still smouldered, Melanie Philips, the officious Daily Mail columnist, explained, 'Since most of the mass immigration now convulsing Europe is composed of Muslims, it is therefore hardly surprising that anti-immigrant feeling is largely anti-Muslim feeling. The sheer weight of numbers, plus the refusal to assimilate to western values, makes this an unprecedented crisis for western liberalism. The crisis is forcing us to confront the fundamental questions of what constitutes a country, national identity and the very nature of a liberal society. But the problem is that it [Islam] does not just oppose libertinism. Having never had a "reformation", which would have forced it to make an accommodation with modernity, it is fundamentally intolerant and illiberal. As a result, it directly conflicts with western values in areas such as the treatment of women, freedom of speech, the separation of private and public values, and tolerance of homosexuality. These are all liberal fundamentals and are not negotiable.'
Herein lies the answer Malik missed. The real point of difference between Muslims and the wider society lies in the conflicting value systems of both. While a number of commentators and politicians have considered this issue, their careless rhetoric on it has negated the possibility of an open exchange of views, for many Muslims. Although Malik insists that what we need is 'a frank, open debate about Muslims and their relationship to wider British society', the likelihood of this will remain remote while commentators seem happier to denigrate than to debate.
Although the American scholar Bernard Lewis has criticised aspects of Islam in What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, he also demonstrates how Islam extended women the right to choose their own husband, to divorce, to inheritance and to commercial rights some 1300 years before these ideals became common currency in the West. This is an approach that invites debate and belies the kind of arrogant sensationalism now typifying western discourse on Islam.
Polly Toynbee, whose comments Malik calls 'liberal criticism', caused outrage when she argued that, 'The top-to-toe burka, with its sinister, airless little grille, is more than an instrument of persecution, it is a public tarring and feathering of female sexuality. It transforms any woman into an object of defilement too untouchably disgusting to be seen. More moderate versions of the garb - the dull, uniform coat to the ground and the plain headscarf - have much the same effect.' She was not alone in expressing her disgust at the Islamic headscarf and found these sentiments being shared by the Prime Minister's wife. 'Nothing more I think symbolises the oppression of the woman than the Burka' said Cherie Blair.
Islamophobia should not be used as a cover to prevent genuine questions being put to Islam, even if they appear critical. A separation must be made between vitriol and sincere inquiry, but the media and politicians should engage in the debate on Islam in a responsible fashion, although this looks unlikely to happen any time soon. Last year the fictional BBC series, Spooks, depicted an Islamic terrorist cell based in Birmingham actively planning atrocities. In the reprisals that followed, Birmingham's Central Mosque was vandalised by groups of angry youths who sprawled 'kill the suicide bombers' on mosque walls.
The duplicity of media coverage about Islam makes the prospect of serious debate difficult and is leading Muslims to isolate themselves further from the wider society. While this is clearly undesirable, there is a growing perception among Muslims that the media represents an intrinsically anti-Islamic leviathan. Believing the playing field to be anything but level, Muslims feel the only course of action left open to them is often to disengage from the social discourse about Islam altogether.
A case in the sleepy Pakistani village of Meerwala in June 2002 exemplifies why Muslims regard their situation as being so hopeless. Four men were ordered by a tribal council to rape the sister of a young man suspected of having an illicit affair with one of the village girls. Her story flared up into a global media circus with pointed coverage in the English press.
Despite two members of the tribal council and the four rapists all being found guilty and sentenced to death in specially convened courts, the Evening Standard's Brian Sewell concluded that, 'The fact remains that Islam has always been militant; the urge to conquer and convert began with the great imperial thrust of Mohammed himself... And what will Islam gain? It will secure the old certainties of poverty, disease, the suffocating conformism compelled by the beatings, amputations and hideous executions of Shari'ah law.'
The incident was immediately juxtaposed against a culture of female degradation, the subtext of which implied Islam was the source of such subjugation. Pakistani journalist Kamila Shamsie was outraged by this insinuation when she was asked to produce a radio show on the issue, exploring 'the culture behind it' and consequently refused.
While Muslims were shocked by case, which clearly contravened the tenets of the Islamic Shariah, they were also concerned by the manner in which the incident was covered. While the case in Pakistan was still being concluded a similar story emerged in Belgium but went virtually unreported. A 37-year-old man was found guilty of having sex with his daughter, aged 11, and then forcing her into prostitution. He was convicted of abusing the girl along with 19 other men in the rural town of Saint Ode, who included the family doctor, a lumberjack, a car repairman and the local shopkeeper. The Belgian judge, more lenient than his Pakistani counterparts, sentenced the guilty to sentences ranging between six months and five years, with some sentences being partially suspended.
The hostile rhetoric of the media has not failed to resonate with politicians either. Islamophobia is becoming increasingly fashionable across Europe's metropolitan centres. Both Jean Marie Le Pen and Pim Fortuyn campaigned on bitter anti-Islamic platforms and enjoyed limited success during recent elections in their respective countries. Similarly, a poster declaring 'By the time you retire, Denmark will be a majority-Muslim nation' helped the Danish leader, Pia Kjaersgaard, win a place in the country's ruling coalition.
The climate created by this hostility towards Islam has had a particularly injurious, although hidden, effect on the lives of countless Muslims. Writing in a column for The Guardian, Aisha Khan, highlighted the typical dilemma she faces along with countless other Muslims living in the West. 'I am too weak to wear the veil, too scared that doors will close and that opinions will be formed long before friendships are. Islam doesn't oppress me; fear does. I live a half-life, a double-life: not quite a Muslim and not quite a Westerner'. she says. She goes on to say, 'I have left university and now feel better equipped to cope with irreconcilable differences of being British and Muslim. You can be born and raised in this country, benefit from its education and live freely and comfortably thanks to the solid British economy. But you can also be oppressed. Stay silent when your religion is being lambasted in the press. Look on helplessly when Muslims are being persecuted in their homeland and then watch them being punished by the British Asylum system. Stuff your veil into your handbag because you'll never get that job if you cover your head. Sacrifice prayer times and fasting to keep up with the crowd and stay in with the boss.'
Of course, the picture need not be completely dreary. Last year, while filming a drama for Channel 4, producers of the film 'Yasmin', which follows a Muslim woman struggling to deal with the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments after 9/11, found something startling. At one point in the film Yasmin is walking home and is attacked by a group of youths. The filming of this scene was repeatedly disturbed on several occasions when members of the public, oblivious to the dramatisation of events, intervened to stop what they thought was an actual assault taking place. Significantly, the headscarf wearing Yasmin was repeatedly saved by non-Muslim passers by. Channel 4 eventually aired this scene unedited in their final piece although it remained unscripted - and inspiring.
By only examining incidents such as this, Malik failed to acknowledge the existence of an Islamophobic climate. The climate of fear and intimidation in which Muslims live has been contrived through the West's political culture, and is therefore an intellectual not social construct. In practise this means that although Muslims face no immediate threat, the fear of being branded a terrorist or suffering arbitrary detention without due legal process continues to haunt them.
Perhaps the most worrying development however is the appalling treatment meted out to Muslim prisoners in the West. Despite the filibustering of the Bush administration it is now widely acknowledged that American forces are routinely employing advanced torture techniques on their captives. Since 2002, over 34 Iraqis have died in US custody in addition to five Afghans. Of this, at least nine of the deaths have been highlighted as 'deliberate' by independent coroners who cite strangulation, smothering, asphyxiation, blunt force trauma and multiple gunshot wounds as the causes of death. A further eight were deemed to be 'justified homicides'.
Kenan Malik’s programme, Are Muslims Hated?, shown on Channel Four (continuing its tradition of resistance to Muslim self-identification), argued that Islamophobia is not just an exaggeration, but a myth.Claims that Britain has returned to a time reminiscent of the 'bad old days of the seventies', during which racially motivated murder and violence was common are, according to Malik, exaggerated. In fact, the bogeyman of Islamophobia, he claims, is 'being used to stifle the criticism of Islam'. Malik begins this half hour programme by contrasting the extreme racial violence of the late-1970s and early-1980s with the comparatively violence-free reaction post-September 11. This is true - there has not been widespread violence against British Muslims since September 11. But, this is to miss what academic studies on the changing nature of racial prejudice pointed out about two decades ago, that racial discrimination became subtle after it had been stigmatised and made illegal. Prejudice hasn’t disappeared, it’s just applied differently now.
So, what of the charge that Islamophobia is stifling freedom of expression? Two recent cases where the charge was well founded were the well-publicised newspaper columns of Robert Kilroy-Silk and Harry (aka Will) Cummins. Both were desperately prejudiced in their writing, Cummins used the now notorious comparison: 'Muslims, like all dogs…' The rather worrying point is that both men managed to harbour extreme prejudice and simultaneously occupy important positions in British cultural life. And this is the main point.
There still remains an almost unbelievably universal denial of the British Muslim presence within the national culture. This is an unbelievable state of affairs, because Islam and Muslims are the object of so much discussion and yet their voices are woefully under-represented in the national public debate. Which broadsheet has a Muslim commentator that reflects street level realities of Muslim life (please don't point to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown)? Compare that absence with how much column space has been spent theorising and pontificating about Muslims in the last five years? This is, today, right now, in the language of liberal political theory, an inegalitarian outcome. Malik himself refers to some self-editing that he was obliged to perform for an article that he wrote during the Rushdie affair. Well, at least The Independent printed it.
So back to the programme, and its conclusion that Islamophobia is a myth. Well, how to explain the low educational attainment and high rates of employment within the Muslim community? Is there an anti-Muslim aspect to this discrimination? Or can it all be reduced to race and class? Malik approached some newspapers and organisations to ask them about the lack of evidence in relation to violent crime against Muslims.
Certainly, it is a very good thing that few have been murdered since September 11, but anecdotal evidence of other expressions of prejudice, as we all know, remains common. Unfortunately, the lobbyists were unable to mount a strong argument. So if it is the case that anti-Muslim prejudice is rife, then where is the authoritative collection of data? There are at least three bodies working in this area: the Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Forum against Islamophobia and Racism and the Muslim Council of Britain. There are also several magazines and newspapers. So where is the constant monitoring?
Do Muslim spokespersons exaggerate the extent of the problem? Though this is characteristic of all identity politics movements, it would be better if these spokespersons adopted a more evidenced-based approach. However, Malik himself couldn’t resist a tendency to exaggerate towards the end of the programme when he linked the fatwa against Rushdie and the murder of Theo van Gogh to raise fears about a Muslim subversion of freedom of expression. Well at least the paranoia is evenly distributed. To answer Malik’s question: ‘Are Muslim hated?’ Well, of course not - he should
I first came across Kenan Malik whilst studying for my Sociology degree, when
one of his books happened to be on my reading list for a module. The Meaning
of Race, his well respected offering, focuses on different aspects of
race, racism and the variety of ethnic groups. It was, I thought, quite free
from bias. Though I'm not sure I can say the same for Are Muslims Hated?,
which he presented on Channel 4 last night
The programme seemed to be a personal account of his attitude towards Muslims rather than the views of general British people. Early on he announces himself as an 'unbeliever' with a hint of snobbery which seemed to have suggested that he is that bit better than us mere believers. It seemed that Malik already made his mind up before the programme started which I found quite unprofessional for a social researcher.
But the programme did address some valid points. The main point he makes is that the term 'Islamophobia' seems to be benefiting political groups and media agencies than the Muslim community itself. I couldn't agree more with that statement.
The Derby example seemed to be a clear example of this, where a statue of a wild pig in a park was removed for it was thought to be offensive to the Muslim community. The irony was that the very people the wild pig was meant to offend were not even consulted about its removal. Political correctness seemed to go too far and Malik stresses that point quite clearly. Unfortunately, once the statue was removed attacks on the Asian community within that area in Derby began to increase.
The programme also focuses on how Polly Toynbee was put next to Nick Griffin in a mock award ceremony for Islamaphobes, by Islamic Human Rights Commission. Whereas I do not agree with Polly Toynbee, I think her being put next to Nick Griffin quite odd. Such commentators are present in every society and as hurtful as it may seem to us we need to accept that they have a view point - a view point that can be challenged by any learned Muslim.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown discussed why Muslims are behind in education and jobs; but it isn't Islamophobia that is the cause, but backwards mentality in sending young girls back home for marriage and breeding another generation of children who will follow a similar path. I think this could have been discussed further, but judging on time, I understand it would not have been covered. I think what Brown was talking about was how young Muslims have become part of a blame culture which is similar to the "Is it because I is Black?" attitude.
If the programme had been on longer as a series or a one hour slot, it would appeared more analytical and less opinionated. I really expected a lot more from Kenan Malik with this programme. It seemed like he was getting opinions from people to fit in with his world-view. His questioning came across as more sympathetic to Toynbee, without drawing out what she said that irked IHRC, than towards the Muslim groups.
There also seemed to be a general dismissal of the idea that hatred against Muslims has to result in personal attacks or abuse that gets reported. Not enough credence is given to the idea that many Muslims have simply accepted this as part and parcel of living in Britain post-9/11 and carry on with their life.
His analysis in Disunited Kingdom last year was a lot stronger, where he focused on the myth of multiculturalism. Even though I believed that Malik was not conclusive within that programme; he did dedicate time, effort and detail.
I think in general this programme is a lesson to Muslims as well as non Muslims that our community needs to be more responsible for their actions. It is only then that the real haters of Muslims can be rooted out and exposed.