Written by:
Lester Holloway

Islamophobia - 20 years on, still a challenge for us all

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In the context of Channel 4’s programme ‘What Do Muslims Really Think’, Runnymede’s Director, Dr Omar Khan, reflects on the continuing relevance of our 1997 report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All

In November 1997 the Runnymede Trust launched its report Islamophobia – A Challenge for Us All. It is recognised as the first major evidence-based report on the topic, and remains one of Runnymede’s most popular[1] – and contentious – reports.

The commission that produced the report emerged out of a recommendation from (and shared commissioners with) a previous (1994) commission and report on antisemitism: A Very Light Sleeper: the persistence and dangers of antisemitism. At the time a focus on religion was uncommon in the race equality field and more broadly, and the fact that Runnymede was and remains an independent race equality thinktank gave the Islamophobia report added credibility.

Since 1997 there have been significant developments for British Muslims and the issue of Islamophobia. But is it true, as one of the eighteen commissioners[2] of that 1997 report suggests, that everything in the report is more or less wrong? In summarising its analysis, and contrasting it with the survey commissioned for a TV programme broadcast this week, we can understand better not only what British Muslims ‘really think’, but also why Runnymede rather believes that the 1997 Islamophobia report more or less got most things right.

In the 1997 report, Runnymede offered two analytic frameworks. The first contrasted ‘open’ and ‘closed’ views of Islam, with eight distinctions clarifying the differences. These included monolithic vs. diverse, separate vs. interacting, enemy vs. partner, manipulative vs. sincere and discrimination defended vs. discrimination criticized. On balance, this framework holds up very well as an analysis of views of Islam today. The closed view of Islam, and in particular viewing it as a monolithic enemy with no internal difference or debates, inherently separate from the British nation, and incapable of being a partner in the shared project of Britishness, is still prevalent and dangerous – and dangerously false.

Closed and open views of Islam Distinctions Closed views of Islam Open views of Islam 1. Monolithic / diverse Islam seen as a single monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to new realities.Islam seen as diverse and progressive, with internal differences, debates and development.2. Separate / interacting Islam seen as separate and other – (a) not having any aims or values in common with other cultures (b) not affected by them (c) not influencing them.Islam seen as interdependent with other faiths and cultures – (a) having certain shared values and aims (b) affected by them (c) enriching them.3. Inferior / different Islam seen as inferior to the West – barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist.Islam seen as distinctively different, but not deficient, and as equally worthy of respect.4. Enemy / partner Islam seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, engaged in ‘a clash of civilisations’.Islam seen as an actual or potential partner in joint cooperative enterprises and in the solution of shared problems.5. Manipulative / sincere Islam seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.Islam seen as a genuine religious faith, practised sincerely by its adherents.6. Criticism of West rejected / considered Criticisms made by Islam of ‘the West’ rejected out of handCriticisms of ‘the West’ and other cultures are considered and debated.7. Discrimination defended / criticised Hostility towards Islam used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.Debates and disagreements with Islam do not diminish efforts to combat discrimination and exclusion.8. Islamophobia seen as natural / problematic Anti-Muslim hostility accepted as natural and ‘normal’.Critical views of Islam are themselves subjected to critique, lest they be inaccurate and unfair.


The second analytic frame of the report identified four ways in which Islamophobia manifested in British society, and specific ways in which it resulted in worse outcomes for British Muslims. These were: Exclusion (from government, employment, management and responsibility); Violence (physical assaults, vandalism of property, verbal abuse); Prejudice (in the media, in everyday conversation), and Discrimination (in employment practices, and in provision of services, notably health and education).

Nearly two decades on it’s hard to see where this analysis goes wrong. British Muslims still have higher poverty rates, and were among those worst affected by the 2015 budget. Notably, this includes both the highest rates of child poverty[3] and in-work poverty, with persistently low wages, including a shocking 18% of Bangladeshi (and 11% of Pakistani) workers earning below the minimum wage.

Furthermore, British Muslim women have the highest rates of unemployment, despite higher rates of university participation and qualifications, with examples of women removing their headscarves just to get a job interview. Hate crimes against Muslims have undoubtedly risen in the past twenty years, as the government to its credit recognises, and it’s rare indeed to see British Muslims in positions of power and influence.

The TV programme’s title, ‘What British Muslims Really Think’, and the pre-emptory media coverage of its findings, confirm the view that Muslims are fundamentally different from the rest of ‘us’, or suggest what we called a ‘closed’ view of Islam. Yet the survey asks few questions about discrimination, prejudice, exclusion, or violence, the themes that underpin the 1997 Runnymede report. The most comparable question asks whether people feel there is ‘religious harassment’ in their local area.[4]

This is a strange question for a number of reasons. First, there’s the focus on ‘religious’ and ‘harassment’. It’s not obvious that one of the most regular forms of abuse – being called a ‘paki’ – fits this description, nor does this cover discrimination in the labour market, or institutional forms of racism. In our 1997 report, we called Islamophobia a form of racism just as antisemitism is a form of racism. Semantic debates about the etymological roots of Islamophobia are no less of a distraction than the pedant’s point that Arabs are also ‘Semites’, and deflect from the key claim: that Muslims and Jews in Britain experience a form of racism, racism that we call Islamophobia and antisemitism respectively.

The ‘religious’ framing in this question is in fact indicative of a wider problem for the Channel 4 survey: an exclusive focus on British Muslims as Muslims. It’s obvious enough that British Muslims are also women, black people, gay, old, and disabled, but the other key point is that asking Muslims for their ‘real’ thinking as Muslims is bound to resound their view about what Islam requires, or what the Quran says. In this context should we really take more seriously the 31% of respondents who say that Muslim men may have multiple wives from the actual number – probably closer to 2% – of bigamous marriages in Britain?[5]

All of us – Muslim and non-Muslim, and certainly the designer of this question – know that the Quran permits multiple wives in particular circumstances, so this question is designed to drive a wedge between what a Muslim should say in virtue of being a Muslim, and their actual behaviour – modified not only in the west but in South Asia as well where less than 1% of Muslim marriages are polygamous in India (less than the rate for Hindus). And what are we to think about injunctions in Leviticus or in the Ten Commandments – or indeed about the many Christian, Jewish and Hindu believers whose behaviour may better correspond to textualist interpretations of their faith, and whose opposition to gay marriage outnumbers opposition among Muslims?[6]

This is not to suggest that these findings aren’t concerning or interesting, nor that religious prohibitions – for example the portrayal of Muhammad – conform to liberal principles of free speech, or can be wholly accommodated in liberal societies. It’s also perfectly legitimate and important to query the difference between professed belief and actual behaviour (though research doesn’t suggest we should view the former as more ‘real’), but framing all questions in a survey solely in terms of ‘Muslimness’ and applying a glossy analysis of profound and unbridgeable difference that doesn’t accurately reflect that survey’s findings isn’t a particularly fruitful way to pursue the distinction. It seems doubtful – based on their actual behaviour – that British Muslims’ views about what Islam says about the matters raised in this survey is the exclusive or decisive way in which British Muslims practically navigate these questions – or what they ‘really’ believe.

Finally, the Channel 4 survey question is notable for focusing on attitudes about ‘local’ people. The most robust survey on these matters focused on racial not religious discrimination nationally and found that one in four Bangladeshis and Pakistanis personally experienced discrimination, with half agreeing discrimination was prevalent in Britain. Why were the numbers so much smaller for the television survey? First is the focus on ‘religious harassment’ instead of ‘discrimination’ against ethnic minorities. Second is that people may be reluctant to think their community is a ‘no-go’ area full of racist thugs, or to think the worst of their neighbours. A recent BBC poll, for instance, found a large gap between those who thought racism was a problem nationally and those who felt it was prevalent locally.

Rather than asking what Muslims really believe, and designing predictably dissonant questions, we should rather focus on British Muslims’ behaviours and experiences, and indeed the attitudes of the White British majority (half of whom would be uncomfortable if a relative married a Muslim). This is not, of course, to deny, the socially conservative views among a large minority (and occasionally majority) of British Muslims, views that other surveys have previously confirmed.

Nor is it to be complacent or ignore where significant differences in opinion can lead to conflict. But in thinking about integration, or how we live together successfully in multi-ethnic Britain in the 21st century, we should focus both on the many positive findings of the Channel 4 survey, which confirmed many previous surveys in finding that British Muslims are confident and satisfied living here  (typically more so than the white British majority), as well as respond to the continuing evidence of anti-Muslim racism in Britain.

Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, continues to block the opportunities and aspirations of British Muslim men, women, boys and girls, and the analysis and extensive research of it in Runnymede’s 1997 report remains a surer guide for Britain’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith future than the partial analysis of a single poll for a TV programme.


[1] Of the 3,500 copies of the report produced in 1997, Runnymede retains less than 20. The report is Runnymede’s top search item, and is a guiding point of discussion for the Wikipedia entry on Islamophobia. Runnymede also regularly gets far-right commentary highlighting our ‘cultural Marxist’ (whatever that means) ‘invention’ of the term.[2] The Chair of the Commission was Gordon Conway. Runnymede staff Robin Richardson and Kaushika Amin led much of the work, and the other Commissioners were: Maqsood Ahmed, Akbar Ahmed, Zaki Badawi, The Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Ian Hargreaves, Phillip Lewis, Zahida Manzoor, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Trevor Phillips, Sebastian Poulter, Usha Prashar, Hamid Qureshi, Nasreen Rehman, Saba Risaluddin, Imam Abduljalil Sajid, Richard Stone, and The Revd John Webber.[3] It’s somewhat surprising that the DWP seems unaware or unconcerned that its proposals to define child poverty not in terms of income but in terms of addiction, divorce and educational attainment, will artificially result in reducing the child poverty rate for those groups with the highest child poverty rates, but the lowest rates of addiction and divorce, and rising educational attainment: British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. See Runnymede’s response to the child poverty consultation: http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/Runnymede_ChildPovResponse%20(1).pdf[4] There are questions on how far British Muslims feel they are treated fairly by public institutions. These have been previously asked, including in the Citizenship Survey and the Ethnic Minority British Election Study, and the findings are roughly similar to those previous studies.[5] Because polygamy is illegal it isn’t straightforward to estimate the numbers of people in such marriages. A previous Channel 4 programme suggested might be as many as 20,000 such marriages, or around 3-4% of marriages, while the Times upper estimate of 100,000 people living in such relationships would meant 2.7% of all Muslims are living in polygamous households.[6] In January 2016 a YouGov poll found higher opposition to gay marriage among evangelical Christians (63%) than Muslims (52%). http://indy100.independent.co.uk/article/the-majority-of-young-c-of-e-anglican-and-episcopal-christians-agree-with-samesex-marriage--ZkKps1IV6e The Christian-led Coalition for Marriage coalition gathered nearly 700,000 signatures opposing gay marriage, and suggested 62% of BME people, including 57% of Asians (presumably including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims), opposed gay marriage. Another poll for the Catholic Voices in 2012 suggested 70% opposed gay marriage. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9129750/Poll-suggests-70pc-oppose-gay-marriage.html The Evangelical Alliance continues to criticise non-‘traditional’ forms of marriage.

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