Understanding Islamophobia

by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Samia Aziz

Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed and Samia Aziz discuss Islamophobia – its nature, causes and dynamics, and how it can be resisted.

First published: 14 September, 2010 | Category: Culture, Racism

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London and has taught at the University of Sussex and Brunel University. His most recent book is a User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation and he has also written extensively on Western foreign policy and terrorism. In addition he maintains a blog called The Cutting Edge.

In this interview, Nafeez and Samia Aziz discuss Islamophobia – its nature, causes and dynamics, and how it can be resisted.

The term ‘Islamophobia’ has only become part of common political vocabulary in the last two decades. First of all, can you tell us what this word means?

Islamaphobia refers to a state of mind or a set of beliefs which characterise Muslims in a regressive and derogatory way, resulting in them being discriminated against. That’s putting it very simply. First of all, it’s the targeting of Muslims as a specific group. Furthermore, it’s a set of ideas about them, which are usually mistaken, inaccurate and can be harmful. These then lead to forms of behaviour which are discriminatory in the social, political, economic and cultural realms, manifesting itself in a number of ways.

In what ways does Islamophobia manifest itself?

Islamophobia can manifest itself in lots of ways. Firstly, there are latent, institutional ways, which are sometimes difficult to detect. These can be seen in economic statistics about the conditions of Muslims. Approximately 69% of South Asian Muslims live in poverty in Britain, which is undoubtedly an extraordinary figure. It is the result of inequitable social structures, which don’t just affect Muslims, but affect a number of communities, such as the white working class, and asylum seekers. This significant figure is not something that can be put down to conspiracy. In Western societies particular ethnic communities tend to face the brunt of these inequitable structures, and are thus marginalized. It is commonly referred to as institutional discrimination. Even though as a society we have renounced racism, we still find large sections of the ethnic minority populations being socially excluded as they lack access to the same goods and services that other members of society do.

Then you have more obvious cases of Islamophobia, in terms of acts of violence and hostility against Muslims that are often recorded by the police. Various organisations such as the Islamic human rights commission keep track of such occurrences. It’s a very overt form of discrimination and islamophobic ideas which results in Muslims finding it difficult to go about their everyday lives. People are saying funny things about them, and they are being harassed, attacked, and assaulted in the streets. So those are two kinds of examples of the cases we’re looking at.

Has it become more intense recently?

Absolutely, it’s been rising inexorably. The Islamic Human Rights commission argues in their 2004 report that 90% of Muslims they surveyed, in a large sample size of approximately 1000, said they had been discriminated against for being Muslim. So it could be institutional, could be subtle, in employment, housing, education or stuff just happening as you’re out on the streets with people giving you odd looks and stares, making derogatory comments about you, or perhaps even assaulting you physically. Many studies, including those from the home office, have shown that we have had a massive rise in acts of hostility towards Muslims in the last decade, of 70-80%. Since 9/11 and 7/7 it’s got worse, and it’s continuing.

What are the factors underlying the growth of Islamophobia?

I think it’s a very complex thing. The obvious thing is the occurrence of terrorist attacks. Its clear there has been a spike in hostility towards Muslims after the acts of 9/11 and 7/7. The question of course is whether it is a rational response to the attacks. What is of concern is the way the state frames the most rational response and the way it tries to understand and convey the narrative around these attacks.  Often the state singles out Muslim communities for surveillance, in terms of them being threatening. That very symptom-led response feeds into the media. There’s very little critical questioning about the government’s responses, or about foreign policy, our intelligence policies or our security measures. This leaves the public with a very simple narrative: “there are these Muslims who hate our way of life.” At the same time, even while Muslim communities are securitized wholesale, governments often attempt to absolve themselves of blame by making banal public declaration that they believe most Muslims are good and don’t endorse terrorism, and that Islam itself does not endorse terrorism. But such PR efforts are not commensurate with the actual state-intelligence or military response, which still disproportionately targets Muslim communities, and which in turn fuels the media’s demonization of them as a perpetual source of threat. It turns into this vicious cycle which misinforms most people who probably haven’t had many interactions with many Muslims. Their only interaction with a Muslim will be through their television screen or through what they hear on the radio, or what they read in The Sun. So that’s the problem, is that the first bit of information they’re getting about Muslims is that they’ve committed a terrorist attack, and there is a danger, and they have these dangerous beliefs, and there’s Bin laden and Al Qaeda, and they’re here in this country, there’s 2,000 Muslims ready to attack. That’s all the public are hearing, they’re not hearing anything else. So it feeds into that sense of fear and anxiety. It’s very easy then to look at Muslims and pick on the stereotypes.

I think the other thing is these deeper structural issues at play. I see the economic crisis as symptomatic of a fundamental breakdown of the neoliberal global economy. We’re facing climate change, energy depletion, food crises, and economic recessions. On the back of that, we’ve also got these escalating fears of security, terrorism and violent conflict. So all of these things are converging at the same time, and it’s established that when you have ample social crisis, that generates anxieties, social groups often tend to construct ‘others’; they ‘otherise’ communities. Whereas previously you may have had a very cohesive community, suddenly it becomes easy to pinpoint a group of others and mark them out as different, and project ‘blame’ for our social ills on to this now ‘excluded’ group. There is now a so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ where we see Muslims being blamed. Instead of thinking about a big transformation of the economy, there is this knee-jerk tendency to say the problem is concerning Muslims. For example, one of the reasons we are in Iraq and have an interventionist foreign policy is an over-dependency ON oil. Rather than looking at that, people will be talking about how these Muslims are attacking us – this ‘otherisation’ process. I think all of these things combine to create a very strong vortex of a form of radicalisation, where a majority host-community starts becoming radicalised and has very very dangerous ideas about its minority communities.

Do you think immigration policies have a role to play in the growth of Islamophobia?

Well, I think immigration is a really convenient bogy-man. If you compare levels of immigration in Europe and Britain, more people have emigrated from the UK into Europe and elsewhere, than have come into Britain. The ratio is a third or a quarter of the number of people who are leaving, are coming in. So that’s not an issue. The issue is why immigration is framed in a way that it’s a problem? Again, the answer has to do with structural factors. Is the problem with unemployment? So is it that immigrants are coming and taking our jobs? Or is it because actually our economy is structured in such a way that it systematically generates unemployment? I think Marx got a lot of things right in his critique of capitalism, and he has been borne out in hindsight by some of the things he said. One of the things he said was that capitalism systematically generates boom and bust crises, through the incentive of profit for the elite few who own the vast majority of productive resources. The most recent crash is a good example of how our system inevitably creates crises and therefore unemployment. There was a situation where there was a massive accumulation of capital where banks were amassing huge profits. But the banks had no new outlets to invest because we have gone everywhere in the world and done every possible speculative venture you could imagine. They were running out of places to go and keep that rate of profit increasing, and it has to keep on increasing if the economy is to grow, and the economy has to grow otherwise you’ll have business failure and collapse. So the limits had been reached on that front. At the same time you have the banking system lending insanely to anybody it could to generate profits on the back of these really dodgy financial instruments. Then you had these new firms coming in and insuring those financial instruments, agreeing to make them safe, but those firms having no money to insure it in the first place. So a massive bubble was generated by various structures within capitalism that make profit maximisation behaviour rational, because if you don’t continue going inexorably, your business will fail. It makes very predatory forms of behaviour normal and necessary to survive. What happens with that is it inevitably comes a point where it does fail and it collapses.

So the claim that the crisis is because immigrants are taking our jobs, is completely absurd. Immigration was a major issue in the party political debates in the election period, putting it on the table as a serious problem. But it’s neither here nor there when it comes to what is wrong with the economy. We really should be looking at the banking system, ownership structures and distribution of resources in the economy.

Is Islamophobia a distinct form of racism? Is it different in essence from racism against black people, Irish people, Jews, etc?

There is social science literature around Islamophobia now which most commentators and media pundits aren’t aware of. It’s based on peer review discussions that have been going on for more than a decade before 9/11, done by experts who have been studying racism and discrimination. They think Islamophobia is a distinctive concept and should be recognized as a distinctive form of racism. It’s not highly distinct in its dynamics and is very similar to racism against other communities. What makes it distinctive is the way in which those dynamics impact on communities. You find for example the way in which black communities undergo racism, then become slightly different to the way Muslim communities undergo racism. Black people will be discriminated against in certain ways and will face similar forms of discrimination by the police for example. They may have similar difficulties economically but levels of hostility towards black people are very different compared to levels of hostility towards Muslims. Levels of crime and assault against Muslims communities are on a massive systematic scale. There are a range of stories about Muslims being attacked, mosques being attacked and women having their scarves torn off. That sort of stuff isn’t happening to black communities at the moment.

The issue of terrorism changes the game and takes it outside the way other communities who face racism are dealt with because it is focused on the survival of the state and public. It justifies the use of emergency powers which aren’t enacted against other communities, such as anti-terror legislation. Ethnic minorities on the whole are suffering disproportionately, but Muslim communities overwhelmingly are suffering. You see that it’s racism, but it’s a very distinctive form of racism, because it’s targeting Muslims specifically, not just ethnic minorities or immigrants in general.

But if there are parallels between the experiences Muslims have, and those that other minority groups have, is there not a danger that specifically using the term ‘Islamophobia’ might create division?

The term is originated as an academic concept and nobody intended it to be used as a popular term. The reason it came about was precisely to capture these distinctive things. What makes it distinctive is precisely the security issue. Once the state starts saying it’s a matter of life and death and labelling it as a security issue, you have this process of securitisation where the state is able to use extraordinary measures, and go outside the normal Rule of Law on the basis of saving lives. This is apparent in extraordinary rendition and participation in torture. Muslims have become caught up in this security justified discrimination which is combined with the other latent inequities in society. It’s created a unique dynamic in the way Muslim communities become targeted, which social scientists try to capture. They suggested it’s a distinctive subset of racism, and named it Islamophobia. But it’s important people recognise that from an epistemological and sociological perspective, you’re trying to gain an understanding of how society works. If you don’t understand what Islamophobia actually is, which I think media pundits who play with the term don’t, then it is seen as discriminatory to others, by specifically highlighting the problems Muslims face. I think there is something to be said here, in the sense that when you talk to Muslim communities, there is this sense of victim hood, and it’s often very counterproductive. There is some objective justification for it, but it can often be very dehabilitating, if you’re always looking at society through the lens of: I’m a victim, and everyone hates me because I’m Muslim and I can’t get involved because I’m a an outsider.  It creates a sense of ‘I’m different, I’m an other with a separate identity’ it confuses Muslims, and exacerbates their whole identity crisis that a lot of Muslims go through.

So it can be counter-productive but, you know, the term is here to stay. As I’ve said, what made the term prominent is its social science grounding. Rather than ditching the term, we need to clarify understanding of actually what it means and what makes it distinctive. It’s not about trying to make Muslims this perennial victim, but it’s trying to say the racism Muslims experience is slightly unique and different. That doesn’t in any way belittle the terrible experiences that other communities go through. The security angle makes it distinctive. Really, it’s a semantic and academic distinction, not a fundamental issue which says that these communities are completely different, but one that acknowledges how Muslim communities are experiencing discrimination in a different way, due to securitization.

What would you conclude is the best way to tackle the issue of Islamophobia?

That’s a huge question. One of the predictions I’ve made in my book is that on a ‘business as usual’ model, there is no doubt that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. It’s very much to do with this security dynamic I mentioned earlier. I looked at defence planning documents for America and Britain, looking at global crises and how they have impacted security issues over the last few years. Defence planners understand that worsening climate change, food production and resource shortages will create a potential for violent conflict. Furthermore, they believe that the impact of these crises will be escalated in Muslim majority regions. They’ve been looking at North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, concluding they are of most strategic interest because of their hydrocarbon resources, large populations and their role in the economy. They’re predicting that these populations will have massive demographic growth in the next 10-20 years, with a 90% youth bulge. Thus they won’t be able to cope with the crises, and so, the planners conclude, young populations are going to be vulnerable to radicalisation. There will be migrations to different regions in order to escape problems, which will create more calamities. It’s difficult to see whether some of these population projections are grounded in any serious social science analysis. These defence planning records are public documents, they’re written by defence analysts who earn salaries. They are doing it within a mindset, an ideology and a structure which has a certain worldview with certain imperatives and incentives. They openly recognise that global inequalities will increase, and the vast majority of people will suffer more as a consequence. They assume, in true neoliberal fashion, that these consequences are merely the inevitable results of an optimal system that should not be change.

What are feeding overt manifestations of Islamophobia are these latent institutional, imperialist, unconscious racist ideas about the way the world works. My view is that it isn’t all doom and gloom. More and more people are disillusioned with the way the system works. They may not understand the deeper issues about what’s wrong, but they’re looking at the economic crises and concluding that the banks are corrupt and only concerned with making profit. They’re looking at the parliamentary system and concluding that the system is broken and that MPs are corrupt. They’re looking at the Middle East situation and having doubts about what Israel is doing in the occupied territories, and its actions can’t be justified. They’re looking at Iraq and saying that maybe we didn’t lie deliberately, but we didn’t need to go to war. They have accepted that at the minimum it was a tremendous mistake (though that’s still a far cry from admitting there were processes of corruption and attempts to conceal from the public). So it is an interesting place to be politically, because there is an increase in scepticism. All that’s needed now is the social movement, with projects like NLP and other policy movements on the left to start articulating a vision about what an alternative society should look like.

One thing my book does, is go through what another world would look like, structurally. I don’t try to lay out a blueprint, but I argue that there are certain reforms we need to think about if we’re going to get to the other side safely. There’s no doubt that terrible things are going to happen, and as individuals we can’t stop them. It’s easy to be pessimistic about that. I think all of these crises are symptoms of a massive civilisation transition. Industrial civilisation cannot outlast the 21st century. That’s an empirical fact. Something will take its place, and it’s up to us whether it’s regressive, some dystopian totalitarian society, or something else – we have an unprecedented opportunity to dream-weave and be a little bit utopian. Some people are projecting that Europe will be 50% dependent on renewable energy by 2030 without any government influence. So some change is happening, if too slowly. We need to remember that capitalism wasn’t a ready-made ideology that replaced feudalism. It emerged organically. That will happen with this new post-carbon civilisation. It will have to emerge organically from social movements. In the end, I’m a short term pessimist and a long term optimist.

Wouldn’t one way of tackling prejudice and discrimination against Muslims be to insist that attacks on Muslims are, overwhelmingly, attacks on members of the working class which weaken and divide the working class as a whole? This would have the advantage of uniting ordinary Muslims and non-Muslims, highlighting their shared economic and social interests.

Yes, absolutely. It’s definitely clear that Muslims are being targeted overwhelmingly because of structural dynamics and these escalating pressures are a symptom-led approach of dealing with converging crises. Paul Rogers calls it ‘Liddism’ – instead of dealing with what’s going wrong in the box, you just keep the lid on it. In the end, it’s going to explode in your face. Islamophobia is a symptom, it’s not a fundamental cause. Muslims often get confused, and think it’s a ‘war on Islam’ for the sake of having a war on Islam. But when you realise it’s merely a symptom, you realise the driving force comes back to wider issues of capitalism as a whole. Fundamentally there is this break between the owners of productive resources of the world, and the vast majority of people who are wage labourers at best, and many are involved in various forms of servitude and slavery. That dispossession of labour has generated a dynamic of capitalists needing to continuously improve the means of production by reinvesting in profits, pushing down wages, and using propaganda. Therefore, it’s not, causally, a Muslim issue. It’s an issue of the majority of the world’s people who have been subjugated and dispossessed from what should be a natural condition. The problem is that today, overwhelmingly, Muslim-majority regions happen to be home to the most strategic and increasingly scarce hydrocarbon resources, control of which is a major motivation for current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Hence the tendency to securitize Muslims and Islam.

People who have some sort of privileged access to means of production do so without understanding the devastation they cause. The more people within those elite circles begin to be aware of the realities of how they’re contributing to this devastation, there is potential for genuine change. One example was the late Matthew Simmons who passed away just a few days ago. He predicted the impact of peak oil and he really pushed it as a concept out into the public sphere. He was a traditional investment banker who was very orthodox in the way he acted and made profit. There was nothing revolutionary about his role as an investment banker. But as a result of what he realised, he began telling people to create distributional renewable energy networks, and producing a different kind of economy because our economy is carbon-based. There is a link between our dependence on carbon energy, and our ability to over-consume and over-exploit. He articulated these things without realising how revolutionary what it was that he was saying. So there is so much scope for changing perspectives. As these crises get worse, there is a positive side, in that it will become more difficult for people to say that this is not a failure of a system. It will be easier for different social movements to be more inclusive, and people across different communities to work together. The more we realise we’re facing a Crisis of Civilisation, we see that the atomistic, individualistic way of living is leading to species extinction. The alternative isn’t obvious. We have huge civilisation resources at our disposal – different faiths and cultures – we need to excavate the richness of the cultural, intellectual and philosophical resources of the world’s religions, faiths and philosophies and start having a discussion about where we’re heading. The things that divide us are transitory; they are symptomatic of this particular structural conjuncture. We’re much more united on our values, our beliefs and our understanding.

So would you say attacks on the Muslim community or any particular minority group is a way to defend neoliberal capitalism?

Right now I don’t think it’s a deliberate political strategy, but I think it could become one. What you find is there’s these latent processes. We saw these things happening with Nazi Germany. There wasn’t a sudden rise of Hitler’s aim to exterminate all the Jews; it was a process of radicalisation. The more Germany was going through crises, the more obvious it seemed to Hitler that Jews were the agents of a conspiracy against Germany, and so they must be targeted. First it was persecution and limiting them, and finally as things radicalised in terms of conflicts and the state of the economy, he came up with the idea of the Final Solution. There are genocidal tendencies of ‘othering’ developing now, and the danger is that as global crises intensify, elites may find it more convenient to focus on these ‘others’ as a way of population control. Again this is because they’re only looking at symptoms. It is very disturbing, and there needs to be serious action taken against it, because we are in an unprecedented crisis globally. The 1930s was nothing compared to what could be round the corner.

Given the benefits of stressing issues concerning economic structure and class in dealing with Islamophobia, why do you think Muslims have not been dealing with it by taking more of a class-based approach?

Tackling discrimination and social exclusion often involves developing a separate identity. Black communities experienced this sense of exclusion in the 1970s, and responded by making their identity very positive. They then found ways of reconciling that identity with mainstream society. Muslims are finding it difficult to do this. There exists a major divide within the Muslim community, with the Muslim middle classes failing to identify with the majority of poorer Muslims. Instead, they have bought into the consumerist, materialistic culture that neoliberal capitalism subconsciously cultivates. One of the only ways this can be dealt with is through having people who are more educated and understand how the system works, to go into the working class communities and raise awareness, and create a charismatic vision of where we want to be in 20 years time. In a way, we probably need a Martin Luther King character. But more generally, as a community we need to change the game. Let’s stop running to keep up with the state of affairs and start being proactive and being visionaries. Let’s start dream-weaving about the sort of society we want.

Samia Aziz is about to start a BA in Politics, Psychology and Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?