Islamophobia. The fear of Islam. Or as Wikipedia describes it "prejudice against, hatred towards, or fear of the religion of Islam or Muslims". Sounds simple enough on the surface and quite clearly wrong but in recent years there has been an increasing level of Islamophobic activity in the UK and elsewhere. I think Muslims in the UK are actually luckier on this front than their counterparts in a number of other developed countries where religious freedoms are harder to come by. The UK has a long history of openness to new cultures and beliefs - mostly due to it's imperial past but that's a whole other story for another day.
Islamophobia comes in many forms, both hidden and blatant, and all are wrong. Whether it's the ignorant petition campaigns against halal meat or insultingly being called a terrorist by strangers when doing your grocery shopping or having your professional CV discarded because of the foreign-looking name at the top or being 'randomly' stopped at the airport for additional screening or people looking at you funny because you've got a beard/scarf and you're wearing a rucksack on the London Underground. It's all wrong and it all needs to stop.
It's a big ask though isn't it? How on earth do you persuade the wider majority in society to arrive at a point where Islamophobia is a thing to be fiercely denounced and instantly rejected? This Friday I heard an interesting comment made by a speaker at the City Circle talk titled "Islamophobia: Embrace British Values. Erase Muslim Identity?" The point made by Dr Salman Sayyid was simply that there was once a time that racism was widely acceptable and we're now in a time where racism is widely unacceptable. You could be a racist and a person of good standing in society but over a period of many, many years and with huge amounts of effort and sacrifice the tide slowly shifted. And while racism hasn't been totally eradicated, an open racist would find it impossible to have good standing in society and this is how it should be.
The talk hosted a panel of four - two academics (Dr Chris Allen and Dr Salman Sayyid), an IHRC activist (Raza Karim) and a police officer (Asif Sadiq). The academics went first and explained some of the challenges with defining what Islamophobia is and the difficulties of measuring it as an under-reported activity. Some people confuse disagreeing with Islam as Islamophobic and this does need to be clarified. Disagreement with the religion by itself is fine - it's when it turns into incitement to discrimination and hatred that it becomes a problem. It was very intriguing and disheartening to learn that, from the recorded statistics, the majority of victims of Islamophobia are "visibly muslim" women - presumably as they are seen to be easier targets.
Part of the prejudice is certainly fuelled by media irresponsibility - when a Muslim does something wrong that gets media attention their defining characteristic becomes their Muslim-ness even if their religion is irrelevant to the story. Every Muslim becomes a media ambassador for Islam and every action by a Muslim becomes an Islamic act even if it goes against Islamic teaching (grooming gangs in Rotherham is a prime example). Muslims are no different to any other community - we have our good apples and our bad apples with the majority falling somewhere in between. But all too often it's only the rogues that get the media coverage along with the Muslim tag and this is dangerously provocative.
The remaining speakers took a more practical approach on raising awareness of Islamophobia and how to go about pushing back against the tide.
Raza had a lot to say about the informant culture that was being insidiously propagated by the government's latest strategies to get teachers to report possible and potentially extremist views from their pupils and how Muslims and non-Muslims needed to become more active in the fight against state monitoring and social engineering. He spoke of the work that MEND are doing to encourage political participation amongst the Muslim community. He proposed disengagement from the established system to avoid giving it a veneer of legitimacy and fight from outside what he saw as an Islamophobic institution.
Asif spoke about some of the changes and education the police force had gone through as a result of the need to have a greater understanding of Islam amongst officers. Social media has a massive role to play in making people aware of what is happening and bring pressure to bear on the police to take action - citing the recent Bus Rant woman and the speed of police action to identify and arrest the culprit. He encouraged getting involved in the established system to fight, educate and change it from within to better fulfil the needs of the people both Muslim and non.
For me, it was very curious that Raza and Asif were able to sit next to each other and have one saying get involved inside the system and the other say get involved from outside the system. I think both saw each other as possibly undermining their own efforts to bring about change and probably damaging the cause. Who's right is anyone's guess - maybe they're both right or maybe they're both wrong - only the fullness of time will tell. To be honest I don't think it matters who is right - the important take away from all this is their common message of getting involved somehow.
It's the easiest thing in the world to do nothing and say nothing and think "it'll make no difference so what's the point?" and that it will take far too long for change to happen or have the individualist mindset of "I'm OK so it's not my business". Sitting back and doing nothing will be of no benefit to anyone and will allow those that want to sow mistrust and chaos a free rein to do as they will leading to ever more dangerous times.
In this case we should remember the lessons from the fight against racism which has been going on in the West for over two hundred years and anti-semitism which has been going on even longer. It's not going to be quick but that doesn't mean its not worth trying to change. It takes only a few pebbles to start at avalanche so keep throwing pebbles at the mountain. There's a famous Greek proverb that fits very well here - “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Let's start planting our trees for our own future and beyond.
Yusuf Undre is a teacher a the City Circle Saturday School and runs a regular blog - The Book of Yusuf