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Beyond an Outcry on Islamophobia, It Is Time We 'Catch the Bull by the Horns'

20/11/2014 13:17 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 10:59 GMT

In the midst of continuous negative portrayal of Muslims, there seems to be genuine fear in wider society that 'Islamist aliens' are taking over this island. Whilst many Muslims feel under siege and tend to think they are probably subject to a 'McCarthyite' witch hunt, others still question Muslims' place in this land and if they are part of a 'Trojan Horse' entryist plot. Both these assertions are wild.

Neither mainstream secular Britain nor British Muslims should feel like rabbits in the headlights. A matured liberal democracy like ours should not allow extreme views to prevail in the debate and discourse of this type. But there are actions needed - both from our political class and the Muslim civil society - and the media's role is no less important.

To my understanding, as an evolving community trying to take its rightful place in this pluralist land, Muslims are going through some teething problems. This has happened with communities beforehand, too. There are practical realities behind this. Firstly, as a minority faith community, Muslims are anxious to keep their traditions and culture in the midst of a post-modern secular and often anti-religious environment. Secondly, although Muslims are bonded by the same faith they are not monolithic: they come from the four corners of the world with richness and baggage that are often at odds with the wider society.

There is also another factor. The Muslim community (or perhaps I should say 'communities', as there are many) tends to suffer far higher levels of deprivation and other forms of disadvantage, than the national average. Although Muslims are to be found from Land's End to Stornoway, most live in a few inner city conurbations. They are not (yet) living on a level playing field with many other communities.

The possibility of these disparate peoples taking over Britain is no more than a figment of the imagination. Sadly this idea has gained currency, thanks in part to a relentless effort by far-right and neo-conservative-aligned social media. The description of Muslims as a demographic time-bomb bent on creating a 'Londonistan' or 'Eurabia' has been infused in our national psyche. The mayhem created by terrorist organisations abroad, such as Al-Qaeda and its incarnation, ISIL/ISIS, magnifies the fear. This can have a debilitating effect on community relations in the long run, if not addressed with mature debate and political wisdom.

I have travelled across the country and talked with people of all backgrounds and I find the reality on the ground rather different to this doomsday scenario. Across neighbourhoods, communities, educational institutions, workplaces and in the streets ordinary British people - Muslims and others, people of faith and no faith - get along with one another peacefully and live side-by-side in their daily life. Britain's pluralism is a gift and as normal people all of us have similar hopes, aspiration and concerns. While we do not live in an ideal world, we should not underestimate our achievements in the last few decades here in Britain: achievements that few other countries have achieved.

If Muslims do feel a sense of victimhood because of current events, it is important this is not overblown by them. But at the same this should be tackled by the political class, media establishment and the powers of civil society. This is not about giving Muslims any favour, but having a level playing field is important for Britain to progress as a fair nation.

Due to a massive change of attitudes and anti-discrimination laws passed over the last few decades, we now rightly see a zero tolerance for racism and antisemitism. There is now a revulsion against colour or race-based bigotry; this is embedded in our social norm. But do we see this when it comes to Islamophobia? Not yet. That is the big question we all need to answer.

There may be practical difficulties in pinning down what Islamophobia is, as it is not based on race or colour. Islamophobia is in reality cultural racism. Some in the academic world call this anti-Muslim bigotry. Criticism of Islam and Muslims is perfectly acceptable in an open society. But in a civilised society no-one should be allowed to hide behind acceptable criticism and display phobia to others. Whatever this is called, spitting at a Muslim woman because of a hijab, arson attacks on mosques and Islamic centres, desecration of Muslim graves, discrimination in the job market just because someone is Muslim should not be tolerated.

Muslims I know are astounded by the gradual acceptance of Islamophobic attitudes over recent years. From the outside we sometimes hear blanket blame on the Muslim community for its 'victimhood' attitude; others refer to criminals or violent extremists within this community and accuse its leaders of not speaking out loudly enough against them.

Conversely, Muslims themselves are not good at presenting their case. Sometimes they overuse the term "Islamophobia" and the issue becomes desensitised. But most importantly, in my opinion, our successive governments have also failed to grasp the problem; their lacklustre responses to Islamophobia have only exacerbated the problems. In the meantime, there appears to be a well-funded and powerful group of 'Rightists' and neo-conservatives, which has vociferously championed the notion that Islamophobia does not exist. Some journalists have parroted these claims without any serious research.

After the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby there was a spike in Islamophobic attacks. The Department for Education's mishandling of the Birmingham 'Trojan Horse' issue and now the ongoing ISIL crisis abroad has kept the flames alight on this issue. In response, members of the Muslim community initiated an Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM), which has taken place every November since 2012, and there was an Early Day Motion (473) on 5th November this year raising the issue. Yet the reality is that there is little political appetite to support such efforts at this present time. One (hostile) organisation even sarcastically termed IAM as Taqiyya Month, playing on an abusive slur often attributed to Muslims (i.e. as capable liars). On the other hand, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Islamophobia, has become dysfunctional after the resignation of Birmingham academic, Chris Allen, from its working group.

The situation has been thrown into even sharper relief following the Charity Commission's investigations into a disproportionate number of Muslim charities and Ofsted's carrying out of further investigations into Muslim-majority schools.

In my view, the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its minorities. Ever since the Runnymede report on Islamophobia was published in 1997, our political and media establishments failed to grapple this social ill in our midst. It is now time we catch the bull by the horn and woke up to the threat and spread of this anti-Muslim prejudice in our midst.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, author and freelance parenting consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.