Islamophobia: On the British War of definition and seeing the bigger picture

We told you the threat is white supremacy. You ignored us.

– Randa Abdel-Fattah

Outside Muslim communities of the ‘West’, it has been a heftier then usual year for reflecting upon Islamophobia. Transnationally the world came to a halt on March 15, 2019, when an Australian white supremacist in Christchurch New Zealand, bridged two mosques in tragedy, gunning down 51 people at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre. If this experience of horrific violence was not already tragic enough, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the ‘terrorist’, live streamed the first of the two attacks on Facebook, so that even in death his victim’s final moments were no longer their own private experience.* Even in death their bodies were not their own.

What followed across the world was immediate remorse, with cries and well wishes and rhetoric of solidarity extending across the Pacific and the Atlantic, the world, to the tiny island nation. Intersections of racial experience were meaningfully drawn together as the black New Zealand Maori Council called for a nationwide haka, allowing this indigenous dance to be performed alongside Muslim calls to prayer in both commemoration of the dead and solidarity. A series of media clips circulated, showing Maori and non-Maori communities together – eyes wide, mouths open, arms firm and out, in a traditional dance of war. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s photos circulated alongside these viral moments, Ardern often donning a black hijab in mourning. Days after the attack, and the mosque visits, still donning black dress, though this time unveiled, on March 20th Ardern directed her attention outwards to the world, calling for a global fight to root out racist right-wing ideology. This ideology has another name–white supremacist violence–but we don’t often say it for fear of offending ‘white’ people.

 

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A screenshot of Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s manifesto. Tarrant is said to have published the 74 page manifesto online prior to committing the Christchurch atrocities.

 

It appeared across the pond in the United Kingdom that some British government parties were already prepared to answer Ardern’s call. In doing so, they were also now ready to respond to a more localised appeal being made by British civil society: pay attention to Islamophobia at home.

The Liberal Democratic party were the first to adopt the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia on March 18th, 2019. This definition and the propping up of it had been in the making since late 2017.  Being launched during national Islamophobia Awareness Month as part of a report launch and press event, facilitated by the leading race-equality think tank, Runnymede, and the APPG on British Muslims; their official definition of Islamophobia is the following:

…any distinction, exclusion, or restriction towards, or preference against, Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life (Elahi and Khan 2017:1).

This definition was further elucidated via the works of several established academics in the United Kingdom who contributed their research to the 2017 Islamophobia – 20 years on, still a challenge for us all Runnymede report so as to facilitate a better of understanding of this specific understanding of Islamophobia and its application in the United Kingdom. The report and its 10 recommendations in  the areas of British government policy, labour and employment, health care provision, security infrastructure, and criminal justice are outlined here.

On March 20th the British Labour party followed suit and also adopted the APPG’s definition. The APPG on British Muslims seemingly made a reference to the Christchurch attacks in their endorsement of this political move by Labour, writing that “We have seen the grave dangers of allowing Islamophobia to go unchallenged and therefore words are not enough”. Though it appeared, that these moves of empathy by British parliamentary parties were stalled in early April, even though attacks on British Mosques  remained consistently reported by the British Media, moves in the lobby for the adoption of the APPG on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia continued.  On April 26, 2019, co-chair of the APPG on British Muslims, MP Wes Streeting announced that all parties of Scottish parliament had moved to adopt the APPG on British Muslims definition together. Streeting provided a press release as proof. This event occurred no less than 5 days after a series of bombings occurred in churches and hotels  throughout Sri Lanka, killing at least 270 people and wounding, 450. It was later realised that these Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were retaliation for the Christchurch attacks.

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The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims was established on 18 July 2017 to build on the work of the APPG on Islamophobia.

 

It appears that the British terrorism police are  only now beginning to realise what this political lobby means for them. Outlined in the 2017 report, recommendation 8 of Runnymede’s [and  the APPG on British Muslims’] recommendations  for accounting for Islamophobia in Britain, states that:

There should be a full independent and fully transparent inquiry into the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. The government should recognize its statutory equality obligations as set out in the public sector equality duty (PSED) in the implementation of all counter-terrorism policies. Counter-terrorism measures must not lead to discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, religion, descent, or national or ethnic origin, in purpose or effect (Elahi and Khan 2017:3, bolded by the authors ).

Unsurprisingly, due to the controversy that always was and continues to  be the conditions of the British Counter-Terrorism and Security Act; often colloquially referred to as Prevent; as of May 15th it is now being reported that “anti-terrorist operations would be hampered if Theresa May bows to pressure to create an official definition of Islamophobia” (Kennedy 2019). Reportedly coming out of a written intervention, “seen by the Times” composed by Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the adoption of an official definition of Islamophobia by the British government is being argued to risk “exacerbating community tensions and undermining counterterrorist policing powers and tactics”(ibid). Though it is has been less than 24 hours, it is being reported by Buzzfeed and the BBC  that Theresa May has already made a decision in favour of Hewitt’s stance. Entities such as the Muslim Council of Britain are calling Hewitt’s position one of misunderstanding. Others such as MP Naz Shah and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi are calling out the manner in which Hewitt is choosing to intervene, pointing out how in a climate where there are already concerns of discrimination,the National Police Chiefs Council is purposely bringing “terrorism into the discussion about tackling Islamophobia”  (Wickham 2019).

It appears in the war to define Islamophobia, British society is beginning to forget about New Zealand. Ardern’s call for a global fight to root out racist right-wing ideology seemingly is drowned in a sea of white noise: as the repetitive question “ But what about the terrorism?” is being chanted back to Muslims chanting in response “Islamophobia is racism”. The intersections of solidarity by the Maori and Muslims, both blackened and dehumanized in New Zealand’s history by white supremacist structures and perpetrators of an explicitly populist yet white supremacy complicit agenda – are seemingly lost in the row to have the APPG on British Muslims’ understanding of Islamophobia be institutionalised. Parties making media headway in this fight­– appear to be lost on the fact that whether or not the British government fully endorses this specific definition unfortunately does not determine whether the British government is stepping in a truly long-term effectual direction of stomping out Islamophobia.  The subject of Islamophobia in both the British and global landscape and its key element, the element that ties Britain to New Zealand in the first place –white supremacy–has all been but ignored in this debate.

The question of the bridge between the UK and New Zealand has been and continues presented as a ‘Muslim problem’, as even the APPG on British Muslims and their supporters are undertaking methods of strategic essentialism. They are thus overlooking the subject of white supremacy: a political, economic, and social system of domination where non-white people, Muslims and perceived to be Muslims alike– are more easily and readily subjected to  physical, mental, and systematic violence (Diangelo, 2018). Not addressing this issue in the foreseeable future is likely to  halt true effective progress in the effort to counter Islamophobia. S.Sayyid & AbdoolKarim Vakil (2017) emphasise a similar stance in their own critique of the 2017 Runnymede  report and its exemplification of Islamophobia seen below:

Failure arises from the insufficient attention paid to the category of racism…Reading racism from the prism of bigotry and its cognates renders racism as a ‘boo word’ rather than an analytical tool. It evacuates the dimension of power, empties out the category of racism, and opens the door for charges and counter-charges of racism to circulate between and within Muslims, Muslim communities, and ethnic minorities, with little sense of the structural overdetermination of unequal social relations.

While it may be argued that pushing the government to adopt a formal anti Islamophobia stance is a necessary first step in the effort to counter British Islamophobia– it should be remembered that the British government continues to see racism as a matter of morals rather than a structural problem attached to its colonial legacy. This is the same government that is too fragile to accept that its institutions and national memory are linked to whiteness in manner that is still ongoing. This uphill battle for the British government to adopt a specific understanding of Islamophobia might be too premature. If the right tools are not in place, the same British government that may even one day adopt this definition  of Islamophobia, may all the while still deny its ongoing complicity in why and how Islamophobia  continues to exist.

Eyes wide, mouths open, arms firm and out in a traditional dance of war–this struggle of definition will continue while others like Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the Muslims of Christchurch, and the Maori of New Zealand, watch and wait.

–A.A

*terrorist in quotations is used to make reference to the ongoing debate as to whether  framing white supremacist violence as terrorism when trying to invert the double standard granted to Daesh inspired violence, truly aids efforts to address racism and racial violence.

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