Islamophobia Stories are the way that people make sense of the world.

  0 comments   |     by Catherine Heseltine

Stories are the way that people make sense of the world. Stories have such a powerful effect on our minds that people even have a tendency to block out any information they hear that doesn’t fit with the story – the narrative - they believe. Our narratives not only shape the way we see the world, they also shape the way we see ourselves, they allow us to imagine the future and give us direction, guiding our actions.  So what is the dominant narrative about Muslims today? Anyone who has listened to public discussion about Muslims and Islam will recognise the story that Muslims are backward and violent, they do not share our enlightened values and they pose a threat to our way of life… a threat which must be tackled. It is the same story that is told again and again – every time ISIS commits another atrocity, every time there is a story about halal meat, or Muslims taking over schools, or Sharia, or the niqab, or grooming gangs, or gender segregation… Whatever the issue it’s the same dominant story - backward Muslims threatening our way of life. It is told with varying degrees of subtlety but this basic paradigm is increasingly the prism through which Muslims are seen. 

It is vital to understand that the tide of Islamophobia that is sweeping through Europe and the United States is driven by a multi-million dollar, transatlantic ‘Islamophobia Industry’. Studies such as the book on the ‘Islamophobia Industry’ by Nathan Lean and the ‘Fear Inc’ report by the Center for American Progress document how the rise of Islamophobia is not principally a popular reaction against acts of terrorism committed by Muslims, or a simple response to cultural difference - it is purposely manufactured for political motives [2].  A well-funded and influential network of so-called intellectuals and think-tanks, bloggers, politicians, and media pundits is continually pumping out the idea that Muslims are a threat. These anti-Muslim ideologues, often motivated by a neo-conservative or Zionist political agenda, are extremely successful in promoting their ideas and terminology – their narrative - and exploiting events to help whip up fear of Muslims. And successfully demonising and dehumanising Muslims makes the killing of innocent Muslims in Gaza or Iraq more acceptable and at the same time marginalises the Muslim communities in the West who would naturally be at the forefront of speaking up for the rights of Muslims worldwide. 

Interestingly negative stories about cultural differences now outstrip those about terrorism in the media, greatly contributing to negative feelings about Muslims (as highlighted by the Cardiff University study of media coverage on Muslims). One example of the manufacturing of Islamophobia in the UK was the sudden furore over gender segregation on University campuses, which was sparked by a flawed report by a group calling itself ‘Student Rights’ and claiming to be ‘independent’. It was only after the PM had weighed in to condemn voluntary gender segregation at Islamic society events that Student Rights was exposed as not a student’s group at all but a front for the neo-conservative think-tank ‘The Henry Jackson Society’ which has frequently been accused of fuelling Islamophobia [3]. Interestingly the PM had no issue with addressing a segregated audience of Sikh men and women when campaigning in Gravesend just this week and as an old Etonian has never condemned his old school for segregating by gender and not admitting girls, or done anything to dismantle gender segregation in schools [4]. Such double standards against Muslims are of course common place and totally accepted.  A more recent example of manufactured Islamophobia was the ‘Trojan Horse’ row, promoted by journalists such as Andrew Gilligan, (whose track record writing about Muslims is well known) and given weight by then Education Secretary Michael Gove (whose views on Muslims are clear from his book Celsius 7/7). When a cross-party group of MPs finally reviewed all the evidence, far from a widespread plot by Islamic extremists to take over Birmingham schools, they found a single, isolated incident in one school [5]. This unsurprisingly didn’t make the headlines, and the damage had been done.  
I’ve been involved in campaigning against Islamophobia for over a decade and I can say clearly that we are failing disastrously. We have reached the point where fear and hatred of Muslims is bringing people out onto the streets with the EDL and Britain First and Pegida, and still tackling Islamophobia is not a priority within the Muslim community. We have had nail bomb attacks and arson attacks on mosques and Islamic schools [6], yet still we spend more money on shiny new Islamic centres than on funding any kind of professional media and political campaign against Islamophobia. A Muslim grandfather in Birmingham [7] was murdered on the way home from the mosque, another in West London had his skull smashed in [8] – both targeted purely because they were Muslims – and yet still Muslims put more time and effort into debating minor points of religion than we do into building an organised response to Islamophobia.  

However we are beginning to see a change. We are beginning to see Muslims waking up to the scale and the urgency of the threat, and just beginning to get organised and take action.  What we need is to confidently articulate our own narrative. We have too often found ourselves cornered into an apologetic response – “I’m not a terrorist, I’m a moderate Muslim. Those are the bad Muslims who are the threat – and we’re not like them, we’re the good Muslims who share your values.” This may seem like a good response, and it’s one that most of us have used, however this fails to fundamentally challenge the Islamophobic narrative, and lends itself to the Rupert Murdoch logic, when he tweeted: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible”. The alternative to accepting responsibility for any wrong that any one of more than 1 ½ billion Muslims has committed, is to define our own terms, tell our own story, and expose the fact that an Islamophobic narrative, intimately intertwined with a hegemonic foreign policy agenda, is turning reality on its head – with very dangerous consequences. 

What relation does the dominant anti-Muslim narrative bear to reality?  A recent report by the Nobel prize winning group ‘Physicians for Social Responsibility’ demonstrates that at least 1.3 million people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have died as a result of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ [1] – but it is Muslims who are a threat to the West.  Western governments prop up brutal dictators such as General Sisi of Egypt, or the Gulf monarchies – but it is Muslims who are the threat to freedom and democracy.  An effective response to Islamophobia must expose the double standards that are constantly applied against Muslims. An effective response to Islamophobia must highlight the oppression suffered by so many Muslims and their basic aspirations for justice, equality and freedom. And an effective response to Islamophobia must offer a coherent explanation of Muslim violence, rather than taking the easy option of stopping at condemnation. 

That last point in particular is not easy, because as soon as you open your mouth to explain the root causes of Muslim terrorism then you will be labelled an apologist for terror. But explanation is not justification, and offering an alternative to the flawed ‘conveyor belt theory’ of radicalisation is essential if we are to get away from the culture of suspicion and blame directed toward Muslims in general and be able to effectively tackle the small, but very real, threat of terrorism that affects us all.  Current government counter-terrorism policies in the form of ‘Prevent’ and the new Counter Terrorism and Security Bill are arguably an institutionalised form of Islamophobia, where suspicion is directed toward Muslim communities, vague definitions of extremism are applied with no relationship to violence and the normal rights afforded to citizens are circumvented. [9] 

So, tackling Islamophobia is no small task – it involves challenging power structures, and exposing the supremacist ideology of those who peddle anti Muslim hate. But the importance of stopping Islamophobia should not be underestimated. Less than 20 years ago in the heart of Europe we witnessed mass murder, expulsion and systematic rape committed against thousands of innocent victims - simply because they were Muslims. In Bosnia, as in all modern day genocides, the media played a huge role in these first stages of the genocide, alongside the rhetoric of politicians and public figures. But what is truly frightening is that when we examine the Islamophobic ideas that were used to support and justify genocide in Bosnia these ideas are shockingly similar to the way that Muslims are being talked about now, here in the UK… 

Reading quotes from the Serbian propaganda against Muslims which preceded the atrocities of Srebrenica the ideas are chillingly familiar: 
The Muslims want for the second time to create a Turkish Bosnia, with Sharia law and other norms that are unacceptable in modern times. (Department of Information in Belgrade, Serbia, January 1993) Muslims represent "an element in our lives that are hard to integrate, and which will be difficult to integrate into any western civilization". (Zoran Djindic, later the Serbian prime minister, 1994) Could atrocities such as those inflicted on Muslims in Bosnia ever happen here in Britain, or can we say we are intrinsically less susceptible to such evil than the Germans or the Serbs? One thing is for certain - we don’t want to sit back and wait to see just how bad things can get in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime.  

Economist Milton Friedman once said, "Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around." As someone with two young children, growing up Muslim in an uncertain world, I find it deeply worrying that increasingly the ideas that are lying around are those that demonise Muslims and portray us as a threat that must be dealt with 

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