Why we need Islamophobia Awareness Month

Islamophobia is not a phobia. For too long it has been explained away as ‘fear of’ or ‘prejudice towards’ Muslims, but Islamophobia is much more comprehensive than this. It is a strategy of governance to legitimize state violence through dehumanization and the othering of Muslims.

Launched in 2012, Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM) is an annual attempt to raise awareness and campaign with increased vigour towards the eradication of this particular injustice. Whilst some condemn the month as hyperbolic in its very existence, this just proves that awareness of the depth of Islamophobia is actually very limited in society at large.

Many are able to cite awareness of negative media stereotypes and rise in hate crimes against Muslims in Britain. However, if this is where our understanding of Islamophobia starts and ends, IAM remains essential.

Whilst physical and verbal assaults have multiplied – causing genuine trauma and fear to countless people, visibly Muslim women in particular who face the brunt of this – such acts of violence are not the crux of Islamophobia, they are its most apparent symptoms.

If we trace manifestations of Islamophobia further up the chain of influence we land at the rhetoric of ‘journalists’ and ‘politicians’ such as Rod Liddle and Boris Johnson who described Muslim women as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. Their vitriolic comments undoubtedly bolster and legitimize interpersonal violence – with many women citing being called ‘letter boxes’ by their assaulters.

Rod Liddle recently wrote in the Sunday Times that ‘British Islamists’ should ‘blow themselves up’ in places like Tower Hamlets – an unambiguous incitement to violence against Muslims which make up 38 per cent of the Tower Hamlets borough.

This language is violent, abusive and dehumanizing. Interrogating it leads us closer to understanding why everyday manifestations of Islamophobia in the streets and online are being bolstered – but if we are truly to become ‘aware’, we must dig deeper still.

Deliberate denigration of Muslims by those in mainstream public conversation is not based solely on personal prejudice – as the affix ‘phobia’ can often imply. Rather, the dehumanization of Muslims has a longer history of stereotyping pre-9/11 that was integral to Britain’s colonisation of South Asia and parts of the Middle East.

The idea of uncivilized Muslim ‘Others’, was cultivated to justify conquest of their lands and resources. The legacy of these tropes are apparent in today’s media depictions of Muslims seen narrowly through the frame of violence, or as foils to Britain’s so-called ‘modern democracy’.

These stories are biased, misleading and often actually just incorrect, as the work of spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain Miqdaad Versi has shown. A month dedicated to deconstructing violence against Muslims is essential to further our understanding of Islamophobia beyond just spikes in prejudice – its roots lie in British history and thus eradication in increasingly nuanced examinations of Britain’s colonial past.

What makes IAM essential though is that it is a rare chance to push comprehension of Islamophobia further. It is only through understanding the reasons for the stereotyping outlined that we can truly build up the tools to eradicate their consequences. Tracing these reasons back to their origins means asking what the functions of such stereotypes are in terms of who they benefit. This brings us to the heart of the British state: the government and all arms of the state’s bureaucracy that reproduce stereotypes of Muslims to underpin legislation and policy.

For example, the Prevent (Preventing Violent Extremism) policy, is one arm of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It aims to pre-emptively identify acts of violence ‘before the fact’ by using social indicators to target those who may perpetrate them. The indicators are based in science that has long faced criticism by NGOs like CAGE, but now even mainstream NGOs such as Amnesty and Liberty have declared it ‘highly dubious’, ‘built on shaky, almost evidence-free foundations’ which result in discriminatory surveillance of Muslims in public spaces. Indeed, Prevent legally compels public sector workers to ‘look out for signs of radicalization’ amongst those they work with – leading to outcomes such as the referral of 2000 children under the age of 15 to the police under Prevent specification in 2017. Such legislation clearly doesn’t deal competently with violence or its causes, instead it targets those already stereotyped as ‘potential terrorists’.

These strategies mark the crime not as perpetration of violence, but a presumed predisposition to it – a very Orwellian stance. Other measures do the same, meaning ‘reasonable suspicion’ is usurped by stereotyping which in turn has led to increased use of secret courts, secret trials, home raids, separation of parents and children and deportation and extradition in contravention of human rights.

These state-sanctioned activities highlight that Islamophobia is baked into the foundations of society. The historic trope of Muslims as inherently dangerous is inscribed within the practices of the state and there can be no other reason for this than a deliberate desire to misunderstand the causes of violence because they might otherwise expose the state as complicit and thus accountable.

Scapegoating therefore beats interrogating the role of austerity, racial profiling, criminalization, institutional racism, unjust foreign policy, the lack of avenues to express legitimate grievances and the causes of violence.

Beyond reiterating the regularity of visible and easily-identifiable Islamophobia then, Islamophobia Awareness Month is a crucial chance to expose the root causes of it: an institutionalized understanding of Muslims as sub-human and predisposed to violence which is reinforced at every level of the state.

Exposing and scrutinizing this means that although IAM may be viewed as fringe, or for the sake of a minority, it works against an increasingly authoritarian state and will, in the end, benefit all of society – and in particular further our understandings of violence, showing us how to create holistic communities of justice, healing and therefore, eventually, of peace.

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