Islam is not a race! Criticising Muslims is not racist! Such refrains are heard not only from the far-right but also from liberals and conservatives. For some commentators, the real anti-fascists are groups like the Football Lads Alliance and Democratic Football Lads Alliance who challenge ‘Islamo-fascism’.
When the APPG on British Muslims launched its report Islamophobia Defined, there was a predictable backlash against the idea that Muslims in Britain face structured, systemic, racist discrimination. Why did so many contributors to this inquiry, like us, support the idea of defining Islamophobia as a form of racism?
The term ‘racialisation’ denotes the process through which populations are classified according to ‘their’ race, and the characterisations associated with this. Historically, black populations have been described as ‘brute’, ‘savage’, or ‘beastly’. These projects of racial formation are located within the violent histories of European imperialisms and their subjugation of colonised populations and territories.
Nasar Meer (2013) and Malory Nye (2018) show that religious populations were and are, racialized through such projects. For Meer, this processes predates even the advent of colonialism and are rooted in the history of Christian Europe. Processes of racialisation are not confined to pseudo-scientific knowledge of ‘lesser races’ but include amorphous cultural and ethnic judgements about non-European others many of whom are religious.
The definition coined by Professor Salman Sayyid and AbdoolKarim Vakil which is advanced by the APPG invokes the idea of ‘Muslimness’ – a concept common to our own submissions to the inquiry – to capture the multifaceted nature of Islamophobia. As we argued in our written evidence, quoted in the report, Muslimness can be understood as combining:
biological attributes (skin colour) with religious and cultural practices including clothing (hijab, niqab, skull caps, kurtas), eating (halal meat, inhibitions on alcohol and pork) and a strong imaginary about the ‘radical otherness’ of so-called ‘Muslim practices’. These have included (but are not limited to), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Forced Marriage (FM), veiling, a supposed propensity for electoral fraud, the imposition of sharia law, and child sexual exploitation.
Our prior research has shown how political and media narratives about Muslims stitch such diverse phenomena together to produce ‘ideological fantasies’ about ‘the lives of Muslim others’. The effects of this racialisation are felt through rising hate crime but also in terms of employment prospects, educational outcomes, and access to public services. As Sayyid and Vakil put it ‘Muslims are not a ‘race’ because there are no ‘races’ scientifically speaking, but they are treated as if they were a ‘race’’.
One issue that the report does not address but which can be challenged through this definition is the role of the state in producing Islamophobia. Racialised counter-terrorism policies such as Prevent also treat Muslims as a threatening collective which enables and normalise Islamophobia. While media discourse and the activity of the far-right are key sources of Islamophobia, they operate in a context where a cloud of racialised suspicion hangs over Muslims, set in place by successive governments.