The Wrong Side of Britishness: Anti-Muslim Narratives in the UK

Arzu Merali  – Islamic Human Rights Commission, UK

The end of the first workstream of the CIK project in the UK saw the publication of the ten key narratives of Islamophobia.  These represented only the most prevalent and potent rather than the sum.  The level of impact vis-à-vis the prevalence of a narrative within or as a precursor in media and political discourse to policy and law were the final determiners of what were the more impactful narratives.

Counterposed with existing research into experiences of Muslims in the UK, these narratives have several counterproductive and in some cases counter-intuitive (based on stated policy aims) outcomes.

The ten narratives identified were:

  • Muslims as disloyal and a threat to internal democracy
  • Islam as a counter to ‘Britishness’ / ‘Fundamental British Values’
  • Muslims and ‘extremism’
  • Muslims as a security threat (and therefore in need of regulation by way of exceptional law, policy and social praxis)
  • Muslim misogyny and perversion and the oppressed Muslim woman
  • Muslims as subhuman and unable to socialize to ‘human’ norms
  • Muslims as segregationists
  • Muslims in need of integration (assimilation)
  • Immigration and the demographic threat
  • Muslim spaces as incubators

It can be argued that narratives that fuel securitization policy and discourse and those that critique the potentiality and possibility of the Muslim subject in the public space as entryists etc., currently hold the most sway as anti-Muslim narratives.  The impact of this is seen and felt by Muslims whose faith in the political process appears to have collapsed between the period of 2011 and 2014.

Further reported outcomes relate to behavior modification as a result of negative experiences. This type of behavior change effectively reduced or erased Muslim visibility, as individuals, but also as a community of confession, or as individual actors or groupings in political and civil society arenas.  The political pressures are seen as a way to socially engineer the acceptance of a depoliticized and secular ‘Islam’ amongst Muslims in the UK.  This creates a perception backed up by the prevalence of policy and the narratives which have underpinned much of it that this is the expectation from the state for Muslims to hide their beliefs and views.

 

Arranged in order of impact the narratives can be subsumed under the four most powerful and fall as follows:

  • Muslims as a security threat (and therefore in need of regulation by way of exceptional law, policy and social praxis)

Whilst the idea of Muslims as ‘extremist’ is of relevance to these narratives, it is inferred in all the above.  Of similar significance is the trope of Muslim misogyny and perversion and the oppressed Muslim woman.  This carries with it now the subtext of violence, having been attached to the idea of male radicalization both by dint of raising radicalized sons as a result of their inability to communicate with them (e.g. Cameron, 2016), and by being themselves beacons of radicalization and cause of social unrest (e.g. Turner, 2013).

 

Whilst the narrative of Muslims as segregationists is connected to Muslims failing or not wanting to integrate, the failure to integrate narrative has moved beyond the idea of Muslims as living separate lives.  The narrative that has gained more currency is that of ‘entryism’ and the idea that Muslims trying to integrate or to have positions in society or mobilize on social issues is a form of threat.

Suspicion and denigration of Muslims spaces is framed (regardless of the space, be it a mosque, school or the practice of veiling) as inherently threatening and in need of regulatory law, praxis and discourse.   The idea of segregationism, based on the idea of Muslims spaces crosses over here with the overarching narrative of the ‘need for Muslims to integrate’

 

  • Disloyalty and the threat to internal democracy

This, and the other narratives also feed into the narrative of Muslims as the vanguards of multiculturalism, are used as evidence of the failure of and indeed the lack of credibility of the multicultural settlement (as ultimately evidenced when David Cameron finally ended all claims of the state to foster such an ethos, declaring instead that it was time for a ‘muscular liberalism’ in 2011.  Arguably, the collapse of the idea of Muslims as citizens and the idea of the Britishness of the majority versus the culture(s) of immigrants (be they Muslim, Eastern European or other) has resulted in an unattainable Britishness, despite claims that the adoption of liberal mores is all that is needed for victimized ethnic and / or religious groups to end their victimization.

The rise of the obsession regarding entryism highlights the extent to which the Muslim ability to project themselves into the future has taken hold, whereby Muslim aspirations based on pre-existing praxis amongst the majority is seen, not as (deferential) emulation and evidence of integration but as something other, by virtue of its Muslimness.

Right-wing commentariat claims during the Brexit campaign echoed those of e.g. Murray in 2003 and 2014 about the Muslim demographic time bomb, with the possible accession of Turkey to the EU highlighted as a threat to the UK.

 

  • Islam as a counter to ‘Britishness’ / ‘Fundamental British Values’

The idea that Muslims are subhuman and unable to socialize to ‘human’ norms has gained currency within civil society and caused a schism in programs to combat Islamophobia by accepting the premise that (if) some Muslim practices are beyond the pale, there must be a form of rejection of such practices and beliefs on the part of Muslims before a recognition of and redress for Islamophobia can come about.  Thus the expectations of Muslims from the government is beset with a conditionality in a way no other citizen, be they from a minoritized community or the majority community is required to hold.

 

  • Muslims in need of integration (assimilation)

Whilst the separatist / segregationist narrative still exists (an crosses over with the overarching narrative of security), it has more significance as a trope in far-right mobilization where the idea of physical segregation in terms of veiling, Muslim spaces (i.e. mosques, schools etc.) is deemed aberrant and in need of redress if necessary as a result of mobilization of the majority to attack those expressions of separateness.  This can be evidenced in the rise of Whilst the majority of hate crimes are usually perpetrated by individuals with no group affiliations, there has clearly been a rise in far-right mobilizations against such spaces.  This includes marches through supposedly Muslim majority areas e.g. various English Defence League marches in Luton; mosque invasions by Britain First particularly in 2014; continued attacks on Muslim women who wear clothing identified as Muslim, including but not solely face veils and headscarves.

These four narratives hold up the basis for all anti-terrorism laws, regardless of efficacy.  The above narratives not only herald expulsion of the Muslim as citizen and equal subject before the law is but are foundational to the rise in the notion of what it means to be ‘British’.  This idea of Britishness whilst finding violent outlet in far-right mobilizations at street levels is established as part of mainstream policy-speak which leaves those constructed Muslim as intrinsically on the wrong side of this identity with no ability to cross over.  Such determination of national identities constructed by virtue of exclusion are in many ways a contradiction of democratic values based on equality and difference.  There is an urgent need for policy makers and institutions to acknowledge this contradiction and seek both measures that immediately mitigate the negative impacts of these narratives, and work on long term policy and strategy that both project and lead on counternarratives to Islamophobia.  The impact of measures that otherise Muslims is not simply a rights issue for Muslims individually or a ‘minority rights’ issue for Muslims as (a) community/ies.  This level of subalternization strikes at the heart of what it means to be democracy.  The deficit caused by structural racisms, whether Islamophobia or any other form, undermines the very egalitarian claims that form the basis of democratic identity and praxis.