Delegitimizing Islamophobia: The Legal and Normative Needs of the UK

Delegitimizing Islamophobia: The Legal and Normative Needs of the UK – Arzu Merali

The second report in the Counter- Islamophobia Kit project highlighted ten key Counter-narratives to Islamophobia that were needed, or already in operation and in need of support and extension.  To do so, 35 Interviews were conducted with persons who were chosen because of their existing work on counter-narratives to Islamophobia and other forms of racialization.  They included several broadcast and print journalists and editors, a senior member of the Anglican clergy and current master of a Cambridge University college, academics researching on different aspects of Islamophobia, (including (but not solely) on education, media representation, hate crimes, securitization, discrimination, sociology of religion, social cohesion), lawyers, artists, authors, charity trustees, curators and advocates.  A range of secondary material was also analysed, including social media initiatives, websites, different arts projects, advocacy initiatives and NGO work and legal campaigns.


There are four recurring themes that cross-cut the ten counter-narratives, and two recurring concerns.


Recurring themes:


  1. The Normalization of Islamophobia and the challenge facing society to make Islamophobia and all forms of racism unacceptable (Ahmed, 2017).
  2. The need for a Muslim space wherein Muslims can reclaim control of their narrative(s). This speaks to the situation that the majority of interviewees have expressed, that Sayyid (2014, referencing Klug 2013) as an undermining of the ability of Muslims as Muslims, to project themselves into the future. Muslims are not only denied the ability to define ‘Muslimness’ in any of its diversity but also are defined by state and institutional discourse and praxis that is a form of violence against them.  It disempowers them from having any role in the development of wider society.

As Kundnani (2017) interviewed for this project states:

“Islamophobia is ultimately a symptom of bigger, wider, deeper issues in British society. Islamophobia is not just ever about Muslims, it’s about a deep social crisis.  But the experience of Islamophobia is also particular to Muslims and has its own particular feel and texture and history and experience and so forth, and so, the challenge in taking it on is to both enable a space where Muslims can articulate and define their own experience and their own response to Islamophobia in Britain while at the same time being able to link that particular story to the wider crisis that Islamophobia needs to be linked to. And that wider crisis will be to do with the whole structure of British society in the end and therefore implicates everyone in Britain.”

  1. Countering the obsession of law and policy with markers of ‘Muslimness’ (Ameli, 2012) leading to the expulsion of the Muslim subject (from equality before and the protection of) the law (Razack, 2008, Ameli and Merali, 2015). This was summarised by Ahmed (2017) “as the obsession of the courts and policy makers with what Muslim women wear rather than operation of Home Office rules that fundamentally violate human rights.”
  2. Accountability for state and institutional racism in the context where the state feels it can withhold the rights and therefore its obligations to citizens / humans because of their perceived behaviour / abnormality / lack of humanity.


Importantly, interviewees averred to many ongoing forms of counter-narrative that provide examples of work that needs to be ‘rolled out’ on a large scale to tackle directly the narratives of Islamophobia identified. However, key to the critiques raised of existing counter-narratives and / or their praxis fall into two groups:

  • Reproducing a cycle of demonization by trying to respond to Islamophobic tropes by ‘proving’ otherwise. This approach was seen to be a set-up to fail both conceptually and practically.  Many respondents averred to the endless cycle of Muslim condemnation after any incident of political violence.  Narkowicz (2017) states: “’I condemn, I condemn’, I just don’t think that’s a good counter-narrative. A good counter-narrative is to challenge the narrative on which the questions are based and this is happening but in activists’ space…”

Further, attempts to prove loyalty e.g. raising awareness of Muslim participation in the world wars, and thus being worthy of remembrance (and thus inclusion in to the collective memory) or indeed aggressively promoting remembrance events (Merali, 2014, Glenton, 2015, Ahmed, S. 2015,  and Afzal, 2017, Baig, 2014, Leslie-Smith, 2014) in order to prove Muslim ‘loyalty’ were critiqued.  In over twenty years, these attempts have not resolved the issue of the demonization of Muslims as any of the above identified tropes. If anything, the strengthening of such narratives, indicates that this is failed praxis.

As Malik (2014) argues, this is not to criticize Muslims for condemning acts of political violence etc. but to understand that the discourse of condemnation is an exclusionary one, and that by fulfilling the demand of condemnation, Muslims will still not be included but will be simply reinforcing their connection to something which they claim not to be connected with.

  • Where ‘successful’ or ‘innovative’ or where needed but not fulfilled, these counter-narratives were being provided by civil society. Whilst many interviewees and indeed many civil society projects and practitioners see the role of civil society as key, almost all interviewees saw the key lack in the current situation was the failure of the state to intervene.  Whilst some saw the state as the root of or at least complicit with many if not all the narratives of Islamophobia, all identified a lack from the state and its institutions in its responsibilities.  In summary, counter-narratives to Islamophobia were located in the space vacated by the state and were being provided by civil society (Bouattia, 2017).

The need for the state and its institutions to take action was the overwhelming demand of interviewees.


The ten key narratives identified are as follows:


  1. Decentring conversations on Islam and Muslims from current institutionalised narratives.

The need to admit that there is a systemic problem of Islamophobia, agreeing to tackle it at an institutional level with state support for the narrative, and a reimagining of the state’s conceptualisation of ‘Muslims were all part of this process.  This is not a new situation, as many interviewees pointed out, and that this conversation or failure by the state to have a conversation on this situation was the starting point for a process of going forward.  As one activist who found her teenage tweets plastered all over the press and then found herself subjected to a barrage of abuse and threats said:

They often paint us as caricatures undeserving of empathy or understanding. They want to deny our humanity because they want you to be afraid of us.

“We cannot allow this situation and allow this cycle to continue in Britain today. Because the first step of solving any problem is admitting there is one.”

However, the idea of ‘humanization’ too was problematic, with many echoing poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s piece, ‘This is not a humanising poem’ (2017).  She decodes the conditionality placed on Muslim presence and acceptance: ‘Love is when you are not an athlete / or bake cakes / love is not when we offer our homes / or free taxi rides after the event.’  In other words, the national conversation and the national story needs to include Muslims regardless and without conditions.  She concludes her piece with a brutal but precise critique: ‘If you need me to prove my humanity/ I’m not the one who’s not human.’


  1. Diversifying the understanding of what, who and how is a Muslim, and the acceptance of this plurality within a plural understanding of the nation.

The rise of the idea of ‘Britishness’ (Merali, 2017a, and Ameli and Merali, 2015) and the narrative of Islam as a counter to ‘Britishness’ and ‘Fundamental British Values’ (FBV) has narrowed the conversation around what is the nation.  Both ‘identities’ are homogenized in a false manner, creating a fictitious dichotomy between British and Muslim, both imaginings of which are projected AT Muslims.  Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (2017) sees that the national conversation is one very much geared towards marginalizing faith per se, with Muslims bearing the brunt of both this increasing anti-religious culture as well as experiencing the effects of racialization as Muslims.

Securitization haunts every discourse regarding Muslims.  Denied acceptance and thus the rights and assumed dignity of citizenship, Muslims are not considered to be British (Merali, 2017a).  This perverse logic followed through sees them projected as living or existing not in Britain but in ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamism whatever that may be’(François, 2015) in a public discourse that allows them to be eschewed from equal citizenship in the wider public psyche.  This situation is part of and indeed significantly undergirds the narratives and the experience of Islamophobia in the UK, and was highlighted by the majority of interviewees as the most significant issue that needed dealing with in order to build a counter-Islamophobia culture in the UK.


It is a counter-narrative that includes to varying degrees everyone else in British society who are impacted either by the roll out of measures that undermine civil liberties (e.g. ubiquitous surveillance) to a greater or lesser extent, or by the general crisis that securitization is simply one facet of.


  1. Contextualising the nature and level of ‘threat’ posed by political violence per se by reviewing the epistemology of current security policies.

Whilst some concerned argued for (at the very least) the reviewing both the epistemology of current securitization praxes, including and especially the Prevent policy, others went further.  Echoing the ideas of the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Max Hill QC there were calls to challenge underlying assumption that something such as third tier of law that undermines both criminal and civil law as it exists is actually needed.


  1. Acknowledging structural issues and racism(s)

The roll back from the use of and the commitment to routing out institutional racism across all levels of society was highlighted again and again.  Whilst there were extended contributions on the media in particular there were also detailed contributions on how the civil and criminal law, and also the change in immigration policies disproportionately impacted Muslims and further were not accessible for Muslims to fulfil the potentiality of redress that the law, where it did have anti-discriminatory powers, offered.


  1. Acknowledging Islamophobia as a form of violence that is relational to both recent and colonial history and current events in various Westernised settings that refer to each other in order to perpetuate each other.

The problematization of Islam and Muslims in the UK context though deeply entwined in the longue-durée of colonial history, largely represents itself as ahistorical and transnational.  There is no overt conversation about the presence of Muslims or other racialized communities in the UK.

François (2017) ties the need for the reinventing of the story of the nation with an understanding of this history:

“nations need what you might call national myths as part of social cohesion, that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are inclusive and help to feel that we are united by a common thread.”

The need to deal with this presented itself in experiencing Islamophobia through the medium of the state, media, academy and other institutions.  Whether this relates to Prevent and other government sanctioned inter-faith work, or the operation of policies working to socially engineer the Muslim community (Ansari, 2006, IHRC et. al. 2005) hierarchies of racism are not only undergirded by government policy but exploited by them too.  Tackling this requires educational policies and revision of curricula in education, as well as measures to educate media providers, those working in legal institutions and those making law and policy.



  1. Removing hierarchies of racism and acknowledging Islamophobia as a form of racism.

This acknowledgment was not seen to be primarily one of fixing legal definitions, but of recognising the phenomena on a par with other forms of racism be it biological racism, or as often cited anti-Semitism.   


  1. A refocus on equalities, or ideas of injustice as the normative focus of the state.

The existing equalities framework of the United Kingdom was raised by several respondents to be a robust and pioneering one that, if given meaning by governmental support and various institutional cultures could provide both practical and legal redress for Muslims.  It was also seen to have the potentiality to provide (as some argued it already once did) the normative framework for British society that bucked current trends to single identity politics and culture.


  1. Accuracy in, agitation for and sanction for failure in delivering accurate representation in particular but not solely media representation.

Counter-narratives included the short-term need for supporting cases trying to get redress for misrepresentation of individuals using the current complaints mechanisms, encouraging more robust complaints mechanism that included the possibility of accountability for attacking communities, as well as the need to break media monopolies to ensure that media culture no longer becomes narrower in its political ideas were all raised as ways forward.


  1. A cultural shift in understanding who is part of the national, and how national histories have been intimately intertwined with Muslims and Muslim cultures and nations over centuries.

Dovetailing with (5) above, this looked at the particular uncovering of the histories of Muslims in the United Kingdom, and the unpacking of ideas and myths that reproduced ideas of Muslim and other minorities being ‘alien’ to or ‘undeserving’ of their place in British society.


  1. Recapturing and creating further space for Muslim narratives of being

This last counter-narrative argues that as well as but also in lieu of state interventions, inclusive movements that create space for Muslims (and others) to express their own aspirations and take part on their terms in offering solutions to the crisis of British society of which rampant and unchecked Islamophobia is but one symptom.  As with (1) and several others above, this works towards acknowledging but also transforming what Kundnani (2017) describes as the crisis at the heart of British society that impacts everyone.

In this regard, understanding Islamophobia both as a form of injustice that has its own particular impact on Muslims, is just one part of a project of transformation that is required across society.

The rise in Islamophobia preceded the rise of other forms of racist narratives that led arguably, at a structural level to Brexit, but also at the street-level to the rise in hate crime against those deemed non-British post-Brexit.  Its instrumentalization however straddles various political, economic and social spheres masking key causes of social, economic and political failure and oftentimes scapegoating Islam and Muslims.  This is where the problem ultimately lies, and where, as argued over and over in this research by respondents, the state, its agencies, the media, civil society and the law need to start at by admitting the problem.




Ahmed, Musthak, 2017 Interview with A. Merali Immigration and Employment Law Solicitor, IHRC Legal

Ansari, F. (2005 and 2006). British Anti-Terrorism: An Anti-Muslim Witch-hunt [online], Islamic Human Rights Commission, Available at:

Bouattia, Malia, 2017 Interview with A. Merali Former President of National Union of

Francois, M. (2015). Why is David Cameron using British Muslims as scapegoats for the governments failings? New Statesman [Online].  Available at:

Francois, Myriam, 2017 Interview with A. Merali Researcher, journalist, broadcaster

Islamic Human Rights Commission (2015) Press release: IHRC to end participation in anti-terror laws consultations. [Online] Available at: releases/11331-press-release-ihrc-to-end-participation-in-anti-terror-laws-consultation

Kundnani, Arun, 2017 Interview with A. Merali author and adjunct professor of media, culture and  communications

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Williams, Rowan, 2017 Interview with A. Merali former Archbishop of Canterbury, currently Master of Magdalen College, Cambridge