How can a conflict started nearly two decades ago still be so central in the public discourse and so relevant for societal dialogue? How can important achievements of foreign policy fail to change the way societies look at certain issues? And why do we struggle so much to look at terrorist attacks as isolated crimes, but find it so easy to ascribe them to an allegedly inherent, ugly side of a religion?
While it is not easy to answer these questions, a vast body of research points at the domestic dimension of the war on terror, and at the way several echo chambers have perpetuated the idea of a cultural incompatibility between Muslims and non-Muslims across the same spatial and temporal scale. In short, what started as a legitimate concern about criminal atrocities against innocent civilians, was soon turned into a broader issue about “Others’” level of adaptability and acquiescence to our liberal nation states and values.
There are many ways through which this narrative was established and standardised. Right-wing media outlets, questionable think tanks, ardently conservative Christian policy-makers, far-right Zionists, and full-blown xenophobic groups, all played a part in shaping the current approach to Muslims’ integration in Western societies, aided in their efforts by the blistering paced globalisation of the 21st Century and the resulting identity crisis of neoliberal societies. The volatility of the Middle East, the global financial crisis, and the refugee issue, only served as enablers for nothing short of an Islamophobia industry to develop, flourish, and become the key hijacker of interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence.
In his important book “The Islamophobia Industry”, Nathan Lean traces the roots of Islamophobia all the way back to the 1970s, when the United States turned away from the USSR and began to look at the oil-rich lands of the Middle East with increasing interest, starting a process of military interventionism which is at the base of the vicious circle of violence that continues to this day. Hawkish advocates of foreign interventionism see in the depiction of Muslims as enemies of state a way to achieve political and economic gains, and to perpetuate a state of fear and mistrust that keeps the industry afloat. This is why Lean contended that until the West “is no longer engaged in military conflicts with Muslim-majority countries for its own political and economic gain, Islamophobia will continue”.
The case for Britain is somewhat different, yet it remains central to understand how and why exactly the fire of Islamophobia is fuelled. While Britain has not been a key player in the Middle East since the 1950s, it has played a crucial role in the war on terror by establishing an exclusive partnership with hard-line Washington policy-makers, stepping out of the realm of international law to pursue questionable objectives of foreign policy. However, the war on terror coupled with Britain’s multiculturalism (an almost unique yet essential legacy left by the former British Empire), has produced a crucial paradox. Can Britain cherish and protect its historical multiculturalism and the coexistence of different faiths and beliefs at a time in which it is a central player in the war against Islamist terrorism?
Having made of Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern Muslims an integral part of the fabric of British society, more should have been done to safeguard the identities of Muslims after 7/7 unveiled the danger of home-grown terrorism and imposed stringent measures of securitisation. For many years, however, society has regrettably closed an eye on the spreading of anti-Muslim narratives because it subscribed to the idea that a fight against terrorism could legitimise a temporary trumping of civil liberties and mutual respect. People’s fear of becoming victims of what was portrayed as nothing short of a holy war, prevailed over any sort of rational assessment of the many problems that liberal and democratic societies would be faced with.
However, it was not entirely society’s fault. For many non-Muslims, 9/11 and 7/7 were an introduction to a phenomenon they simply did not know it existed. For many, the attacks were not related to international affairs, nor did they have a geopolitical backdrop, but were the side of a religion to which they had paid little or no attention to until that point. Ironically, the same reasoning can be applied to the majority of Muslims who profess their faith in peace and harmony, and were as troubled by the new developments as their non-Muslim counterparts. But being such a new phenomenon, it was normal to ask questions, however uncomfortable, about Islam. It was indeed imperative for western societies so eager to adopt a common, global identity to wonder to what extent the religious complexities of nearly two billion Muslims naturally contained the seeds of violence, or whether the localised context that prompted the emergence of more hard-line interpretation of Islam was the main contributor to what was increasingly seen as the “Islamic problem”.
With time, societies’ concerns with Islam and Muslims increased, partly as a result of isolated, extremist actions emerging from the widespread sense of grievance developed after the 2003 war in Iraq, partly as a result of an incessant campaign aimed at creating a fracture between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As argued by Lean, the depiction of Islam as a controversial religion inherently prone to violence, “makes it easier for states to justify foreign policies that benefit them”, which means that for as long as the idea of a moral incompatibility between Islam and the western world is maintained, the justification for foreign invasions will be widespread. As such, it is not a case that cohorts of far-right and pseudo-liberal thinkers who question the whole of Islam as an identity, are also those more in support of military action in the Middle East. Supporting this narrative means being able to justify an aggressive foreign policy in lands mostly seen as backwards, autocratic and dangerous for our liberal way of thinking.
In recent times, British Islamophobia has taken an interesting turn, extending across seemingly opposite sides of the spectrum and bringing under the same anti-Muslim banner a wide array of players. Indeed, while prejudice impacts every aspect of life among British minorities, from education to housing and from representation in the Criminal Justice System to unemployment, three trends have developed within the framework of the alleged clash of civilization that has punctuated interfaith dialogues since 9/11 and 7/7. Specifically, three segments operating across broader society are responsible for perpetuating the idea that Muslims constitute a threat to our way of life.
Far-right Islamophobia, such as that spread by groups such as English Defence League (EDL) or Britain First (BF), is moulded upon visibly illiberal, fascist principles, aimed at pushing an agenda centred upon a cultural retreat and rejection of multiculturalism. While in some countries such as Hungary, Greece, Germany, and Austria, these voices have found a way into the political sphere, in Britain they remain primarily confined at street level – with the exception of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which however has moved away from a hard-line rhetoric about Islam and non-White ethnicities. Much of the success of these groups stems from a shared rejection of ‘the other’, which aides the building of an abstract British identity that swings between a way forward in a globalised age and nostalgic echoes of 19th Century Britain.
Far-right Islamophobia is undoubtedly the easiest to spot, and the most opposed to. Its vile, violent and barbaric manifestations are diametrically opposed to liberal and inclusive western societies, and while they still retain some appeal across certain segments of British society – particularly those most affected by the global financial crisis – they are broadly condemned in the mainstream.
The results of Far-Right Islamophobia, however, are devastating, as the case of Darren Osborne – the terrorist of the Finsbury Park mosque – proved. In this regard, Far-Right Islamophobia also differs from the other two because it often leads to prosecutable crimes: in 2016/17, the Islamophobic hate crimes recorded by the Metropolitan Police Force amounted to 1,264, a nearly 14% increase from 2015/16.
Way more subtle and equally dangerous, however, is the so-called ‘Liberal’ Islamophobia, which is presented under the mantle of “progressive” Islam – thus able to find consensus among liberal masses – and which is used to advance particular narratives about inherent issues with Islam and Muslims. Organisations such as Tell Mama, or Sara Khan’s Inspire and others, have established themselves as spokespeople for “progressive” Muslims simply by subscribing to the level of religiosity tolerable by broader society, which in turn sets a standard as to what is an acceptable version of Islam. More than that, they also call for scrutiny of the religion and its followers, thus justifying, seemingly from a Muslim’s perspective, concerns about those Muslim communities who hold different views from theirs. It is critical to point out that their success depends entirely on their ability to reject more extreme ideas related to an irreconcilable clash of civilisations and cultures – such as those advanced by Far-Right groups – while simultaneously admitting that there is, in fact, an inherent problem of religion.
It is through the presence of these individuals in the mainstream that the line between extremism and religious conservativism gets blurred. Because society has been taught that conservative religious views can lead to extremism, liberal Muslims are seen as the only ‘type’ of Muslims that can coexist with western societies because, quite ironically, they have fully embraced their liberalism. The presence of these ‘leaders’, enables the thinking that any different religious manifestation should be investigated, scrutinised, and possibly opposed.
One classic example is the issue of the Islamic veil, seen as a remnant of the past and thus irreconcilable in societies that value equal rights and liberalism. Gradually, the hijab, and even more so the niqab, have come to be categorised as signs of overzealous religious devotion, if not full-blown oppression, without ever been seen as the free expression of a woman’s religiosity.
A third dimension of Islamophobia is that of Securitization-driven Islamophobia, which includes Think Tanks that seek to tackle violent and non-violent extremism as part of the broader war on terror agenda. Organisations such as the Quilliam Foundation (QF) or the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) are especially insidious because they borrow elements of both Far-Right and Liberal Islamophobia, masking their own under the banner of necessary efforts to forestall terrorist attacks. While QF and HJS have a different origin – the former was founded by two ex-extremists and the latter by neoconservative pseudo-intellectuals – they share remarkably similar traits in the way they approach the issue of interfaith coexistence and terrorism, while also being dangerously highly influential among policy-makers.
While both QF and HJS are recipients of funds from the International Islamophobia network, as exposed by Spinwatch, they also have repeatedly expressed alarming views that strongly resemble the rhetoric adopted by Far-Right activists. Maajid Nawaz from QF openly declared that “multiculturalism has failed”, and Douglas Murray from HJS went as far as saying that “to have less terrorism the UK needs less Islam”. However, a key enabler of Securitization-driven Islamophobia is that it employs elitists, self-appointed pseudo-experts that masquerade their Islamophobia as an opposition to extremism rather than as an irrational rejection of a specific religious identity. While contributing to spreading divisive and Islamophobic theories, these cohorts of specialists-wannabes do little more than providing an eco-chamber for existing governmental strategies and amplify their powers and scope, regardless of their effectiveness and empirical limitations.
Furthermore, the Securitization-driven Islamophobia is (at times) able to elude accusations of extremism by professing an acceptance of ‘moderate’ forms of Islam. Borrowing from the Liberal Islamophobia, they pass judgement as to what constitutes an acceptable religious behaviour while nonchalantly labelling more conservative forms of religious identities as extreme, and thus in contrast to the western way of life, if not explicitly dangerous.
It is difficult to ascertain whether this Islamophobia spectrum is dominated by a genuine conviction that Islam is a dangerous religion or by economic and political reasons, although it could be reasonably be inferred that the truth lays somewhere in the middle. Indeed, the Islamophobia business is worth $57 million in the United States alone, and the international web of alliances that sustains it – the so-called “Islamophobia Network” – is a self-fuelling machine that relies on fear and misinformation. The economic and political gains of maintaining the Islamophobia industry afloat, however, also depend on the appeal that the industry has in broader society, that is, the extent to which the industry can convince the public that Muslims and Islam are dangerous. The scaremongering campaign is thus capable of instilling genuine concern across society and influencing policies and voting patterns, while simultaneously increasing societal divides by pitting one minority against the other.
The fight against Islamophobia, just as the fight against anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudicial hate, begins by raising awareness of the many faces of those who make profits through fear and bigotry. Acknowledging the existence of a well-orchestrated attempt to create a civilizational struggle is an important step towards a greater ability to defeat prejudice, and an effective antidote against misinformation and stigmatisation.
Even more importantly, recognising the political and economic motivations behind the actions of the Islamophobia network can lead to the deconstruction of the narratives it advances, thus allowing a shift of focus towards what matters the most: mental health issues, foreign policy, isolation, unemployment, socio-economic deprivation and a whole host of other factors that could lead an individual to radicalisation.
 QF turned to US donors after the UK Government cut its funding in 2011, receiving funds from organisations as the John Templeton Foundation (involved in actively mobilising tea party activists, and which donated to QF over $1.6m in 2011-15); the Stuart Family Foundation (longstanding donor to major conservative think tanks, and which donated to QF over $1m in 2011-15); the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (largest and most influential right-wing organisation, and which donated to QF $75,000 in 2013); the Schwab Charitable Fund (reliable ally of pro-Israel lobbying groups, and which donated to QF $75,000 in 2012-16); and the Eranda Rothschild Foundation (which also gives money to neoconservative and Islamophobic groups as well as an Israel-based organisation active in settlement activities in East Jerusalem, and which gave to QF $188,500 in 2010-13, and further sums which have not been disclosed). Likewise, the HJS receives funds from US organisations, such as the Abstraction Fund, presided by Nina Rosenwald. Famously dubbed “the Sugar Mama of anti-Muslim Hate”, Rosenwald is the founder and director of the right-wing Gatestone Institute, and is also a former member of the National Board of AIPAC. Since 2000, Rosenwald has splashed nearly $3 million to finance the Gatestone Institute, the Center for Security Policy, Project ijtihad, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Middle East Forum, the Clarion Fund, Commentary magazine and the Hudson Institute. All these institutions have the common goal of fanning “the flames of Islamophobia.”
Dr Antonio Perra is a Senior Policy Analyst at MEND in London.