The normalisation of Islamophobia: what causes align with your ‘brand’?

By Tahmina Begum

Published Jun 25, 2021 at 09:40 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

It’s hard to talk about Islamophobia because there’s so much tension.

There’s the ‘good Muslim’ act Muslims perform daily to persuade non-Muslims that, no, we’re not terrorists. Actually, most of us get on fine, seeing as there’s nearly 2 billion of us in the world. There’s the defensive nature surrounding Islamophobia, for those who propel anti-Islamic rhetoric in both the large ways (pushing xenophobic ideas and trying to ‘get rid’ of Muslims) and in the small ways (saying dumb things like “It must be so oppressive to be a Muslim woman. I feel so bad for you.”). There’s also the trauma and the automatic defence mechanism that goes up by Muslims and ex-Muslims alike, because we want to show we’re not affected by the bigotry that has arguably shaped us—the collective trauma we share.

In addition to all of this, on a parliamentary level, the last decade has especially seen the rise of right-wing and Islamophobic laws globally. In February of this year, France passed a legislative bill to combat “Islamist separatism,” an ideology that describes “the enemy of the Republic.” French Muslims have said this bill unfairly targets them and many have noted that although the bill is supposedly ‘neutral’, it all has links to the French Muslim community. In the UK, Muslim Labour voters have recently been blamed for the dip in voter counts, with a 12 per cent drop in favourability.

Last Ramadan, Labour party leader Keir Starmer declined to be a part of Ramadan celebrations with the Muslim community at the digital Open Iftar, after pro-Israel groups questioned the views of Open Iftar’s CEO Omar Salha. Salha’s tweet said, “This #Ramadan, Don’t Eat into #Palestine,” essentially encouraging the boycott of Israeli goods.

During the Israel and Palestine tensions, I witnessed so many people across social media say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know much about this topic, I don’t want to appear anti-semitic’ yet it felt like no one cared about appearing Islamophobic. And why would they, when Islam is being treated like a deadly virus people need to step away from?

When asking in a Twitter poll if Islamophobia has become more normalised, 89 per cent of voters said yes. When I asked on my Instagram if Islamophobia has become more acceptable and if other causes have become ‘trendier’ to align with—the response was staggering. Many of the respondents noted the role the media has in the negative perception of Muslims.

Some said, “Islam is seen as ‘backwards’ versus other struggles such as LGBTQ+ rights are seen as being ‘progressive’.” Claudia, 30 said, “Islamophobia, as opposed to other forms of racism and prejudice certainly seems more normalised to me. Many people seem to not be afraid of being perceived as Islamophobic.” Another said, “Calling it ‘trendy’ is a reductive take but Islamophobia is definitely more normalised.”

Masuda, 27 told me, “The ‘work’ that has been done so far has not been enough to shift the narrative (for example, oppressive tropes) and humanise Muslims. When we do see ‘liberated’ Muslim characters, they are often positioned as the exception to the rules, the one that’s gone against the grain of their culture and religion to have the agency they’ve been seeking.”

Whereas Qavi, 26 pointed out that “so many other religions have the same rules, whether it comes to eating pork, drinking alcohol and even anal sex, but it’s because Muslim still follow these guidelines that we aren’t viewed as liberal. Religion has become taboo nowadays so anything that religion stands for is seen as outdated.”

There seem to be two things happening at once: Islamophobic denial—the refusal to accept that Muslims are being scapegoated and marginalised—as Islamophobia towards Muslim communities continues to rise. So what is the truth?

At times, it does come back to reporting, as Nesrine Malik wrote about for The Guardian. If my default is Islamophobic bias, the fear of a Muslim-majority planet, then no matter how covert, that will be reflected in the truths I am trying to seek.

For example, it is Muslims that are being blamed for the drop in Labour’s voter count yet no one is asking why is it that after decades of unwavering commitment towards Labour, Muslims are taking a step back? Starmer may not have been a part of the digital Open Iftar event but where was his or Labour’s efforts in partaking in the Ramadan festivities—something Labour politicians especially have historically done.

Many a time, Islamophobia, just like any other form of systemic oppression, is transparent. Careless words become normalised views which then become the catalyst behind hateful attacks. “The hatred towards Islam from top-down is obviously political and historic, but what has developed this in recent years is the idea that Islamophobic comments are not racist because they’re technically true,” said Adam, 25, in response to my query on the normalisation of Islamophobia across my Instagram.

“Coverage of the grooming gangs in Rochdale and elsewhere was not Islamophobic because it is apparently true that Islam encourages this abhorrent behaviour. This is in fact similar to a lot of anti-semitism (e.g. the idea that suggesting Jews run the world isn’t racist because ‘it’s true’) but it happens on a smaller scale, and crucially it is countered more and often by non-Jewish people in solidarity,” he added.

“It is quite common for anti-Muslim groups to show solidarity with causes that they think Muslims oppose. It is why the English Defence League (EDL) came out in mass protest in light of the grooming gangs scandal, despite paedophilia being rife in their organisation. I recall another story where a UKIP member called for a ban on halal meat, citing that it was the method of slaughter he disapproved of (in solidarity with animal rights activists). He didn’t realise that his proposed ban would also ban Jewish Kosher meat, and had to issue an apology to the Jewish community, but obviously no such apology to Muslims for obvious reasons.”

Similarly, when there have been accusations of anti-semitism in both the Labour and Conservative party, many MPs stood their ground that this was unacceptable and any anti-semitisim should be met with serious consequences. However, many people across my Instagram polls shared that this same respect has not been presented to the Muslim community when it has come to eradicating Islamophobia. No protest has been formed by MPs, if anything, these complaints occur occasionally, with no consequence. The Tories have even recently released a report that there is absolutely no Islamophobia in the Conservative party, which feels just as accurate as the Tories sharing that Britain is not racist.

This isn’t about playing into oppression olympics and tallying up who has it worse. What this is about is whose oppression seems obligatory to align with and whose we can scroll past. As oppression does not remove the ability to oppress another.

Though those black boxes on Instagram for #BlackLivesMatter were pointless last year, what it did do was cause noise. Now when you think about those that are being targeted and those who are living through civil wars, whose struggles do we accept and normalise and whose is it do we want to change? How are we picking what to care about and whose lives we’re willing to put the democratic effort into?

Perhaps, it’s this sprint of social media activism we do which means that one month, we all have the energy to focus on an atrocity so that, comes another, our efforts are already tired and die down before we even try. What we need to look at is actually why we pick and support a specific cause? Does it make us appear more ‘woke’? Make us look ‘cooler’? More progressive? Is that other marginalised group too taboo and not digestible enough to fight for across 15 seconds in an Instagram Story? What is it that we’re scared to say and stand for? If so, why?

I personally see non-Muslims being afraid to speak out about Islamophobia because right now, Muslims aren’t ‘cool’ to align with. With our negative press and the fact that our struggles are yet to be made commercially and aesthetically pleasing in order for there to be an outpour of rage across social media. Instead, there’s a complacent attitude that Muslims must tolerate the issues we go through within and outside of our communities. This human rights issue should make you want to speak up against Islamophobia, not fall into the complicit trap of silence. Or does it simply not align with your ‘brand’?

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