To defeat ‘the other’, we must increase Muslim engagement in public life

Muslims in the West are fortunate to live in liberal societies. By and large, our societies are tolerant[i]: they are open-minded to other cultures, religions, beliefs and practices. Moreover, people are free to express views and carry out practices different from wider societal norms, as long they don’t infringe on other’s rights or safety. This is enshrined in law. In Europe, including the UK, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), article 9 permits “Rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and “Freedom to manifest religion in belief, worship, teaching, practice and observance.” This is only limited “by law, in the interests of public safety, protection of public order” or “to protect the rights and freedoms of others.”

Furthermore, this has allowed us public privileges in practising our religion. In the UK, we have mosques for every sect, language and racial identity. Halal restaurants and butchers cater for a wide variety of cuisines. We have the right to public demonstrations. We have faith schools. We have prayer spaces in public areas including airports, hospitals, the National History Museum and Westfield shopping centre. There is legal protection against discrimination based on race or religion.

Yes, this paints a rosy picture, as there are problems in our societies. But I’m focusing on what we do have, privileges we have won over decades, because we are in danger of losing them. Across Western Europe and North America, Islamophobia is growing, and worryingly, it is becoming institutionalised. At the heart of the populist movements behind Trump and Brexit is a fear and hatred of minority groups, including Muslims. The rhetoric against these groups is marked by a claim of collective national identity. Brexit supporters crowed about “Taking our country back” and “controlling our borders”. Not just from the Europeans, but the Muslims.

Trump wants to “Make America Great Again” by banning Muslims from entering the US, carpet-bombing the Middle East, and killing the relatives of suspected terrorists. In Europe, Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West) uses the slogan “Wir sind das Volk”, translated to “We are the people.” We can expect far-right movements in France and Germany to have similar success in the 2017 elections. This is worrying on two levels: firstly, it is indicative of reducing social tolerance of Islam, and normalisation of anti-Islamic sentiment. Hate crimes against Muslims surged a shocking 326% last year.[ii] Secondly, this is intolerance could become institutionalised to deny us basic citizenship rights.

Growing Islamophobia can be attributed to ‘othering.’[iii] People tend to categorise to break down the complex world around them. They build an identity for themselves, and they decide, in that identity, how they differ from others. Categorisation in this way allows for people to share common individualities to form a collective identity, but in doing so creates boundaries. Those outside these boundaries form ‘the other’, who are reduced to generalisations and stereotypes. This is easy to do; my explanation of the populist movements behind Brexit and Trump is intentionally simplified; they represent a complex coalition of interests. But the consequences of ‘othering’ are dangerous.

Through the media, ‘othering’ contributes directly to Islamophobia. Media portrayals of Muslims are usually either in conflict related settings abroad, or civil unrest at home. The media tends to focus on negative issues, and this may be the only experience with Islam some have. Therefore, people build a negative impression of Islam and Muslims. This is exacerbated by the tendency to focus on Islam, a collective identity at odds with a Western identity, rather than the individual beliefs and personal history held by violent extremists. ‘Othering’ manifests in Islamophobia through four negative discourses, to try to explain Islam’s role in negative events. Firstly, Islam is connected to terrorism and political violence. Only 0.007% of Muslims identify with extremist terrorist organisations[iv], but this tiny minority represents our ideology and collective identity. Quranic verses are taken out of context to misrepresent our religion as violent.

Secondly, the Islamic world is presented as socio-culturally backwards relative to the enlightened West, and a third discourse sees religion, including Islam, as a barrier to universally held secular values and norms. A final discourse presents a global conflict between these worlds akin to the Cold War. Those who use these discourses to present Islam as backward would do well to be educated by their own liberal forefathers. They saw Islam as “pure monotheism of high moral calibre, a revolutionary force for positive change, and one more rational and less bound to the miraculous than other religions.” [v] To challenge Islamophobia, a more positive, and representative view of Islam needs to dominate the popular discourse. Active engagement with our society is even more effective; our non-Muslim friends and colleagues reject these discourses through their shared positive experiences with us.

There is no smoke without fire. Ultimately, the fears that fuel Islamophobia are rooted in real events and ideologies. In the name of our religion, civilians have been killed both in the West – in Paris, London and New York – and far more in Muslim countries – Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Western military interventions have played their part in destabilising these regions, and in generating anger from Muslims across the world. However, in the creation of radicals in Britain, there are failings at home. Certain Muslim communities are segregated from the rest of society.

The Cantle Report found these communities live parallel lives, having “separate education, employment, social and cultural networks, and community bodies”.[vi] Moreover, these are economically disadvantaged communities. 46% of Muslims reside in the 10% most deprived local authority districts, and it is these districts that have been left behind. Disengaged with wider society and living in deprivation, they become disenfranchised. Enter the radical recruiters. They are charismatic, and sell a powerful narrative of a Caliphate to defend Muslims’ rights around the world. This provides meaning to their own lives, and creates solidarity with the Muslims suffering in the Middle East and elsewhere. These radicalised ‘Islamists’ now view wider society as ‘the other’. The violent radicals travel to the Middle East to aid ISIS or commit atrocities at home.

There is a marked parallel here with right-wing extremists. They are likely to come from similarly deprived areas, and in fact may live side by side these Muslim communities. They have also been left behind, and buy into a parallel narrative, but one with Muslims as ‘the other’, the enemy. There is a lesson here for the government to listen to those who have left behind, and this is a key driver behind populist movements. However, as Muslims are left behind, if radicalisation is the response, Islamophobia will only grow, leading to greater discrimination and marginalisation, leading to further isolation and radicalisation.

As a community, we cannot allow this to happen. There must be a collective response through greater participation in public life. Firstly, we need to build a stronger collective identity as British Muslims. If we do not provide an alternative narrative to the radicals for ourselves, others will do so for us. We will face discrimination and distrust even if we are ‘moderates’, and what is ‘moderate’ will be defined for us. We need to be loyal to our national identity alongside our religious one, as 75% of us already are. Moreover, this identity must accept the social contract of Britain; though our right to practise Islam faithfully is non-negotiable, we acknowledge the separation of Religion and state, and we are tolerant of diverging beliefs and practices. 17% of British Muslims want to live separately from wider society, and 23% desire Sharia law.[vii] For the reasons discussed, such segregation violates the social contract, and feeds directly into both Islamophobia and radicalisation.

I recognise building such a collective identity will not be an easy task. We have clear differences between religious sects, cultures and languages. Even where these differences are irreconcilable on a religious level, they must be discussed rather than avoided. Religious beliefs are a deeply personal part of an individual identity, and it is unreasonable to expect anyone to give them up. It is reasonable to expect us to understand the basis of other Muslims’ beliefs and perspectives, and forgive the differences for cultural unity. A lack of a strong cultural identity allows radical Islamist viewpoints to gain traction.[viii] Furthermore, if we cannot tolerate fellow Muslims with different viewpoints, what hope do we have to tolerate wider society?

The second aspect of the collective response is to sustain political engagement at local levels, and improve it in areas of national influence. We have been strong participants in civil society, campaigning to resolve many of the issues discussed.[ix] The ‘Stop the War’ coalition protesting the Iraq war brought Muslims together with other groups to challenge British foreign policy. The ‘#Not in my Name’ social media campaign allows us to condemn the actions and ideology of radical groups like ISIS. Muslims have been active participants in ARK (Acts of Random Kindness), which offers an opportunity to help other marginalised communities and wider society. Supporting these movements is representation in local government: there are 200 Muslim councillors nationwide, and mosques have played an important role in consulting local government in areas including Birmingham, Leicester and Tower Hamlets.

Alongside sustained growth in these movements, we need to be represented further at the highest levels. Through the government and civil service, we can advocate for support to marginalised communities left behind, and against destructive foreign policy. Through the mainstream media and academia, we can provide representative positive discourses of Islam. Only 1% of MPs are Muslim, compared to 5% of the population. We are similarly underrepresented in the civil service and media. The exceptions, such as Sadiq Khan, Mehdi Hasan and Dame Nemat Shafik, are the role models for young people in our communities. Achieving proportionate representation will be challenging, given the systematic disadvantages many of our communities face. But achieving it is imperative. We must do our part to preserve our place in society, and to preserve the tolerant values of our society itself.

[i] Murphy, A. (1997). Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition. Polity, 29(4), 593-623.

[ii] UK entering unchartered territory of Islamophobia after Brexit vote, Ted Jeory, Independent, June 2016

[iii] Creutz-Kämppi, K. (2008). The othering of Islam in a European context: Polarizing discourses in Swedish-language dailies in Finland. Nordicom Review, 29(2), 295–308.

[iv] Jihadist threat not as big as you think, Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, CNN, September 2014

[v] Islamophobia: the othering of Europe’s Muslims, Hassan Mahamdallie, International Socialism, A quarterly review of socialist theory, April 2015

[vi] Brighton, S. (2007), British Muslims, multiculturalism and UK foreign policy: ‘integration’ and ‘cohesion’ in and beyond the state. International Affairs, 83: 1–17.

[vii] Half of all British Muslims think homosexuality should be illegal, Perraudin,

[viii] Islam and the Cultural Imperative, Umar Faruq Abdallah, Nawawi Foundation, 2004

[ix] Taking part: Muslim participation in contemporary governance, Therese O’Toole; Daniel Nilsson DeHanas; Tariq Modood; Nasar Meer; Stephen Jones, Centre for Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, University of Bristol, January 2013


by Rehan Mirza