Community Responses to challenging Islamaphobia

Below is a speech delivered by JUST’s Director Ratna Lachman on the 22nd of November at a an event organized by the Muslim Engagement and Development Project.

In the context of our contemporary reality, I firmly believe that you cannot challenge Islamaphobia unless you challenge state responses to Muslims in the so-called war on terror.

Asking the community to be at the vanguard of the struggle to change public attitudes towards Muslims is unfair because this is not a problem of their making. Yes some Muslims have been radicalized; some have chosen to go down the path of extremism and even terrorism – but the majority are law-abiding citizens who are just as horrified at the atrocities that are being perpetrated as the next non-Muslim person.

The government’s response to Muslim extremism has made it difficult for the Muslim community to tackle Islamaphobia for a number of reasons.

There are clear differences in perspectives between organisations who have received Prevent monies and those who haven’t. Likewise the government’s response to the war on terror has pitted organisaitons like Quillam who are deemed to be progressive against the Muslim Council of Britain who are viewed with suspicion. Similarly some strands of Islam like the Ahmaddiyas appear to have a preferred status while other strands are seen as problematic. These divisive strategies have been unhelpful because they have undermined mutual trust and solidarity.

In the light of the above challenges, how effective have responses to countering Islamaphobia been to date?

Firstly, those of us who have been part of the Black struggle know that historically inter-community and intra-community solidarity have been key in the struggle for equality and racial justice.

Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of Muslim organisations, set up specifically to address Islamaphobia. The referencing of the struggle in purely Muslim terms without an accompanying power analysis or an understanding of the broader societal implications for civil liberty and human rights has prevented the development of broader coalitions of solidarity.

Secondly in a district like Bradford, we are seeing Muslim organisations taking a siloed-approach to issues like child sexual exploitation, street grooming, hate crime, democratic engagement, educational performance in schools, the Trojan Horse controversy etc. despite clear evidence that they affect both Muslim and non-Muslim people of colour.

Thirdly in a period of austerity, when BME organisations are struggling to survive, the monies that have funded Prevent projects have been construed as ‘privileging’ Muslim communities. Although such interpretations fail to appreciate the detrimental impact of the war on terror on Muslim communities, it nonetheless has prevented the building of alliances with broader civil society.

I don’t underestimate the impact of the government’s 13-year war on terror on Muslim communities. The steady ratcheting up of the official rhetoric; the development of a multi-pronged policy framework; the introduction of legislation after legislation; the curtailment of civil liberties and human rights has resulted in terms like Muslim, Islam, radicalization, extremism, terrorism being used interchangeably as part of popular nomenclature.

In the face of this perceived ‘immanent’ terrorist threat Muslims are not only viewed as suspect communities but every public institution, every frontline worker and every citizen have become co-opted as extensions of the surveillance arm of the state.

If we are going to tackle Islamaphobia meaningfully then we have to start disentangling the tightly weaved strands of stereotypes, myths and prejudice that have become embedded in the collective national consciousness. W need clear frameworks of accountability, which allow us to interrogate the saliency of the claims that are being made against Muslim communities in the name of the war on terror.

However given the absence of political will to build an alternative paradigm around the war on terror, the Muslim community must reach out to civil society and like-minded individuals committed to racial justice, civil liberties and human rights to develop a broad coalition in an attempt to challenge state and institutional Islamaphobia.

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