Islamophobia Awareness is not only for November

Professor Salman Sayyid, Chair in Decolonial Thought and Rhetoric at the University, has written an opinion piece with his personal reflections on Islamophobia Awareness Month.

Professor Salman Sayyed

You can read the University’s message of support for all in our community around events in Israel and Gaza on For Staff.  

 

November has been designated as Islamophobia Awareness Month, a time when forward-looking organizations and individuals reflect on the persistence of backwardness in their operations, structures, and societies.

Islamophobia Awareness Month joins the calendar of commemorations (e.g., Black History Month, Disability History Month, LGBTQ+ History Month) which allow marginalized groups and issues to interrupt the embedded memories of majorities (whether hegemonic or merely demographic), reminding us of the need for empathetic enlargement and for the embrace of those unjustly excluded from a sense of community. It provides an opportunity to broaden our understanding and expand our sense of solidarity.

Islamophobia describes a process rather than a people. Islamophobia is not about Muslims, nor is it about a religion; it is a type of racism.  For example, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, was killed, his beard and turban marking him out as a Muslim in the eyes of his killer.

Racism is not a product inherent to the existence of races, as much popular commentary maintains. Instead, it is racism which produces the schemas that divide human populations into a hierarchy of trans-historical immutable formations (races). Racism operates as a system of regulation, a form of governance. It is not merely a collection of ignorant attitudes floating around in the ether, disguised as the plain-speaking of platitudinous pundits on social media or the street thuggery of 'ignorant trouble-makers'.

Islamophobia Awareness Month serves as a reminder that Islamophobia constitutes a form of racism directed at expressions of (perceived) Muslimness. Muslimness is a mobile category which varies in different temporalities and localities; it has included not only familiar sartorial markers, such as hijabs, but also practices such as using olive oil for cooking and bathing too frequently. Muslimness has been considered synonymous with being fanatical or fatalistic, politically apathetic or politically active, homophobic or homoerotic, sexually repressed or sexually excessive, supporting causes (e.g., pro-Palestinian advocacy) or opposing them (e.g., LGBTQ+ rights).

Muslimness evolves into a complex web of metaphors and assumptions that cling to individual bodies. In the context of Islamophobia, the issue is not the empirical accuracy of these descriptions, but rather the consistent failure of Muslimness to meet the Goldilocks test; it is perpetually deemed either too hot or too cold. Islamophobia ensures that Muslimness can never be 'just right'.

Islamophobia, as a type of racism, ranges from micro-aggressions to genocide. It encompasses abuse, threats of violence, and actual violence directed at those considered to be Muslims. However, like most other forms of discrimination, Islamophobia is not simply the result of a few individuals acting inappropriately; it has an institutional aspect that makes it invisible except for the differential outcomes it produces. Protocols, policies, and procedures are often assembled without much regard for the way they generate injustice and undermine a sense of belonging.

Following the hard-won successes of anti-racist and other civil rights struggles, there appears to be a general consensus opposing all forms of discrimination in their visceral manifestations – such as street violence, insults, unfavourable and hostile treatment in accessing employment opportunities, healthcare, or housing. This opposition to discrimination seems to sit inexplicably comfortably alongside the persistence of all that it claims to oppose.

The struggle against Islamophobia, however, presents a specific set of challenges to universities and other bastions of liberal comportment. Firstly, there continues to be an entrenched belief that Islamophobia is about protecting religion from criticism. Universities pride themselves on their ability to critique conventional wisdom in their quest to forge knowledge. Furthermore, contemporary universities in this country, notwithstanding their checkered past, consider themselves resolutely secular in temperament and mission.

Secondly, the struggle against Islamophobia has become mired in the challenges that universities face in understanding the persistence of gaps between their commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion and the experiences of students and staff. Without a willingness to understand why discriminatory practices continue, it is always difficult to institutionalize sustained ameliorative measures.

Finally, the struggle against Islamophobia is complicated not only because universities are part of their societies – and not ivory towers – therefore participating in the reproduction of behaviours and norms, but also because they have been battlegrounds for culture wars within these societies. Both Labour and Conservative governments have targeted universities with policies that are Islamophobic in effect (even if a generous reading would wish to conclude), not in intent. The countering violent extremism policies (PREVENT) of both Labour and Conservative governments have blamed universities for "corrupting youth". As a recent Amnesty International report (https://www.amnesty.org.uk/Prevent) revealed, these policies have chilling impacts that not only undermine human rights but also subvert the cherished role of universities as spaces of academic freedom.

A common response to these challenges is to argue that Islamophobia should be replaced by a better word. This ignores that the meaning of words is determined by their use, not their etymology, and that the value of a concept is the work it does.  The concept of Islamophobia allows us to identify discrimination individually, institutionally and epistemologically. It is a means for ensuring that the promise of a university community is not subverted by racism’s contemporary disguises. Being aware of Islamophobia is not only a service to marginalised members of our society, but also a reminder that if civil and human rights are to be effective, they have to be indivisible. Justice is for all. The concept of Islamophobia is a tool for justice.

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