Monday, 24 January 2011
Religion may be a red herring when it comes to anti-Islam sentiment
Casual generalisations about Muslims often take the place of deeper discussion of migration and integration
# guardian.co.uk, Monday 24 January 2011 12.57 GMT
The question: Is hatred of Islam now acceptable?
"Are you a practising Muslim"? is one of the first questions I am asked socially. Initially, I took it to be harmless curiosity about reconciling faith and London living. But over time, I realised that mostly it was shorthand for "Are you that kind of Muslim?" – the underlying assumption being that a practising Muslim is automatically a more extreme type than the non-practising one. While this goalpost-moving is mildly annoying, it's nothing sinister. Reassured that I am not that kind of Muslim (rather, one that although practising, is secular in outlook/dress etc) many then are comfortable to make the comments and jokes Lady Warsi claims are "Islamophobic".
Islamophobia is a strong word, and one that is too often used as a catch-all. I am not much concerned with what people express in private as long as it is not manifested in public affairs or in an intimidating or discriminatory fashion.
Has it become more commonplace to make casual generalisations about Muslims? In my experience, yes it has, but we need to discriminate between comments made in a social setting (which can result from a combination of social awkwardness, tasteless sense of humour, general clumsiness or a way to make people feel better about themselves by agonising over the woman next door who wears a burqa) and others that are made by columnists, opinion leaders and politicians.
These are the avowals that lend such opinions an air of respectable legitimacy – where fear of Islam then bleeds into the political sphere and starts stepping on the toes of freedom. Philip Hollobone's attempt last year to ban women in burqas from attending his surgery was a manifestation of this and fringe parties can then also annex general discomfort into political capital and support. This is the creeping discourse that see many practising Muslims being classed as extreme.
This is not to say that people should self-censor and default to muted political correctness, another cul de sac. But a more nuanced reflection would be helpful, one that focuses on social exclusion, poverty, the climate in Muslim cultures of origin and real, existing negative practices – rather than banging on about verses in the Qur'an. More often than not Islam is brought up to avoid tackling the more complicated and emotive topics of immigration and integration. It is convenient shorthand for Muslims as well, where religion is closely tied to search for identity and expression, and Islamophobia an easy cop out from seriously engaging and claiming responsibility for community isolation.
True, there is a special place in atheist hell reserved for Islam but Britain's tradition of integration and inclusion is more robust than the cheap sensationalistic shots of Richard Dawkins et al. Indeed, in the wake of Hollobone's attempt to ban burqa-clad women, representatives of Liberty were looking into whether his endeavour was in violation of the Equality Act.
The truth is somewhere between Victoria Coren's trivialising and Giles Fraser's pronunciations that Islamophobia is the moral blindspot of modern Britain. Lady Warsi was right to tackle the rising tide of anti-Islam sentiment but was wrong to root it in the fact that the new secular intellectual drift has no tolerance for people like her who "get God". Religion may be a red herring in this instance. I do think most religious practices are seen as anachronistic or just plain weird in an increasingly godless society but that's not the starting point with regards to Islam. It's about being a distinct minority under the spotlight and how the political/social body is reacting and coming to terms with it
Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer and commentator who lives in London. She previously worked in the financial sector