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Does British politics Perpetuate Islamophobia?

 *content warning – sensitive racial issues*

The last two decades have witnessed the proliferation of Islamophobic discourse into British politics and media. Muslims are a central political scapegoat for problems created by the government, painted as public enemy number one. This is nothing new because multiculturalism has always been seen as “undermining British values”. However, major political developments such as Brexit, the hostile environment policies, and Boris Johnson’s rise to Prime Minister have really seen these discriminatory attitudes come to fruition. The current state of British politics does perpetuate Islamophobia, from the highest ranks all the way to the bottom.

The Conservative Party doesn’t even make an effort to conceal their widespread Islamophobia. In a recent report published by Hope Not Hate, a poll of 1,213 Conservative party members found that 57% had a negative attitude towards Muslims, and 47% believe that Islam is a “threat to the British way of life”. Half of those in the poll agreed with the statement “Islam breeds intolerance for free speech and calls for violent actions against those who mock, criticise or depict the religion in ways they believe are offensive”. Despite these figures, the problem of Islamophobia and discrimination is met with denial, with 79% believing that there is no problem, and only one in six party members felt that the Conservative Party should be doing more to combat Islamophobia and racism internally. Interestingly, there are differences between party members who identify as strong Johnson supporters and those who don’t. Only  58% of those who don’t support Johnson believed that “there are no go areas in Britain where Sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter”, however this rises to 66% of those who support Boris Johnson in the 2019 leadership election. 

Whilst plenty more worrying statistics could be quoted, it’s more important to figure out the root of the problem and why it’s been so easy for politicians like Johnson to use Islamophobia to benefit their career. It is no surprise that those who back Johnson feel more negatively towards Muslims. In 2015, Johnson wrote in the Spectator that he believed it was “natural” for the public to be scared of Islam”, and he made further remarks in 2018 that Muslim women in burkas “look like bank robbers and letterboxes” which led to a rise in Islamophobic hate crime by 375%. This astronomical rise shows that Johnson’s comments empower his far-right supporters, because if the person in the highest-ranking position in the country can say such things, why shouldn’t they act on it? Johnson’s appeal, which contributed to his staggering 2019 election result, is also evidenced by the huge increase in the far-right joining the Conservative party. In the first week post-election, more than five thousand Britain’s First members joined the Tories, including poster boy for British racism himself, T*mmy Robinson. 

In 2015, Johnson wrote in the Spectator that he believed it was “natural” for the public to be scared of Islam”, and he made further remarks in 2018 that Muslim women in burkas “look like bank robbers and letterboxes” which led to a rise in Islamophobic hate crime by 375%.

Johnson understood that weaponizing Islamophobia helped him on his path to victory, but he didn’t do it all on his own. The media works hand in hand to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and vilify Muslims. A study by the Muslim Council of Britain looked at over 10,000 articles and clips of the British media in 2018, that referred to Muslims and Islam. It found that 59% of all articles, associated Muslims with negative behaviour. Over a third of all articles misrepresented or made generalisations about Muslims, with terrorism being the most common theme. The media perpetuating Islamophobia no doubt contributes to the hostility faced by Muslims in their everyday lives.

The problem isn’t even contained to just right-wing politicians and media. A Labour report leaked earlier this year revealed Islamophobia was prevalent within the party amongst MP’s and party officials. Islamophobia has a racialized dynamic, meaning that it is not only a fear and dislike of people that practice the religion of Islam, but it overlaps with racism towards ethnic minorities. This racialized element situates Islamophobia within a broader context of generalised racism against Brown and Black people in both casual and structural contexts, which is why it often doesn’t get viewed with any severity. One clear example of this is the response to the Grenfell fire tragedy; many of the victims were not only from ethnic minority communities, but 42 of the 72 reported dead were also Muslim. The lack of sympathy amongst politicians, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg saying residents should’ve “used their common sense”, the prolonging of the inquiry, and the failure to rehouse victims three years on all highlight the structural order of whose lives are more important. Overall, Islamophobia is a critical aspect of the government’s failure to support the victims and get them justice.

Despite claiming to be a nation that champions freedom and tolerates multiculturalism, it has never been safe or easy to be a minority in Britain. Whether that’s because of Islamophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or transphobia etc. Given that it’s Islamophobia Awareness Month, it is vital that politicians are held accountable for their harmful rhetoric, and that we don’t accept their denial. It’s all too easy for false promises to be made and broken, such as Johnson’s backtrack on opening an investigation into Islamophobia in his party. Add that to the tokenism of putting a few select Brown and Black politicians in positions of power so that they can prove “we aren’t racist!”, and the problem gets glossed over once more. We must remain active in speaking out, looking out for our Muslim friends, and countering the narrative that’s polluted the politics and the public.

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