Islamophobia Awareness Month: Racism Must Be Defined


Mariya bint Rehan explains why abandoning government efforts to define Islamophobia only fuels a narrative that demonizes Muslims. The case of a far-right suicide bomber from Dover who wanted to “annihilate Muslim children” should serve as a warning.

As we enter Islamophobia Awareness Month with the ironically timed news that Michael Gove has abandoned government efforts to define Islamophobia, writes Mariya Bint Rehan. [GETTY]

There’s a reason you can’t put down a good book. As humans, we have a natural affinity for storytelling. This is expressed at a granular level; the very way we organize knowledge in our minds is narrative, and our personal ego means we are always telling our own story.

The same is true on a collective scale, history is the story we tell ourselves to feel more meaningful – our cultural mythologies satisfy our appetite for more meaning. The white savior narrative that permeates so-called factual history books throughout the West is a prime example, as are the patriarchal narratives that dominate more globally.

This propensity for storytelling comes from our desire for order and the purpose that storytelling brings. We can never know or conclude our inevitable endings, so we glean a sense of solace from being able to tie together the threads of a story and culminate our existence in a lion character arc.

‘Overwhelmingly, a society in which anti-Muslim hate crime – which last year accounted for 42% of rising religious hate crime in the UK – has no name, will say more about the truths that take priority. The effort to define and acknowledge the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim sentiment in British life is itself a victim of the fallacious meta-narrative of free speech.

The meta-narratives constructed by society – the larger truths and values ​​by which it lives – shape the personal and cultural narratives that shape our thoughts and ideas. But which stories are highlighted at the national level? Who forge, shape and sanitize reality, and what does that mean for those of us who don’t play the lead role?

As we enter Islamophobia Awareness Month with the ironically timed news that Michael Gove, the reappointed Communities Secretary, has abandoned the Government’s efforts to define Islamophobia, and thus their wider effort to tackle anti-Muslim hatred, Muslims in particular need to ask themselves what narrative backdrop they live in and what character our identities are set in place.

Overwhelmingly, a society in which anti-Muslim hate crime – which last year accounted for 42% of the rise in religious hate crime in the UK – goes unnamed, will tell more about the truths that take priority. The effort to define and acknowledge the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim sentiment in British life is itself a victim of the fallacious metanarrative of free speech. But in a world where the author of our stories – and the very act of defining and labeling – wields great power, what can we learn from what is erased from our national vocabulary?

Understanding the role of the Muslim in the formation of national identity involves a lot of reading between the lines and what has not been said. The latest research on mainstream media coverage of Muslims found that 60% of online media stories associate Muslims and Islam with negative aspects or behaviors. Often these reports turn out to be fabricated, such as the high-profile media scandals involving school, family, and health.

There is a concerted effort to misinform and a definite market for anti-Muslim racism. Although many influential right-wing think tanks with long-running tentacles in media and politics have deliberately obscured their funding networks, we know there is a lot of funding coming from across the Atlantic. A recent study undertaken by the American Muslim organization CAIR found that more than $100 million was spent on Islamophobic network groups over a three-year period in a seemingly global effort to slander and defame.

If the manufactured Muslim bears little or no relation to reality, then ultimately it serves the larger narrative. It therefore both reflects the national appetite for the illusion and details the intricacies of that illusion. The villain in traditional folklore is actually a mirror image of society; it functions as a figurative prop to cement the most desired reality.

The conceptual Muslim in the public imagination serves to clean up dominant norms and identities, acting as a sponge for society’s most acute concerns. The fictional and symbolic figure of the Muslim as a barbarian is used by contrast to enhance rational and secular humanism. The Muslim as rapist to deflect questions regarding sexual morality in society at large. The Muslim as terrorist, serving to divert attention from the existential crisis facing Western imperialism. And of course, the Muslim as stateless, to compound citizenship, identity and belonging at a time when public concern around national borders and identity is at its most frenzied.

The cultural mythology of the Muslim as borderless, both individually and collectively, satisfies the need for assurance around questions of individual and national identity at a time when it is most confusing. The Muslim is a narrative device wielded by the most powerful.

A narrative so pervasive that, as the case of far-right Dover suicide bomber Andrew Leak shows, grown men feel compelled by their moral superiority to plot to kill Muslim children. So distorting is the idea that mainstream society is harmed by nefarious Muslims who conspire to create the kind of cognitive dissonance in which these acts are right, because of how unjust and inhumane their target is.

The pedaling of fear will always remain a lucrative industry from which institutions and careers will be built and forged on the back. At the start of the pandemic, when public anger and anxiety was redirected away from Muslims and we saw a national shift from Islamophobic to anti-vaxx talking points, many high-profile shock jockeys followed this profitable pipeline, repositioning themselves as defenders of body, not religion, freedom.

A lazy and slow British media has even tried to bring the two together by almost exclusively using Muslim stock images to illustrate Covid headlines, so entrenched is the idea that Muslims are the ultimate threat and danger. This willingness to target and feed on an “other” is a timeless and geographically unlimited trait worth reflecting on during this Islamophobia Awareness Month.

As we find ourselves in the paradoxical position of acknowledging a bias we dare not name, it is worth asking what script we are reading from, what lines we are being fed and whether we are doing enough, personally and socially, to interrogate and disrupt the narratives we cuddle with. Are the indisputable truths underlying them, as well as our institutional realities, our feelings, our thoughts and our cultural practices really indisputable?

Instead of falling into the familiar pattern of projecting onto another what we don’t want to address in ourselves, we would do well to flip the wacky stories, to see what our flipped monsters reveal about us.

Mariya bint Rehan is a writer and illustrator from London, with a background in politics and research and development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book called The Best Dua which is available worldwide.

Follow her on Twitter: @ummkhadijah13

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The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.


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