‘Unprotected & Exposed’: Reasserting Islamophobia As A Type Of Racism

IN this post, Izram Chaudry* argues that defining Islamophobia solely as a form of racism obscures its religious root and makes it easier for some islamophobes to reject any accusations**.   

It was, perhaps, no surprise to many, when in 2019, how the Conservative’s rejected the definition of Islamophobia[1] put forth by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims by arguing that it required “more consideration”. After all, this is the same political party that opted to be spearheaded by an individual who compared Muslim women wearing the burqa to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”. To date, the government’s appetite towards tackling this phenomenon that is now casually pervading the consciousness of society remains noticeably absent, as they are yet to either adopt or respond with a definition that formally recognises the constitution of Islamophobia.

This blog, however, is not concerned with the government’s neglect towards tackling Islamophobia, as a surprising force has arisen which has been strongly influential in exposing Muslim staff and students within further and higher education institutions through its practical actions. In November 2020, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS)[2] issued a statement encouraging Islamic societies, further education institutions (FE) and universities to not adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia. They wrote:

[…] We acknowledge that racism plays a part within the oppression that Muslim students encounter, however, describing our oppression as being primarily rooted in racism or being a type of racism is damaging as it takes away from the fact that:

  1. It is our religion through which we first and foremost identify as a community
  2. We are primarily targeted because of our religion […]

The statement per se holds great significance in emboldening others to reject accusations of Islamophobia, as it is deemed to be issued by ‘credible’ and ‘authoritative’ voices that know all things Islamophobia. Thus, any grievances advanced by Muslim staff and/ or students that characterise their experiences of oppression, discrimination and marginalisation through the language of ‘race’, racism and/ or racialization are unlikely to be upheld as Islamophobia. All the while, the perpetrators (continue to) evade any accountability or justice through the lifeline that the FOSIS statement offers them. In what follows, I shall endeavour to address the arguments and objections professed by those adverse towards understanding Islamophobia as a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness:

  1. ‘We identify through and are particularly targeted because of our religion […] The oppression that Muslim students are subjected to is one that targets and demonises them for their principles of faith’

There are specific manifestations of Islamophobia that seem to incorporate an inescapable biological dimension. For example, a ‘non-religious Muslim’ walking down the street may still be subjected to an equal (if not increased) likelihood and intensity of Islamophobia than that of a ‘practising Muslim’ as they would have been identified ‘racially’ and not simply in terms of their theological beliefs and commitment to faith. Put differently, there is no parallel spectrum to suggest that the more/ less religious you are – the more/ less you are likely to be targeted by greater/ lesser intensities of Islamophobia. To suggest that processes of racialization do not contribute towards the Islamophobia often endured by Muslims seems to be at odds with their lived experiences of “flying while brown” (Considine, 2017); being stereotyped by the media (Haider, 2020); and also, the significance that phenotypical features and dress choice have vis-à-vis the discrimination and exclusion that can amount from those engaging with the labour market (Ahmed & Gorey, 2021).

  1. ‘Such definition is exclusionary towards the intersectional experiences of Black and White Muslims’

The definition of Islamophobia as a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness does not disregard the ethnic heterogeneity that constitutes the Muslim Ummah. It has not yet been made clear by opposing voices as to how the ideas of racism or Muslimness exclude intersectional experiences. Muslimness, after all, does not privilege biological makeup therefore the different skin colours that people have, their names, the clothes that they wear, the languages that they speak and the foods that they do (or do not eat) are all acknowledged under the definitions remit.

  1. ‘The definition is erroneously centred around ‘race’ and racism’

The most recent position articulated by FOSIS has substantiated their criticisms of the definition by presenting examples of discrimination, for which they argue, are not encapsulated by the category of racism, such as, the surveillance of prayer rooms; religious texts being removed from designated spaces of worship; and also, the unjust policing of Islamic society events. There is a need, I argue, for them to think about racism beyond individual encounters of prejudice and hate; and how it may operate institutionally through embedded policy and practice that disproportionately impacts Muslims. In other words, understand that racism is a form of governmentality (Hesse & Sayyid, 2006).

It is more perilous to take the position that Muslims are primarily targeted because of their religion whilst contemporaneously rejecting the racialized nature of Islamophobia because this stance constrains the constitution and scope of Islamophobia to the theological domain. In the following hypothetical scenario, could we say that it was Islamophobic if it emerged that an institution (let’s say a university for argument’s sake) had disproportionately referred a large proportion of Muslims to the PREVENT[3] programme for anti-radicalization? Those that identify Islamophobia through a lens that foregrounds religion and sets aside racialization would have no other choice but to answer ‘no’ to this.

The position taken by FOSIS insists that somehow their own consultations and data ought to be held sacrosanct, as it will innovate an understanding of Islamophobia that has surpassed theorisations of Islamophobia as a type of racism. In the meantime, whilst we wait on these deliberations, Islamophobia continues to spread rampantly; unchallenged and unchecked. I am not arguing that the definition has magical properties to eradicate Islamophobia from the social sphere overnight (Sayyid & Vakil, 2018). It does, however, have the potential to make the lives of those who perpetuate Islamophobia harder. It is through the linking with racism, in how the definition gains its strength given the social condemnation that is projected towards overt manifestations of racism. This, is, however, lost on those that choose to engage in ‘semantic politics’[4] by extracting erroneous interpretations from elements of the definition that constitute its very strengths towards enacting positive social transformation.

There are two options that educational institutions and student/ staff representative bodies nationwide have before them – ‘adopt’ or ‘adapt’. They can either adopt the definition and provide their fellow Muslim staff and students with a safeguard that Islamophobia is a formally recognised phenomenon. Or they can adapt to an everyday life whereby even the most obvious accusations of Islamophobia are deemed to be far too nebulous for tutors, supervisors, union representatives or executive bodies to do anything about.

I conclude by leaving readers and, most important, decision-makers with a medical analogy that we are all familiar with – do the risks [of adopting the definition] outweigh the benefits? Until this question receives a compelling response, then those who oppose this definition find themselves on the same side of the argument as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – not by intentions but by the outcome of the positions that they hold.

Reference List

APPG (2018) Islamophobia Defined: The inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia. Available from: Islamophobia+Defined.pdf (squarespace.com). Accessed on 13/09/2021.

Ahmed, S. & Gorey, K.M. (2021) Employment discrimination faced by Muslim women wearing the hijab: exploratory meta-analysis. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, pp.1-9.

Brown, K.E. & Saeed, T. (2015) Radicalization and counter-radicalization at British universities: Muslim encounters and alternatives. Ethnic and Racial Studies38 (11), pp.1952-1968.

Considine, C. (2017) The racialization of Islam in the United States: Islamophobia, hate crimes, and “flying while brown”. Religions8 (9), p.165.

Hesse, Barnor and S. Sayyid. 2006. Narrating the Postcolonial Political and the Immigrant Imaginary. In A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, ed. Nasreen Ali, Virinder S. Kalra and S. Sayyid, 13–31. London: Hurst.

HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) (2011) PREVENT Strategy. London: Home Office.

Haider, M. (2020) The Racialization of the Muslim Body and Space in Hollywood. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity6 (3), pp.382-395.

Sayyid, S. & Vakil, A. (2018) Defining Islamophobia. ReOrient, The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies.

[1] “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” (APPG, 2018, p. 11).

[2] FOSIS is the largest Muslim student representative body in the UK and Ireland. I am drawing upon their statement as it is representative of a particular line of argument that I am refuting.

[3] Part of the UK counterterrorism strategy, PREVENT is an acronym for ‘Preventing Violent Extremism. It aims to counter-radicalize at different levels and stages including interrupting the ‘process of radicalization’ for individuals who show signs of being radicalized (HMG, 2011). I have drawn upon PREVENT, as an example, on the basis that it has relied heavily on processes of racialization in the hyper-surveillance and the unjust treatment of Muslims (Brown & Saeed, 2015).

[4] I deploy the term ‘semantic politics’ when describing the very brevity to which the definition is read and interpreted. I lay claim that it has been explicated without broader consideration towards the theoretical and pragmatic benefits that can be gleaned by understanding Islamophobia as a type of racism.

* Izram Chaudry is a third-year CERS PhD student in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.

** A version of this post has been published in Critical MuslimStudies.