Islamophobia is a form of religious prejudice and racism that impacts the opportunities and treatment of Muslims living in the UK (and around the world).
Islamophobia is driven by bigoted attitudes towards Muslims, which in the UK are widespread. In research conducted by the University of Birmingham, 25.9% of Britons surveyed about their attitudes towards ethnic and religious groups harboured negative feelings about Muslims.
Stephen H. Jones and Amy Unsworth, the researchers behind the report, state that these attitudes highlight both greater levels of discrimination and ‘less public sanction against openly acknowledging one’s dislike’.
These negative feelings can result in acts of violence and discrimination. Muslims are regularly the victims of hate crimes: in 2021–22, 42% of victims of religious hate crimes in England and Wales were Muslim (there was a 22% increase in attacks against Muslims compared with the previous year)
, while over 35% of mosques reported experiencing a religiously motivated attack at least once a year.
Islamophobia, however, does not just manifest in the perspectives and actions of individuals. It is also structural, impacting Muslims’ life opportunities. As highlighted by the Muslim Council of Britain, Muslims ‘face disproportionate [and rising] levels of deprivation’
: despite only making up 6.5% of the UK population, 40% of Muslims live in the country’s most deprived areas.
They also face discrimination in the workplace: the Runnymede Trust notes that Muslims have the ‘lowest employment rates and earnings [of] any group in Britain’
, while a 2022 survey found that 69% of Muslims surveyed had experienced Islamophobia at work.
Muslims are also profiled by state institutions and disproportionately targeted by counter-terrorism policies: they are stopped and searched at airports;
surveilled in society,
including in schools;
and, according to the Institute of Race Relations, are at greater risk of having their citizenship removed than other UK citizens.
Moreover, the foreign policy of Western governments, notably the UK and the US, has seen Muslim countries invaded,
and Muslims illegally detained without reason and without trial due to the ‘War on Terror’.
These systemic and governmental forms of Islamophobia highlight how it is a form of racism.
It exists structurally, feeding into the way in which institutions are organised, dictating the laws that are created and how they are enforced, and underpinning a social hierarchy that privileges whiteness. This systemic form of racism impacts the opportunities available to Muslims – and all minorities – in the UK, and the way that they are treated, hindering their political advancement, accumulation of wealth and social status.
Such racism has deep roots and is deeply entwined with the religious prejudice that arose with the emergence of Islam and the Early Muslim Conquests (622–750 CE), which saw military campaigns that spread Islam from Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia to areas of modern-day Spain to the west and India to the east. As Muslim leaders claimed land that was part of the Christian Roman Empire and people converted to Islam, there was a backlash from the Christian Church. That said, it is important to note that, despite this conflict, there is evidence of trade and good relations between Christians and Muslims – in eighth-century England, King Offa minted an Anglo-Saxon coin that was modelled on an dinar coin made by Al-Mansur, the Caliph of Baghdad,
while in Spain, the ruling Muslims established working relationships with senior Christian figures. In Spain, the Muslim influence on art, culture and architecture can still be seen today.
The establishment of a Muslim ‘other’ in the minds of Christians can be traced back to the Crusades, when the Catholic Church, led by Pope Urban II, called on Christians to take up arms against Muslims, who he described as ‘pagans’, ‘the enemies of the Lord’ and ‘a despised and base race, which worships demons’.
While race did not exist as a concept denoting supposed biological differences, the term possessed meanings related to lineage and kinship, and its use depicted Muslims as a distinct group to Christians.
When the Crusades ended in 1291, Muslims had been established as a spiritual and cultural enemy in the mind of Christian Europe.
As academic and writer Todd H. Green notes,
Christians increasingly saw in Islam a formidable threat to Christianity’s claims of superiority and hegemony in Europe and beyond. Faced with the Muslim world’s competing theological claims, impressive military accomplishments, expanding empire, and superior intellectual and scientific advancements, mediaeval Christian authors responded polemically and aggressively.
This notion of the Muslim ‘other’ was reinforced throughout the Middle Ages with the advent of colonialism, and as a means of attacking successful, and somewhat threatening, Muslim empires. Dehumanising Muslims and depicting them as inferior thus served both theological and political ends.
Tropes that emerged in the Middle Ages that portrayed Muslims and Islam as antagonistic to Christianity, as violent and barbaric, as oppressors of women, as monolithic and as a threat to Europe continue to circulate to this day, having been adapted to different socio-historical contexts. These tropes shape how Muslims are treated, both in European countries and elsewhere through the foreign policy of Western/European governments.
Understanding the historical roots of Islamophobia, how it manifests in the present day and the impact it has on Muslims is vital if it is to be challenged.