Islamophobia Awareness Month: Why defining and opposing anti-Muslim hate is necessary
There is a reason you can’t put a good book down. As humans we have a natural affinity for storytelling. This expresses itself on a granular level; the very way we organise knowledge in our minds is as narrative, and our personal egos mean 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 significant - our cultural mythologies satisfy our appetite for greater meaning. The white saviour narrative which permeates supposedly factual history books throughout the West is a great example of this, as are the patriarchal narratives that dominate more globally.
This propensity for story telling comes from our desire for the order and finality that narrative brings. We will never be able to know or conclude our inevitable endings, so we glean a sense of reassurance from being able to tie up the threads of a story and culminate our existence into a lionising character arc.
''Overwhelmingly, a society in which anti-Muslim hate crime – which last year made up 42% of increasing religious hate crimes in the UK - has no name, will reveal more about whose truths are prioritised. The effort to define and recognise the ubiquity of anti-Muslim sentiment in British life is itself a victim to the fallacious metanarrative of free-speech.''
The metanarratives society constructs – the broader truths and values which they live by – shape the personal and cultural narratives that determine our thoughts and ideas. But whose stories are foregrounded on a national level? Which are forging, shaping and sanitising reality, and what does that mean for those of us that aren’t playing lead role?
As we enter Islamophobia awareness month with the ironically timed news that Michael Gove, the reappointed Communities Secretary, has dropped the government’s efforts to define Islamophobia, and therefore their broader effort to combat anti-Muslim hate, Muslims in particular need to ask themselves what narrative backdrop they are living against and what character our identities are being shoehorned into.
Overwhelmingly, a society in which anti-Muslim hate crime – which last year made up 42% of increasing religious hate crimes in the UK - has no name, will reveal more about whose truths are prioritised. The effort to define and recognise the ubiquity of anti-Muslim sentiment in British life is itself a victim to the fallacious metanarrative of free-speech. But in a world where the author of our stories – and the very act of defining and labelling - 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 very much involves reading between the lines and what has been left unsaid. The latest research into coverage of Muslims in mainstream media found that 60% of online media articles associate Muslims and Islam with negative aspects or behaviour. Often times these reports are revealed to be fabricated, such as high-profile media scandals involving schooling, family and health.
There is a concerted effort to misinform and a definite market for anti-Muslim racism. Though many influential, right-wing think tanks with long reaching tentacles into media and politics have purposefully obscured their funding networks, we know that there is a lot of funding that comes from across the Atlantic. A recent study undertaken by Muslim American organisation CAIR found that over 100 million dollars was spent on Islamophobia network groups over a three year period in an apparently global effort to malign and vilify.
If the manufactured Muslim has little or no relation to reality, then ultimately it works to serve the wider narrative. It therefore reflects both the national appetite for delusion, and details the intricacies of that delusion. The villain in traditional folklore is effectively an inverted image of society; it works as a figurative prop to cement whatever reality is most desired.
The conceptual Muslim in public imagination serves to cleanse dominant norms and identities, by acting as a sponge for society’s most acute worries. The fictive, symbolic figure of the Muslim as barbaric is used in contrast to enhance rational, secular humanism. The Muslim as rapist to divert from issues concerning sexual morality in wider society. The Muslim as terrorist, serving to distract from the existential crisis facing Western Imperialism. And of course, the Muslim as stateless, to compound citizenship, identity and belonging at a time where public disquiet around national borders and identity is most frantic.
The cultural mythology of the Muslim as borderless, both individually and collectively, satiates the need for assurance around issues of individual and national identity at a time when it is most confounded. The Muslim is a narrative device wielded by the most powerful.
A narrative so pervasive that, like the case of far-right Dover petrol bomber Andrew Leak demonstrates, grown men feel compelled, through their moral superiority, to plot to kill Muslim children. So warping is the idea that majority society is wronged by the nefarious, plotting Muslim that it creates the kind of cognitive dissonance in which these acts are righteous, by virtue of how unrighteous and inhuman its target is.
Fear pedalling will always remain a lucrative industry from which institutions and careers will be built and forged off the back of. During the onset 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 bodily, not religious, freedom.
A lazy and sluggish British media even attempted to converge the two by employing Muslim stock images almost exclusively to illustrate Covid headlines, so ingrained is the idea that Muslims are the ultimate threat and danger. This desire to target and feed off an ‘other’ is a timeless and geographically limitless trait, which it is worth pondering over this Islamophobia Awareness Month.
So as we find ourselves in the paradoxical position of recognising a prejudice which we dare not name, it is worth asking ourselves whose script we are reading, what lines we are being fed and whether we are doing enough, personally and socially, to interrogate and disrupt the narratives we lull ourselves with. Are the unquestionable truths which underpin them, and our institutional realities, our feelings, thoughts and cultural practices really unquestionable?
Instead of falling into the familiar pattern of projecting onto another what we do not want to address within our own selves, we would do well to overturn the delusional stories, to see what our inverted monsters reveal about us.
Mariya bint Rehan is a writer and illustrator from London, with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally.
Follow her on Twitter: @ummkhadijah13
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.