With prayer ban, British Muslim children become latest target of state-sponsored Islamophobia

With prayer ban, British Muslim children become latest target of state-sponsored Islamophobia
The UK court's decision to uphold a prayer ban in a London school is intertwined with a wider moral panic regarding Muslims and Gaza, writes Nadeine Asbali.
5 min read
20 Apr, 2024
Innocent displays of Muslim identity are being interpreted as signs of extremism, setting an ever-worrying precedent, writes Nadeine Asbali [photo credit: Getty Images]

As a British Muslim school teacher, I can't say I'm surprised about this week's court ruling.

The decision to rule in favour of Michaela Community School’s banning of ‘prayer rituals’ – and its clear discrimination of Muslim students – is indicative of this country’s Muslim moral panic. 

In Britain, innocuous expressions of Muslim identity are now viewed as extreme and anti-British, including five minutes of private prayer at lunchtime.

"Israel’s status as a Western ally and the last outpost of Western settler-colonialism in the Middle East has not only legitimised Islamophobia in the UK but necessities it"

Wherever Muslims exist, moral panic follows. The ‘prayer ban’ debate has emboldened right-wing commentators to call for an outright ban on hijabs and Islamic prayer in all UK schools

Peaceful protests that call for the end of Israel’s genocide in Gaza are now antisemitic "hate marches". Ramadan lights in central London over the Easter Weekend are British Muslims “muscling out” Easter and Islamic Hadiths shown at King’s Cross station during Ramadan continue to cause outrage in our supposedly secular, Christian country.

How Islamophobia became normalised

The shadow of 9/11, the ‘War on Terror’, and the UK’s counter-terrorism apparatus have long pitted Muslims against the civilised, liberal, and enlightened West. 

However, in the UK, we seem to have reached a tipping point whereby Islamophobia is no longer a fringe view but a fundamental component of mainstream political discourse. It can even form the basis of career growth, see EDL founder Tommy Robinson, banished MP Lee Anderson or former Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

The ongoing genocide in Gaza and the collective condemnation voiced by Muslims – and others who care about justice – have accelerated this moral panic surrounding Islam in Britain.

Zionists and their supporters necessarily hold Islamophobic views because the very basis of Zionism relies upon the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, who are racialised as Muslim and therefore other, even if a minority are Christian.

The pipeline between Zionism and Islamophobia now seems shorter than ever. Consider how the most vocal supporters of Israel in Britain have also, of late, taken to sharing either outright or thinly veiled anti-Muslim sentiment.

Take TV personality Rachel Riley’s accusation that those protesting for Palestine in the UK caused the 'jihadi’ stabbing attack in a Sydney mall, despite it being quickly proven the perpetrator wasn’t Muslim. Or shock-jock journalist Julia Hartley Brewer’s assumption that Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti must “not be used to women speaking”, depicting Muslim women as mute and Muslim men as oppressive chauvinists in one fell, Islamophobic swoop. 

Israel’s status as a Western ally and the last outpost of Western settler-colonialism in the Middle East has not only legitimised Islamophobia in the UK but necessities it. 

Now professionals are losing their jobs over Palestine. Celebrities are losing contracts for calling for a ceasefire, or, worse yet, cancelled for terming Israel’s indiscriminate slaughter of Gazans a ‘genocide’. 

Rishi Sunak’s speech outside Downing Street at the start of March is proof that increasing Islamophobia in the UK is a direct component of the UK’s support for Israel.

Sunak's vague references to "forces" seeking to divide us at home, his depiction of pro-Palestinian protests as being hijacked by imaginary Islamists, his conflation of criticism of Britain with extremism, and his doubling down on the UK’s Prevent strategy cements how anything but loyalty to the British state is to be considered extreme.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

The debate around the prayer ban at Michaela Community School cannot be removed from this ever-repressive political climate – it’s a direct product of it.

Forget for a moment that the school is being run by a figure with links to Suella Braverman and Michael Gove – the architect of the Trojan Horse Affair which shook and continues to haunt a generation of Muslim teachers and pupils, the language of headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh is revealing.

In her statement, Birbalsingh said that Muslim pupils were “intimidating” others into praying, wearing the hijab or dropping out of the choir, students praying for five minutes in the playground causes division and impinges equality, and, most alarming of all, that we all must sacrifice things certain things in the name of British values. Whose notion is that I wonder?

In summoning the forces of division, Birbalsingh has borrowed from, and herself perpetuated, the hypercriminalised, hostile and othering hysteria that follows Muslims wherever we go. 

By presenting teenagers exploring their faith as "intimidating", by portraying a five-minute act of spirituality and discipline as divisive and above all concluding that overt expressions of Muslimness are antithetical to Britishness itself, the Michaela Community School prayer ban has simply further entrenched the discrimination of Muslims into mainstream political discourse. And it’s not just her pupils who will pay the price, but British Muslims as a whole.

Nadeine Asbali is a secondary school teacher in London.

Follow her on Twitter: @nadeinewrites

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