Following Nusrat Ghani’s allegations of Islamophobia at Number 10, Simon Perfect examines a new report about the scale of anti–Muslim and anti–Islam prejudice nationally. 03/02/2022
As if the relentless pace of the ongoing ‘partygate’ scandal wasn’t enough, another headache arose last week to add to Number 10’s woes: accusations of Islamophobia at the heart of Downing Street are back on the agenda. Last week, former Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani claimed that when she was sacked in a reshuffle in 2020, she was told by a government whip that it was partly because of her “Muslimness”. Her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues uncomfortable”. Mark Spencer, the government’s Chief Whip, has identified himself as the whip in question but denies he said these things to Ghani. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has asked the Cabinet Office to conduct yet another inquiry. More work for Sue Gray.
These allegations put the spotlight once again on instances of Islamophobia among the Conservative rank and file, and also among top ministers (or at least, their willingness to indulge in it for populist appeal – from Nadine Dorries, now the Culture Secretary, retweeting anti–Muslim activist Tommy Robinson, to Boris Johnson’s own dog–whistle comments about Muslim women who cover their faces). Last year Swaran Singh’s investigation into the Conservative Party concluded that “anti–Muslim sentiment remains a problem” within it, though did not find evidence of systematic discrimination.
But the incident also brings into focus the wider situation across the country, where expressing bigoted views about Muslims is more socially acceptable than the expression of similar views about most other groups. That’s the conclusion of a new report on Islamophobia coincidently published last week as well – titled The Dinner Table Prejudice, after Tory Baroness Warsi’s famous claim that Islamophobia is socially acceptable enough to be expressed at the dinner table. Exploring the results of a new YouGov survey of 1667 Britons, the report finds that Muslims, as well as Gypsy and Irish Travellers, stand out among other ethnic and religious groups as being the ones people are most willing to admit harbouring negative views about. 26% of Britons acknowledge negative feelings about Muslims (as do a whopping 45% regarding Travellers), compared to 15% about Pakistanis, 11% about Christians, and 9% about Jews. 18% would support a ban on Muslim migration to the UK (higher than the support for banning other religious groups); and 36% think that “Islam threatens the British way of life”. While these stats indicate the relative level of hostility towards different groups, they also show “that there is less public sanction against openly acknowledging one’s dislike” against Travellers and Muslims.
Survey evidence of widespread Islamophobia is nothing new sadly. What is different about this study is the distinction it draws between two interlinked forms of Islamophobia, one hostile to Muslims as people, and another hostile to Islam as a religion. The researchers assessed the prevalence of each through two proxy questions:
1) How far do you agree that “There are areas in Britain that operate under Sharia law where non–Muslims are not able to enter”?
2) How far do you think different religions teach followers that their sacred texts “should be taken literally, word for word, or symbolically, understanding [their] poetic meaning and historical context”?
The first statement measures how far the public believe Muslims as people cause social problems. Nearly a third (27%) of people wrongly believe that there are shari’a no–go areas (an anti–Muslim stereotype), compared to 23% who disagree and 37% who don’t know. Conservative and Leave voters are particularly likely to agree, at 43% each. Respondents were also more willing to affirm anti–Muslim views than other group–based conspiracies – though a disturbing 15% agreed that “Jews have disproportionate influence over business and finance”, and 2% that “The Holocaust has been exaggerated”.
The second statement considers whether the public perceive Islam as more literalistic than other religions – an attempt at assessing specifically anti–Islamic (rather than anti–Muslim) prejudice. 21% of people think that Islam teaches Muslims to take its sacred texts “totally literally”, and a further 17% say “more literally” than symbolically. In contrast, 5% think Christianity is totally literalist, 8% say the same for Judaism, and 4% for Sikhism.
Respondents were much more confident in expressing a view about literalism in Islam than they were with other non–Christian religions (where the ‘don’t know’ response was much higher). But this confidence in Islam’s literalism is misplaced. As the report notes, there are nearly 1,400 years of Islamic debate about how to interpret the Qur’an and Hadith (the primary scriptures of Islam), and traditionally some verses of the Qur’an have been classed as having clear meaning and others as unclear. Some groups advocate more literalist readings of particular verses and others more symbolic or esoteric ones. Moreover, research with British Muslims today suggests they hold more nuanced views of the Qur’an than a narrow literalism.
We need to avoid drawing too firm conclusions from statements used as proxy measures. Moreover, affirming either the no–go areas stereotype or the literalism stereotype could simply indicate ignorance more than hard prejudice against either Muslims or Islam. A low level of knowledge isn’t the same as bigotry. But there is a fair case to be made that ignorance about the reality of British Muslim life can help drive anti–Muslim feeling. And the confidence of the public in expressing a view about Islam’s literalism in contrast to other traditions may be indicative of a particular prejudice against Islam.
What are the implications of this distinction between Islamophobia against Muslims as people and against Islam the religion? Firstly, these different forms have different spread across the population. The report finds that anti–Muslim prejudice is concentrated among (though not limited to) people who are older, politically conservative, and from lower social grades. But anti–Islamic beliefs, such as Islam’s inherent literalism, are both more evenly spread across the political spectrum (though still more prevalent among conservatives), and are actually more common among people from higher social grades than lower ones. 23% of ABC1s agree that Islam is totally literalistic compared to 18% of C2DEs, indicating a greater (misplaced) confidence in knowledge among the middle classes.
Secondly, there are implications for how we debate and combat Islamophobia. In recent years prominent definitions of Islamophobia have described it as a form of anti–Muslim racism, which has the benefit of focusing attention on behaviours that treat Muslims negatively (as opposed to Islam), and recognises its severity. But as the researchers argue, this approach may obscure the importance of hostile views about Islam the religion in shaping hostile views about Muslims as people. As long as specifically anti–Islam views are able to flourish, then anti–Muslim prejudice will be hard to tackle.
The researchers rightly avoid calling for legal prohibitions on expressing anti–Islam views; in a liberal democracy we must be free to challenge, criticize and even offend religions. Instead, they call for a stronger prioritization of religious literacy in education, equality and diversity initiatives, and in religious programming in the media. Stronger provision of Religious Education in schools has an absolutely critical role here, and that means the government needs to address the ongoing problems of patchy quality and marginalisation in school curricula.
Finally, and crucially, the report calls on the government to acknowledge the pervasiveness of both anti–Muslim and anti–Islam rhetoric, and the lack of social sanction it triggers. The Nusrat Ghani allegations will put pressure on the government to take this seriously, but how far it will do so remains to be seen. If Islamophobia is to be kicked off the dinner table, it’s got to be kicked off the Downing Street Cabinet table first.
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