Islamophobia Isn’t Ingrained in British Culture – It’s Fed to Us From the Top

The press has had it in for me since day one.

by Zarah Sultana

30 November 2021

Labour MPs Apsana Begum and Zarah Sultana pose for a photo at a restaurant
Zarah Sultana/Twitter

“[Y]ou are in MY country, NOT yours … Britain First rising, we will soon get our heritage back … .” This email greeted me a few weeks ago, midway through Islamophobia Awareness Month and just after I came back from bereavement leave. A few hours later, I got another: “You are not British. … We see you as invaders. … Stop pretending you are not.”

I’ve come to expect racist abuse like this since becoming an MP. I’m not alone: last week, Muslim MPs spoke out in parliament about the horrific racism they’ve faced. My friend Apsana Begum, the first hijabi MP, told the House of Commons about how one person had said she “does not belong and should be deported.”

Some people believe racism is a predisposition or a natural reaction to the supposed “clash of civilisations”. But today’s report on the British media’s coverage of Muslims and Islam, published by the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring (CMM), refutes this dangerous view.

It shows that Islamophobia isn’t natural or ingrained. It’s taught from the top, fanned by people in positions of power.

Analysing almost 48,000 articles and 5,500 broadcast clips between 2018-19, it spells out in meticulous detail how Muslims are portrayed in the British media.

It finds articles antagonistic to Muslims outnumber supportive articles by a ratio of 7:1, with 60% of all articles identifying negative aspects and behaviours with Muslims or Islam.

Beyond this steady drip feed of hate, the report identifies how the British media spreads Islamophobic tropes, for example, the idea that Muslims are different from, and therefore a threat to, Britain and the west. It cites The Spectator asking “tough questions”, questions like: “Can Muslims learn to put country before faith community?”. It recalls the Times publishing problematic columns by Trevor Phillips, a man who’s said Muslims are a “nation within a nation” who “see the world different from the rest of us” – and who, having recently been readmitted into Labour after he was suspended for alleged Islamophobia, now hosts Sky’s lead Sunday morning politics show.

With even supposedly centrist publications portraying Muslims as different and therefore a threat – let alone the rabid hate propagated by hard rightwing outlets – it’s little wonder racists tell me I am not British. They’re repeating, albeit more crudely, the messages they read in “respectable” papers.

The conclusion of the report is unavoidable: the British media has an Islamophobia problem. It is hardly alone. After all, the country is led by a man who called Muslim women “bank robbers” and likened them to “letterboxes” – leading to a 375% rise in Islamophobic incidents – while his MPs spout far-right talking points about brown refugees “invading” the country.

I’ve confronted these attitudes in parliament. Shortly after I was elected, a far-right social media account targeted me with racist abuse, suggesting Muslims were an invading army. A Conservative MP replied – not by condemning their racism, but by insulting me.

When MPs seemingly condone this language, it’s no surprise racists call me an “invader” too. And when I called out how the prime minister fanned the flames of racism, I was told by a white Conservative minister to watch my tone.

The Islamophobia propagated at the top incites the Islamophobic abuse I’ve become accustomed to. But whilst this isn’t nice, the worst effect of Islamophobia isn’t bigoted language. It’s racist policies and political decisions.

The CMM report highlights how the media’s worst bias when it comes to Muslims is on the subject of terrorism and extremism. This is nothing new: for decades Muslims have been portrayed as a security threat, in need of discipline and suppression.

When I was growing up, this Islamophobic view was in the background as Britain and America went to war with Iraq, with false links drawn between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. This helped to provide cover for a war that had more to do with American imperial interests than with the safety of British citizens. The effects of this Islamophobic view are felt to this day, with policies like the Prevent strategy curtailing the civil liberties of all and targeting Muslims in particular.

For Muslims, today’s report on Islamophobia in the British media is yesterday’s news: we’ve known it our whole lives. We see the media whip up hatred and cause misery in our communities. As Muslims in politics, we feel its effects, as racists try to drive us out of public life.

But if we’re going to defeat them, we can’t forget that these hate-mongerers don’t just target Muslims. They target everyone who they deem doesn’t “belong”, from Black people to Jewish people, migrants to the LGBTQ+ community. Recent media hysteria over the “migrant crisis” and “trans lobby” are testament to this.

Islamophobia – like all bigotries – is nothing natural. It comes from the top, propagated by the few to divide the many. It will only be defeated from the bottom up, by uniting our struggles and finding safety in solidarity.

Zarah Sultana is the Labour MP for Coventry.

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