June 2008 
Year 14    No.132
Global Minorities
United Kingdom

Rise of xenophobia

Harmonious relations between different communities in Britain: Challenges and constraints



For all his scientific and technological advancement, modern man is still grappling with the challenge of how to live together in peace and harmony. Everywhere, the social ills of intolerance and bigotry still continue to impede human progress. That 79,000,000 perished in the two world wars remains an enduring reminder of how much is required. Having lived through most of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin admitted he only remembered it as the ‘the most terrible century in western history’.1 

In England, a ‘Toleration Act’ was passed as early as 1689 – it granted to religious dissenters freedom of worship, under certain conditions. Yet Roman Catholics were not covered by the act. Only with the coming of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 were some of the conditions repealed. Prejudice and suspicion towards Catholics continued well into the 20th century, engulfing other faith communities and non-white people.2 

Although harmonious relations is often associated with the spirit of democracy, globalisation, freedom of expression and human rights, it is yet to materialise in most societies north and south, east and west. Following the September 2001 attacks in New York, Muslims in the western hemisphere have come under increasing scrutiny. In Britain, they are very often called upon to answer a recurring question: "are you first a Muslim or a Briton?" Whenever this loaded question is asked, it is often accompanied by presumptions about loyalty or disloyalty. Where does Muslims’ loyalty lie in Britain? Are they British, Asian, Muslim, African? Which comes first? Are such questions posed to other faith communities: Jews, Catholics or evangelicals? Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) believes that faith and nationality are both important but ultimately it is the humanity and sense of justice of the individual that matters.3 

A home office citizenship survey of 2001 indicated that for Muslims religion was a much more important aspect of identity than ethnicity. The survey asked participants to list the top 10 things that would say something about themselves. For Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs the top three were family, religion and ethnicity. For Christians religion was seventh on the list.4 

Cultural diversity and plurality of faith can be an asset rather than a liability. This is so if they complement each other in shaping the national fabric. British Muslims do not believe that an expression of faith is an act of extremism or divisiveness. Actually, one does not have to abandon his religion to become tolerant. On the contrary, it is through religion that communities forge more harmonious relations and understanding among themselves.

Traditionally, campaigns for harmonious relations were always linked to religious freedoms. It has now been expanded to include areas such as sexuality, gender and race. Part of the problem that gives rise to intolerance is ignorance and misunderstanding. Because the overwhelming majority of British Muslims come from an Asian background there is a tendency to trace Islam in Britain to their origins. The fact is that the contact between Islam and the British Isles began hundreds of years before the modern era. The period between the eighth and 15th centuries marks that of the earliest contacts between Islam and the British Isles. Not surprisingly, the English language itself bears testimony to this old relationship; as Prof Robert Devereux pointed out, there were at least some 600 Arabic loanwords in the English language.5 

After 1945, some countries in Europe, like France, adopted a policy of assimilation in which minority cultures are absorbed into the majority culture. Britain adopted a course of integration that was described by the reforming home secretary, Roy Jenkins, in 1966 as "equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance".

The British model of integration has made it unique in the world – hence the bid for the 2012 Olympics succeeded because Lord Coe drew on London’s diversity and harmonious community relations. He affirmed that it was because of the efforts of the city’s mayor to engage with diverse communities and draw them in as stakeholders that the bid was successful. About 45 per cent of Britain’s two million Muslims live in London and most would not exchange this for life in any other city in the world.

Challenges and constraints

While racism on the basis of race continues to manifest itself in various forms, the mid-1990s saw a significant shift in which some of the traditional markers were replaced by others of a cultural and socioreligious nature. One such form of prejudice is often referred to as Islamophobia. The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia which was set up by the Runnymede Trust in 1996 is widely accredited with coining the term after the publication of its first report, ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All’, in 1997. There were two other follow-up reports on issues pertaining to Islamophobia in 2001 and 2004. All these studies confirmed the existence of widespread hostility often manifested in prejudicial views, discriminatory policies, social exclusion and physical attacks.6 

Relatedly, a survey conducted by the BBC in 2004 found that white "candidates" were far more likely to be given an interview than similarly qualified black or Asian "names". Applications from six fictitious candidates with names indicating different ethnic and religious origins, all with the same qualifications, were submitted to 50 employees. Only nine per cent of the Muslim applicants were offered interviews, compared to 23 per cent of white European applicants (BBC News website, ‘Shocking racism in jobs market’, July 12, 2004). The European Union Monitoring and Advocacy Programme attributed the ‘penalty’ for being Muslim to a multiplicity of factors, among them, negative stereotypes, prejudice, ignorance and hatred.7  There are other assumed reasons such as the perception of Muslim state and non-state actors as serial violators of human rights, very often claiming to be acting in the name of their faith.

The term Islamophobia may have gained currency in the popular discourse in the mid-1990s but the antipathy towards Muslims and their faith has been present in western culture for many centuries. Though it was manifested in the past in different forms, it is now largely informed by international relations, concerns about asylum and refugees, integration, radicalisation, security and terrorism.

Another aspect to the phenomenon of Islamophobia often represented in the mainstream media and official discourse is related to the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory. Bernard Lewis, in an article entitled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ written in 1990, argued that it is clear that the West is facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the irrational historic reaction of an ancient rival against Europe’s Judaeo-Christian heritage, its secular present and the worldwide expansion of both.8 

Subsequently, Lewis wrote other books to develop his theory, which included What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002) and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003). One of his most recent theories, in a piece titled "Muslims about to take over Europe", was reported in The Jerusalem Post (January 29, 2007).

The outpour of this genre of writings was hastened by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. They centred on themes such as ‘fundamentalist Islam’, ‘militant Islam’, ‘resurgent Islam’, ‘political Islam’, ‘Islamic revivalism’. Suddenly, the Red Menace had given way to new ones, namely Muslims and occasionally, Chinese. The need for an enemy was apparently central in order to define self-identity. The argument asserts, ’There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are.’9 

There is admittedly a concerted attempt on both sides of the cultural divide to deconstruct the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory. The Alliance of Civilisations, co-sponsored by the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey and launched by the former UN secretary general in 2005, attributed the tensions in our societies to the alarming imbalance and injustices in the international system. For while the last century brought unprecedented progress, prosperity and freedom to many it also brought subjugation, humiliation and dispossession to others.

In its report published in November 2006, the alliance noted that ours is a world of great inequalities and paradoxes: "where the income of the planet’s three richest people is greater than the combined income of the world’s least developed countries; where modern medicine performs daily miracles and yet three million people die every year of preventable diseases; where we know more about distant universes than ever before yet 130 million children have no access to education; where despite the existence of multilateral covenants and institutions, the international community often seems helpless in the face of conflict and genocide."

With regard to the tortuous in relations between western and Muslim societies, the alliance report also cited the partition of Palestine by the United Nations in 1947, and the chain of events that followed it, as one of the primary causes of resentment and anger in the Muslim world towards western nations.

Enter the UN

In response to an invitation from the British government, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief visited the United Kingdom during the period June 4-15, 2007. Despite the overall respect for human rights and their value in the United Kingdom, the rapporteur noted that there were some issues of definite concern. She expressed alarm about reports of abuse and attacks on children in Northern Ireland on account of their perceived religious affiliation.

On the position of Muslims, the special rapporteur also expressed concern about the framework of counterterrorism measures in which Muslims are regularly subjected to screening, searches and arrests solely because of their religious affiliation.1 0

The return of fascism

Perhaps one of the most ominous challenges to Britain’s multicultural project today is that posed by the twin diseases of racism and fascism. Their cause is largely championed by the British National Party (BNP). Formed in 1982 by John Tyndall, the BNP is always regarded by the public as being organically linked to the National Front which was itself also co-founded by Tyndall in the 1960s and had a reputation for ruthless violence against immigrants.

Under the current leadership of Nick Griffen, the BNP speaks a language of political correctness and panders to popular misconceptions in order to attain its goal of an all-white Britain. Hence they do not, as a tactic, parade the black shirts, jackboots, tattoos or skinheads that are often associated with the far right National Front parties in Europe; instead they have chosen to give a British flavour and character to their thought. As Griffen maintains, they must at all times present the British public with an image of moderate reasonableness.

In reality, the BNP has never abandoned its long-term political objective of an all-white Britain. They are however, as a matter of tactic and expediency, quite prepared to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with what appeals to the national mood.

Since the prevailing climate today is one of Islamophobia and ‘Muslim bashing’ they have readily joined the bandwagon as a convenient vehicle to their final destination. By polishing their image, playing on ill-founded fears and riding the existing wave of Islamophobia, the BNP has attracted wider electoral support in recent years.

In the 2006 local elections the British National Party polled over 2,38,000 votes, compared to 3,000 votes in 2000, increasing their number of councillors from 19 to 49. In the last six years the BNP vote has increased more than 75-fold. In the previous elections in 2004 the BNP only just missed getting elected onto the Greater London Authority by 0.1 per cent.

The vision

Most reasonable people in Britain would accept that people should be able to be different and yet treated equally. The relentless public invective against Muslims and Islam is clearly fuelled by a political agenda which seeks to demonstrate that jihadist violence is driven by a socially disconnected ideology rather than decades of western invasions, occupation and support for dictatorship across the Muslim world.

On their part, the British Muslim position about terrorism or political violence has been clear and categorical. Statements by politicians and the media which link acts of political violence by individuals with the Muslim community more generally have led to a deterioration of community cohesion and the rise of xenophobia. Thus results of a survey by the international market research firm, Harris Poll, published in the Financial Times (August 20, 2007), said 38 per cent of Britons think the presence of Muslims in the country is a threat to national security.

The relentless onslaught in Britain against Muslims has been translated into violent attacks. Accordingly, the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that 82 per cent of convictions for identified religiously aggravated offences in 2006 were for attacks on Muslims.

BNP leader Nick Griffin asserts that his party has adopted a new tactic of promoting Islamophobia as a guise for their racist agenda. It is not a question of race for now but of radical Islam and terrorism. Thus his party has exploited the fears of the ill-informed and simple-minded with doomsday scenarios of demographic and economic collapse.

Similarly, a recent survey by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia found that 43 per cent of youth in British regional towns and cities are becoming more Islamophobic – 10 per cent of 13-14 year olds supported the BNP. This has been translated into bullying at schools. Another study presented to the British Psychological Society notes that "children as young as 13 are displaying signs of Islamophobia and are voicing their support of the British National Party." Despite these disturbing trends, British Muslims have time and again affirmed their determination to work with the authorities to create a fairer, just and prosperous society.

As it stands, no one can deny that there are dangers and threats that beset Britain, among them, the spread of international terrorism. This however would only be defeated by united communities working together and not through legislations that are perceived as unfairly targeting Muslims and stifling legitimate debate.

Even while staring terrorism in the face, democracies can never abandon their commitment to civil liberties and human rights. Today many civil society and faith bodies like the MCB are playing a constructive role in trying to bring about a society at ease with itself, accepting its diversity forged by history yet able to appreciate shared values, acknowledge common interests and build inclusive communities through collective endeavour.

In order to achieve a compassionate and caring society, one where no groups are left behind due to disadvantage and discrimination, a genuine dialogue must commence. Through this engagement a national identity would be forged for the fulfilment of the collective potential while realising the strengths of diversity. Such a vibrant and successful society requires initiative by the individual citizen in his civic acts, in support and promotion of social harmony.


British Muslims hold a vision of a multi-faith, pluralist society with a conscious policy of recognising that people’s cultural and faith identities are not private matters but ones that have public implications.

Through strong ties of faith identity that transcends ethnic boundaries. It is the moral and ethical principles of their faith that urge them to be concerned and responsible citizens and active participants in the life of their nation. In many respects, the needs and aspirations of Britain’s Muslims are no different from those of our fellow citizens – whatever their beliefs or backgrounds. Concerns about health and education, national prosperity, strong public infrastructure and good public services are common to all. The values of community life, the need to build strong communities of mutual support, are basic principles that connect Muslims to their fellow citizens.

Britain’s minorities are determined to preserve the gains of the 1970s. These gains were not given as gifts or concessions but were won after decades of struggle against racism for equal pay and against discrimination. Hence today ethnic and faith communities are forging broader alliances with trade unions, student unions and human rights bodies to affirm their shared belief in justice, equality and opposition to prejudice. The mere existence of these alliances is itself a testimony of a commitment to a more coherent, equal and fairer society.

(Dr Daud Abdullah is the deputy secretary general, Muslim Council of Britain. Paper presented to the Global Minorities Meet, New Delhi, March 6-9, 2008.)



1 Cited in The Quest For Sanity (MCB, London, 2002), p. 205.

 2 M. Abdel Haleem, ‘Tolerance’, ibid, p. 218.

 3 M. Abdul Bari, Race, Religion and Muslim Identity in Britain (Renaissance Press, Swansea, 2005), p. 138.

 4 Home Office Research Study 274, ‘Religion in England and Wales: findings from the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey’, Table 3.2, cited in MCB Briefing Paper: ‘Our stand on Multiculturalism, Citizenship, Extremism & Expectations from the Commission on Integration and Cohesion’, 2007.

 5 See R. Devereux’s ‘The Arabic Contribution to English’ in The Islamic Quarterly, London (Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Third Quarter 1984).

 6 H. Ansari, The Infidel Within (Hurst & Co, London, 2004), p. 204.

 7 European Union Monitoring and Advocacy Programme, ‘Muslims in the UK – Policies for Engaged Citizens’ (The Open Society, Budapest, 2005), p. 221.

 8 A. Al Ahsan, ‘An Alternative to the Clash of Civilisations Scenario in the 21st Century’, Department of History and Civilisation, International Islamic University, Malaysia, unpublished paper.

 9 Ibid.

 10 A. Jahangir, ‘Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development’, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (A/HRC/7/10/Add 3, February 7, 2008).



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