Sunday, 6 November 2011

22: Discussing Islamophobia in Peterborough

I helped to organise an event held in Peterborough last week and billed as a ‘fact finding’ visit looking at the issue of Islamophobia. I am very grateful to colleagues from Peterborough Race Equality Council and from University Centre Peterborough whose hard work made the event a success.

Peterborough is only 50 miles north from Cambridge -  the city where I live and teach - but it is a very different place with a very different history. Peterborough expanded rapidly under the post war New Towns programme. Although much of the manufacturing industry established in that era has now contracted, the city enjoys a rare combination of a large working class and low levels of unemployment. Peterborough has been shaped by a series of inward migrations. Recently it has been the hub of East European mobility into East Anglia. The sizeable Muslim population in Peterborough is largely but not exclusively the result of earlier waves of migration from Pakistan and East Africa. Peterborough Race Equality Council was established in 1973 and was one of the first in the UK. As this suggests, the city is is a good example of the development of a particular type of 'race relations' framework in which local policy-making, policing and politics involves frequent talk of distinct ethnic or religious communities and consultation with leaders of those communities.

A second piece of context is more surprising. A version of this event was planned last year but (through a series of developments I cannot detail here) was prevented from going ahead. The rationale for this (in my opinion daft) decision was that, in the run up to a planned march by the English Defence League in Peterborough, any discussion of Islamophobia, even in a closed event for undergraduate students, was deemed too ‘controversial’ and provocative.

The core of the event that took place this year was a panel of local experts and community leaders tasked with considering the impact of anti-Muslim prejudice on life in Peterborough. Panel members included the Director of Peterborough Race Equality Council, a Chief Inspector of Cambridgeshire Police (whose responsibilities intriguingly combine neighbourhood policing and preventing extremism), a local councillor, a member of the Association of Muslim Police, and representatives from two of the largest mosques in the city. Topics covered included last year’s EDL march, the role of negative media coverage in provoking anti-Muslim sentiment, and the dilemmas posed when trying to balance freedom of expression with respect for cultural difference.  Informal breakout groups allowed the lecturers and students who made up most of the audience to meet and question panel members and provoked lively debate that continued over lunch. Following the meal some of us visited the 3,000 person capacity Faizan-e-Medina Mosque (below) and met with two Imams based there.

I am proud to be associated with this event and I hope that my colleagues and the panel members who generously contributed to it will forgive me a little critical reflection on what went on.

An issue underlying much of the panel discussion related to the validity and clarity of the notion of Islamophobia and in particular of the argument that prejudice framed or coded in terms of religion had superseded or trumped other forms of racism. As the panel contributions illustrated, the Islamophobia concept has real purchase when discussing the rhetoric of the EDL, the logic of the war on terror, or the continual, negative portrayal of ‘Muslims’ in much of the media. But quite how, when and why these processes impact on everyday life chances is often unclear. One suspects that the most tangible local consequences of these developments has been the firming up of Muslim identities and institutions; a process also paradoxically fostered by the priorities and cash of New Labour's Prevent initiative.

A question that did not get asked during the panel discussions was: what is lost when we stop talking about racism in general in favour of Islamophobia in particular? At points, for example, panel members contrasted the injustice of blaming Muslims en masse for terrorist atrocities with supposed more equitable treatment of Irish migrants during the era of IRA bombing whereas (as Mary Hickman and others have pointed out) the parallels between the two eras and two minority group experiences are striking and revealing.

There was an intriguing moment during a small group discussion I witnessed when a student argued that the majority of white British people were not hostile to Islam per se but to any organised religion. Now this argument might itself merit deconstruction but it is an interesting one none-the-less. For the community and religious leaders who donated their time to the event, Islamophobia is a problem best addressed through education about the tenets and practices of Islam. As Oliver Roy has argued, however, this approach often misses the point. How compelling, for example, is the argument that Westerners should not be hostile to Islam because its doctrines are similar to those of Christianity?

Equally significant as any theological differences are the assumptions of public and private and about national and religious communities at play. As a range of commentators have argued, ‘secularisation’ in Western Europe might better be understood as the reframing of religion as a private matter that should have no bearing on public issues. Here then private/public is understood in terms of a dichotomy between individual life project and a national civil society. In our breakout groups and at the Mosque there was repeated asking and answering of 'difficult' questions nearly all of which in one way or another counterpoised individual choice and self-expression against religious doctrine: hot topics were free speech, clothing, homosexuality, arranged marriage, marrying out, and rebellious youth. In the world of the tabloids and the EDL Muslims are often absurdly portrayed as wanting somehow to takeover or change British society in general - banning Christmas, calling for Sharia Law and so forth - but as these discussions illustrated well, the most politically sensitive issues arise when  Muslims define ‘privacy’  in terms of what takes place within or outside of their religious community and/or operate with notions of ‘the public realm’ that do not fit neatly within national boarders. A feature of public discourse on migration and cultural identity in Western Europe in recent times has been the ways that supposedly universalistic notions of human rights become part of stories of national belonging that exclude particular groups ("we are tolerant but not of intolerance"). We only only have to look across the Channel to suposedly liberal Netherlands and Denmark to see how invidious this argument can be. This is why we need to keep talking about Islamophobia.

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