Talking Islamophobia With Tahir Abbas
|Dina Yazdani & Tahir Abbas – Sep 23, 2019|
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tahir Abbas, author of “Islamophobia and Radicalisation: A Vicious Cycle.”
Driven by the rise of the far right and white nationalist movements, Islamophobia is on a rising tide, with widespread discrimination and record-high attacks on Muslims across the Western world. Norway recently avoided a tragedy when three Muslim men prevented a 21- year-old gunman from carrying out an attack on worshipers in an Oslo mosque. The failed attack mirrored New Zealand’s Christchurch shootings earlier this year, that left a total of 51 Muslims dead. In both instances, these young, white men were inspired by right-wing rhetoric against Islam and fear of white replacement. While these attacks were carried out by individuals, they reflect global patterns of rising Islamophobia, particularly in the West.
In Britain, recent polls show that 31% of the population believes Islam poses a threat to the British way of life, with 18% holding extremely negative views of Muslims. A 2017 study undertaken in 27 European nations illustrates how Islamophobia has become one of the most “commonplace expressions of racist prejudice,” with countries like Germany experiencing a threefold increase in attacks on Muslims from 2015-16, following the arrival of over 1 million migrants at the height of the refugee crisis. This year alone, there have been over 500 attacks on Muslims in the US, with assaults estimated to have surpassed post-9/11 levels back in 2017.
Islamophobia has become a prevalent talking point for political leaders, used to garner public support, distract from other pressing issues and perpetuate an us-versus-them narrative for political gain. Conservative political leaders have played a major role in inciting anti-Muslim sentiment by exaggerating threats of homegrown terrorism and often painting Islam as incompatible with Western values. Even when political leaders do not appear to be deliberately targeting Muslims, they often fail to represent minorities’ interests or respond to their needs. This apathy can further entrench structural barriers that minorities, including Muslims, face, not to mention impacts on their access to equal opportunities.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tahir Abbas, assistant professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at the University of Leiden and a visiting senior fellow at the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Abbas has written widely on Islamophobia, including most recently on how Britain’s Conservative Party benefits from exploiting it. His latest book, “Islamophobia and Radicalisation: A Vicious Cycle,” released on September 23, explores how Islamophobia and radicalization intersect and reinforce each other.
The text has been edited for clarity.
Dina Yazdani: Please set the stage for us: How would you define Islamophobia?
Tahir Abbas: In very simple terms, it’s the idea of the fear or dread of Islam and Muslims. It’s a broad definition that was largely put forward by the Runnymede Trust in 1996, which attempted to try and capture the meaning and the impact of Islamophobia at a time when the Bosnian crisis was going on, at a time when geopolitics was shifting away from the old East-West problematics. I think it’s that, and there are interrelated concepts within that space. We have issues of direct observable problems of structural racism and discrimination — violence toward women who wear the headscarf, mosque attacks — to issues around cultural distancing — stereotyping, orientalism — which has a much wider societal impact, not just in terms of outcomes on institutions, like when it comes to hiring practices, which suggests Islamophobia in structural terms, but we also see casual racism toward Muslims as a whole, which is much more of a cultural phenomenon.
Yazdani: Where has its front stage been?
Abbas: Well, a lot of it is coming out of the “global north” experience, predominantly, starting out in Western Europe with the experience of postwar migration acting as a backdrop to that reality. And then, more recently, across the pond from North Africa, where we see Muslim groups who were relatively integrated and assimilated into American society pre-9/11 finding themselves facing similar issues around discrimination and victimization — disproportionately in terms of the criminal justice system, vilification of the press, demonization in the press by groups presenting a them-versus-us dichotomy.
Yazdani: In a 2018 article for the Middle East Eye, you described there was “mounting evidence” of “organized Islamophobia” in both Europe and the US, and that “the lived realities of brown and black people in some of the poorest parts of the country is ongoing evidence of policies that have not only excluded minorities but also demonised them.” What policies are fueling this anti-Muslim sentiment and reinforcing these divisions across the Western world?
Abbas: These policies are an implication rather than a direct result, in the sense that when we think about housing policies, we think about it as social policies allocation. So, for example, migrant groups coming into the UK in the 1990s to the 2000s from Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently from Somalia, Syria, etc., are located into areas that are experiencing downward pressures, areas that face decline and that have an existing majority population that is feeling left behind and alienated. So when they see these Muslim groups moving into their areas, seemingly protected by the state, they feel resentful and sometimes mobilized around this.
When we see some of these activities across Britain and Europe, we see that it’s often these poor parts with Muslim groups where there are more profound patterns of resistance around that. So at one level it’s a question of social housing allocation, and on another level it has to do with housing and markets, and the inability of Muslim groups to find themselves in the position to move out of poorer areas due to various gatekeeping issues within the private housing sector.
There is also exclusionary behavior at the level of the state, and even the [market] — this notion of “white flight,” which is crude. But it tells us something about when certain areas have minorities, Muslims moving into them has a knock-on effect of reducing average household prices and increasing the rate of concentration of those new groups. Often, people who come to those areas wanting to share a particular lived experience has resulted in existing issues of isolation and alienation, such as Muslim groups who grew up in poorer areas, whose children qualify for universities and get professional qualifications, who don’t immediately move into purely affluent, white neighborhoods even if they could because they want to retain certain links with their communities of origin — including, places of worship, etc. So there is often a tradeoff. It’s also a result of fear and a result of discrimination, because upwardly mobilizing Muslims going into affluent white areas faces hostility and racism of a different kind.
Yazdani: Building on that knock-on effect, what effect have policies promoting multiculturalism or, on the other hand, integration, had on Islamophobia?
Abbas: Integration is the idea of the state providing certain opportunities, spaces for minorities because they have signed a contract of sorts that acknowledges their citizenship and status in society legally, but also culturally, socially, politically. It’s the idea of a social contract. In exchange, the minorities provide a sense of engagement, participation — they pay taxes, they turn up to vote. In return, the state says it recognizes that they may want places of worship, mosques, Islamic centers — and that we are tolerant and open-minded enough to provide that, because it’s only right, and also because we afforded the same kind of privileges to other minority groups over the years.
Although, for example, when it comes to Muslim education, state-sponsored Muslim education [in Britain] didn’t kick into place until 1997, although there have been Jewish schools with state school funding since 1944, although it’s a much smaller community. Integration requires a sense of acceptance — and a sense of acceptance on the part of minority communities that they have a role and a sense of responsibility as citizens. There has been increasing pressures on the idea of differences, which might be seen as acceptable in a diverse society; the idea that diversity itself has been placed under pressure because there’s been a real resistance to multiculturalism, particularly in light of events like 9/11 and 7/7 [London bombings], where it was felt that some of these differences are spaces in which extremism flourishes and where there is a menace for national security to think about.
It’s a misunderstanding. It’s extremism, and also a lack of enthusiasm about the idea of diversity among particular institutions and individuals in elite society.
Yazdani: What are the most egregious examples of organized Islamophobia over the past few years? Where has it been manifested?
Abbas: A lot of it has been online, and it has quite a degree of mobilization online, in terms of pushing out Islamophobia sentiments — including notions of fake news, exaggerated news, distorted news — which perpetuate the almost daily view that Muslims are a problem or a threat, a fifth column. The tropes of Islamophobia are that [Muslims] are disproportionately feeding off the welfare state, and all of these concerns around extremism and terrorism which never really go away and keep bubbling up. So the online space is a major space in which the sentiments of Islamophobia are generated, repackaged, reformulated and recommunicated.
Some of that is orchestrated, well-organized and well-funded, as has been reported by many in terms of the far right. The role of various groups, which exist to fund anti-Muslim sentiment online, is to push Islamophobic sentiment for their own political means, some of which leans into far-right thinking.
Yazdani: Following that far-right thinking, what role have policymakers, lawmakers and politicians played in fueling this anti-Muslim sentiment?
Abbas: We have this area of populism, authoritarianism and elitism that sort of characterizes a lot of the “global north.” We’ve got the global economic crash of 2008 as a recent backdrop here, huge wealth, inequalities as a result of the disproportionate impact of austerity on poorer groups — we’ve seen all of these effects on Britain, [highlighted] in the UN special rapporteur report, etc. This has been an ideological program, not one derived from sound economic thinking even.
Economic inequalities, in these times, have resulted in political polarization. The center is hollowed out, and it’s the peripheral voices of the far right and far left, Islamists and all the other extremist groups that have an amplified voice in this political space, while the center ground — in this extreme sort of attempt to capture the center — has been diffused to such an extent that there’s nothing that holds it together anymore. That’s why we’ve got these extreme voices coming into the center, via these figures that provoke these populist sentiment, like [Donald] Trump, [Viktor] Orbán, [Narednra] Modi, [Recep Tayyip] Erdoǧan — and to an extent also Brexit — that are symptoms of this hollowing out of this political center.
Yazdani: In 2005, France experienced widespread riots by French Muslims, mostly living in the banlieus, on the outskirts of major cities. This was an eruption of injustice perceived by these French Muslims who felt, despite identifying as French and being French citizens, disenfranchised and marginalized in France. Looking back at this example, and similar moments of backlash by the Muslim communities witnessed in more recent history but perhaps on a smaller scale, how do second generation Muslims experience Islamophobia and experience their ethnic and cultural identity differently when compared to more recent immigrants?
Islamophobia has a way of destabilizing all sorts of social relations. We have to try and stick our necks out a little bit, knowing that even in doing so, we’re going to face potential blocks along the way.
Abbas: The second generation have got a foot in both camps. They were born in a new country, often to parents born in another country. Being born in a new country, they learn the language of the new country, and go through the education in the new country. They are expected to go through these hoops in a way that everybody else is under the same conditions and under the same expectations. For example, in a meritocratic liberal society, if you work hard and achieve quality education, you will be rewarded with returns to your human capital investments.
However, patterns of discrimination do not abate when we think of the impact of change from the first to the second generation. The first generation were heavily discriminated against, from the jobs they got from the outset, in terms of their mobility or lack thereof, that led to them being trapped in those poor areas. The second generation are born in a new country, and they have the expectations of the people in their peer groups more generally, but they are not getting the chances. They’re feeling the same kind of frustrations [as the first generation], and often it’s a lot worse. So those pressures are doubly felt — they feel that they carry the discrimination and racism of their parents before them.
These huge patterns of discrimination felt from the second generation meant that men and women go through the educational system, but do not experience the kind of relative performance you would expect them to. There are some studies done on this [suggesting] that maybe you can put this down to the lag of experience from the first generation. So there are going to be language gaps, there are going to be certain social capital gaps, like who you know rather than what you know that helps in certain professions, like law and media. This lack of capital explains a great deal of the lag. These are non-discriminatory factors. But that’s a real ruse, because we have to understand that there are various stages of discrimination that are accumulative.
What starts as not being able to get the job you want having done the degree you achieved, having gone through the local school systems, means that there are patterns of discrimination that stay with you from the very beginning. We know from recent studies and observations around who has power, status in society, that it’s the self-selected, privately educated and, in the case of England, folks from a narrow set of schools and universities — two in the case of the UK. And while minorities do feed into that process, there are disproportionate effects that need to be taken into consideration.
Yes, there are people who move up the social ladder and achieve a certain level of success beyond expectations to be had at the start, but there is a great deal of people who lag behind and have all the talent, all the skills and all the capacities which aren’t realized because of system patterns and institutional dynamics around discrimination and racism that affect all groups of color. In today’s world, there’s a layer of Muslims within all groups who are also a feature in that.
Yazdani: Earlier you mentioned radicalization. On that topic, many believe that what drives Islamophibia is the fear that Islam promotes violence and makes Muslims more prone to being radicalized than adherents of other religions. They point to the rise of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their offshoots, and attacks by Muslim terrorists around the world. What are the driving factors behind radicalization among Muslims, especially Muslim youth, and how do anti-Muslim sentiments feed into that?
Abbas: There are lots of schools of thought on what drives radicalization. We have essentially a spectrum of push and pull factors. The push factors are structural problems: unemployment, disadvantages, poverty, alienation, marginalization, inequality — and the pull factor is ideology. It takes an angry young man to reach out to online forums or literature to find arguments that somehow support their grievances, sense of injustice, perceptions on racism and the reality of racism in their society, whether it’s to their friends, parents, or to themselves or local communities.
In wanting to redress all of that, they find it a totalizing, unique, all-capturing closed set in violence and extremism, combined with a sense of adventure, thrill and masculinity, a sense of belongingness. This “groupdom” that comes with those movements, especially in the Middle East and with the rise, and now fall, of the Islamic State, which acts as a pull.
Depending on whom you listen to and what their arguments are, many would say that it’s all about ideology, because there are poor, marginalized, alienated, unemployed Muslim men who don’t become terrorists. In fact, the mass majority don’t, and there are middle class, upward mobile and privately educated Muslim men who commit terrorism. This isn’t the norm. Far more research is pointing out to a combination of structural conditions and ideological factors.
From my research into this field over the last 10 to 15 years, of talking to people who have been radicalized and have gone off to carry out missions abroad, locked away for crimes — or locked away in Guantanamo on crimes that were unfounded — there is a sense of grievance, a sense of anger. A sense of “You’re not recognizing my potential as a human being, as a man and as a woman. I’m angry, and bereaved, and have no real way of really addressing this unless I do something about it myself. I cannot look to even my own existence or my local faith community setup. The imams don’t understand where I’m coming from, and their narrow interpretations do not support my worldview or aspirations.”
So they take an even narrower perspective on Islam and the lure of adventure, thrill and totalizing solutions become the routes through which they enter into violence extremism. So this is the broad playing field around the radicalization process — and it can be a process. People can move from one end to the other, can move back, in an out of different stages throughout all of this.
There’s not a linearity in the process as a whole. A linearity in this field can lead to all sorts of accusations that it takes a moment for a Muslim to become an extremist, because of the potential that is always within. There’s a lot of discourse within the counterterrorism field that conservative Muslims are steps away from becoming violent extremists. And so deradicalization and preventing violent extremism has inadvertently, or deliberately, traversed into the wider field of what it is to be a Muslim in the “global north” and in the “global south,” where in fact Muslims are killing other Muslims in far greater numbers than we would imagine elsewhere.
So, there are these push factors and pull factors, depending on how you see it — because, again, ideology feeds into the research process. The think tank and policy world, everyone has an agenda here. Academics are supposed to cut through all of this, but the work that we do in academia on this is quite diverse. But it’s difficult to talk to former terrorists, talk to family members, difficult to access police records, court cases and files, so we have to do a sentimental, sectional analysis after the event — surveys, things like that.
Yazdani: You’ve argued that, contrary to public perception, Islamism is not just a term to describe fundamentalism, but that it can also be a progressive idea. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Abbas: Yes. So when you’ve got Islamism branded about as somehow a given concept in relation to the idea that it’s naturally tending toward violence, then you’ve got an ideological problem that contaminates the study of Muslims and extremism. Islamism in broad and simple terms means the idea of using Islam, engaging with Islam through a political lens.
Now, if you’re a citizen in Europe and you see Islam as a force for justice, charity, community development, sharing with others in local area settings — but also in terms of building ideas and working together toward [resolving] the issues; and if you see that role as one of being a good Muslim, then your ideals are not shaped by violence or extremism, but by the idea of being a good Muslim through the lens of thinking about focusing on humanity and the needs of humans who are different, are unequal, have existing problems; when your religious principles teach you that it’s an aspiration to want to better a lot of humanity by working together and knowing each other through this process.
These kinds of spiritual, political, cultural outlooks can also be defined under the rubric Islamism might use, but they’re wholesale neglected. In a recent book of ours, we talk about how Muslims are actively engaging with their societies and citizens in their new countries, using a Muslim framing and Islamic intellectual awareness they have often determined themselves through their own individual interpretations and are acting as good citizens in every sense of the word, and as good Muslims in every sense of the word. That, for me, is progressive Islamism.