Islamophobia and the Dinner Table Test in Britain

By Fiyaz Mughal

A speech last month in Leicester by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairperson of the right-of-centre ruling Conservative Party in the UK, in which she stated that “Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test,” has sparked numerous debates and discussions around many of Britain’s dinner tables. Warsi was asserting, in other words, that being anti-Muslim is becoming acceptable in an otherwise tolerant and inclusive country which has had a long history of immigrants and integration.

The work we have been doing at Faith Matters, an organisation dedicated to creating community cohesion amongst faith communities in the UK, over the last six years suggests that Warsi is right – about both anti-Muslim sentiment and the UK’s history of integration.

We have heard openly anti-Muslim sentiment in some communities. When we publish research materials on the Muslim community, we regularly receive correspondence from people who spout some of the worst stereotypes about Muslims.

Yet there are those within faith and non-faith communities who are trying to reach out and build bridges with Muslim communities since they understand that blame does not build sustainable and healthy societies. More worrying than stereotyping, though, has been the trend for some to undermine Muslims’ status in society by setting up blogs, websites and Facebook groups that spout anti-Muslim rhetoric. I have attended university and dinner parties where Muslims are seen as the ‘problem’ community and where the topic for the evening’s discussion is Muslim extremism – which then turns into a discussion about all Muslims.

Bringing these issues to the forefront of discussions is useful, though sometimes simply raising issues and allowing them to hang in the air can be detrimental to cohesion. That is why it is essential that civil society organisations and others who work on supporting inter-community relations pick up on Warsi’s comments and implement grassroots discussions and social programmes which counter emerging prejudices and divisions.

It is also essential that the British Government support such work through the Big Society agenda, which is designed to empower local communities to make more decisions on their own, and to allow private companies and charities to provide services traditionally provided by the state. More importantly, the government itself should continue to foster strong community relations and encourage healthy integration by acting as a facilitator and disseminator of good social ideas.

In her speech, Warsi also stated that Muslims are being bracketed in moderate and extreme camps, rather than being seen as individuals. This is particularly important since it affects Muslim communities and the self-perception of British Muslim youth. Today, for some, if a young Muslim drinks alcohol, goes to nightclubs and generally participates in “wild” activities associated with youth, he is considered a moderate, someone who fits in and who is not threatening.

But then picture a beard added to that youth’s face. Imagine that he is someone who does not go out to clubs, pubs and after-work activities. To some, this person is the picture of a borderline extremist.

Such crude attitudes are not only plain wrong; they could turn out to be dangerous given the heightened levels of sensitivity around extremism and terrorism. Let us not confuse religious piety or social customs within Muslim communities for extremism. These are different things.

Crude attitudes are not only plain wrong; they could turn out to be dangerous given the heightened levels of sensitivity around extremism and terrorism.

So how can we reduce the prejudiced chatter over dinner?

It is essential to promote the diversity of Muslim communities in order to counter the brittle and brutal images of Muslims that underpin prejudiced discussions. The diversity of Muslim communities, whether of thought, practice or background, means that such elements need to be promoted and disseminated in advertising campaigns, through the press and through social media. We must not underestimate the power of social media in creating grassroots ideas and perceptions.

Additionally, communities that maintain their mono-cultural identities need to be provided with social incentives, like small community budgets – administered on a ward-by-ward level by the local authority in partnership with residents – to reach out to and engage with other communities.

This also means that politicians need to emphasise that working with, and developing links with, diverse communities increases one’s ability to cope in an increasingly globalised world. We can all play our role in combating our inner prejudices, though there is some way to go before Muslims lose their current unenviable position of being the most talked about faith community today.

Fiyaz Mughal is the Founder and Director of Faith Matters (www.faith-matters.org), an organisation that works to resolve conflict and create community cohesion through collaboration between faith communities in the United Kingdom and the Middle East.

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