Depending on the language used, reactions to recent tensions in the British community may have drastic consequences
York Mosque has taken a leading role in showing how to quench potential violence. In a week that has seen many attacks to mosques since the brutal Woolwich murder, the York community opened the doors and welcomed around 100 people for tea and a game of football. Having heard that the EDL were planning a demonstration, they had made plans to react proactively. “If you want to get to know people you talk to them”, said Abid Salik, the Imam of the mosque. “That’s the beauty of community.”
Following York mosque’s example a Facebook group was set up. The Tea Defence League has had over 1000 likes in 24 hours. “There isn’t much you can’t sort out over a nice cuppa”, say the makers of the group. “Organise your own Tea Party and invite people for a chat, like the folks at the York Mosque did with the EDL.”
It is perhaps not surprising that the mosque’s proactive approach has made it to the headlines. Much like the image of EDL chief Tommy Robinson and Muslim political commentator Mohammed Ansar sharing a hug, the “Muslims inviting the EDL to tea” invokes a Huntington theory-like symbol of two clashing ‘civilisations’ sharing an odd moment of truce. No doubt that many mosques have taken to closing their doors, guarding their entrances and acting with general paranoia—a defensive reaction against the backlash of angry protestors who were rightly shocked over the Woolwich attack, but who misguidedly pinned the blame on Islam. Although it is unfair that mosques have become gathering places for EDL protests, barricading the doors is simply a preventative measure which does not provide any long-term solutions. In light of the discourse about Islamophobia and the tense relationship between Muslims and wider British society, Britain is now at a tipping point and needs some solutions.
In 1997, the Runnymede Trust established a commission on British Muslims to identify and analyse the growing hostility towards Muslims in British society; what incidents are taking place, and why have tensions flared up in the last decade? This report, titled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, reveals that “Islamophobic discourse, sometimes blatant but frequently coded and subtle”, is part of “everyday life in modern Britain”. It defines Islamophobia as “unfounded hostility towards Islam, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”.
Many people attribute the rise of Islamophobia in British society to the increased visibility of Muslims in public life, especially since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in 1988. This event, dubbed The Rushdie Affair, is so important in understanding the development of Muslim identity in Britain and many academic books have been written analysing its repercussions and resonance on current debates about Islam. At the time, the image of book-burning British Muslims became a symbol in the West for Muslim anger. It raised several questions about the relationship of Muslims and the West and questioned the limits of tolerance and freedom of speech. Yet Muslims are demographically a young community, many were not born when the incident happened, or were too young to remember it. For young Muslims, the repercussions of the Rushdie Affair is the beginning of a cumulative string of events (including 9/11 and 7/7) which have integrated the term ‘Islamophobia’ into our discourse.
Yet the term has several problems which cannot be overlooked. Perhaps the most obvious problem is the difficulty in finding a word that fairly and accurately describes the issues at hand. Like the terms ‘homophobia’ and ‘xenophobia’ the implication of the word ‘phobia’ is misleading, because it implies an irrational fear of something. Those accused of ‘Islamophobic’ behaviour often argue that their criticism of Islam does not stem from irrational fears but from genuine critique of the religion. Consequently the term has a stifling effect on debate.
Linked to this problem is the fact that it does not capture the scale or extent of the anti-Muslim sentiment it describes. A person who disagrees with a certain aspect of Islam, such as the strict dress code of women, could be painted with the same brush as a journalist who declares that all Muslims are terrorists. There is a clear difference, yet finding a term which encompasses the scope of anti-Muslim sentiment in British society is practically impossible. Moreover, when the term ‘Islamophobia’ is employed too frequently by Muslims, there is a risk that it starts to perpetuate a victim mentality, encouraging a defensive stance rather than proactive engagement with society.
But despite problems with its definition, the term has gained legitimacy and emotional power and is here to stay. Research has shown that its principal manifestations are hostility and negativity in the media and blogosphere, as well as in hate crimes and violence in the street.
In response to such negativity, Muslims should not succumb to playing the victim or barricading their doors. I’m not saying that putting on a kettle and inviting protestors to tea will solve all our problems. But York mosque and the Tea Defence League’s Facebook group—however light-hearted its message may appear on the surface— reaffirms an important but oft-forgotten saying: “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.”
Image from: http://01varvara.wordpress.com/2008/04/22/aleksei-naumov-drinking-tea-1896/
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.